Travis Beard is an Aussie who lived in Afghanistan for seven years. As a music lover, he was also fascinated by Kabul’s music culture - or lack of. Imagine your favourite genre - pop, rock, R&B, country - there’s a good chance it’s shunned there, and potentially punishable by death. Travis befriended a group of locals who formed District Unknown, Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band. He followed their growth, from their genuinely terrible first performance through to their international success - and that footage formed the documentary ‘Rockabul’. I spoke to Travis ahead of the film’s Australian release.
"I [first] went to Afghanistan in 2001," Travis explained to me. "It was November. 9/11 had happened a few months before, and I was in Iran. I met a BBC journalist and he said, 'Do you want to come to Afghanistan?' Of course, you don't turn down an offer like that. We reported on the refugee exodus, and that was when I was a photographer, so I took those pictures back to Australia and they were published in The Age. Then I got what we now refer to as the Afghan bug. This kind of itch, sensation-like phenomenon where you just want to go back, and by 2006 I found a way to volunteer for the school there. [I] thought I was going to say three months and I end up staying seven years. While there, I unearthed this underground music scene, and it kind of flourished from there."
Travis became the go-to guy on the ground in Kabul, as his collection of instruments grew and his access to rehearsal space became invaluable. "One day I got told about these two cousins that were interested in metal music, and by another friend of mine I was told about a pair of brothers who were also looking to get into the metal scene. And I went, 'Well it looks like these four need to meet,' and I had the studio so we brought them together. The moment they walked in the door, I realised there was something going on here, you know, metal in an Islamic republic, let's press record. And so I recorded from that first day on. I'd never made a film before. It wasn't probably until at least six months in that I realised that I had the potential of making a film."
With plenty of rehearsals and a fair amount of risk, they formed District Unknown, and became Afghanistan's first heavy metal band. The title didn't come without its hurdles. "We're in a country where, only 10 years before, the Taliban had outlawed or forbidden all music. That includes all genres of music. The only thing that was allowed was the call to prayer or the reciting of the Koran. It didn't matter if you were playing hip hop or if you were playing metal, it was all seen as a threat. So when the boys came in, the more conservative elements in Afghanistan - and that was the majority of the country - didn't know what mental was. They just saw it as something foreign. For the boys, they found a sanctuary in my studio, and the stages that we provided to be able to rock out."
Given the lack of exposure to music in Afghanistan, it took a while for the locals to warm up to District Unknown's style. "At the start, there was a lot of confusion and a misconception of what metal music stood for. The classic interpretation would be that it's Satan worshipping, and they'd use the word Shayāṭīn in the local language, and that is because they think that's what metal music is about. It's only when you actually listen to the lyrics of a band like District Unknown, you realise they're actually talking about the political process and the problems within their country. There's no Satan referencing at all in their music. It's dark, sure, but it doesn't go down that sort of path. It was only when parents of the band members came to concerts and they were like, 'Oh this is quite harmless. I don't mind my child being involved in these sort of activities.' And that [had a] ripple effect through the liberal-minded part of the community. So more kids were allowed to come to concerts, and what happened between 2009 and 2011 is we saw a shift from our concerts being solely for the expat community to doing concerts that were solely for the Afghan community."
It wasn't just District Unknown facing an uphill battle - Travis found there were more than a few challenges filming a documentary in Afghanistan. "Gear-wise, it was always a headache. We had to bring everything in. Electricity is a nightmare because you have power cuts indiscriminately all day, every day. You don't know when it's going to cut out. Moving around the city got more difficult as the security situation declined. Checkpoints were more nervous and more suspicious every time you moved anywhere. Every time you bring out a camera, you get a crowd. Obviously filming in front of sensitive buildings like military and government buildings always caught you a crowd. It was difficult, but at the same time, it's something I'm good at. My brother used to call me the cockroach; someone who could survive no matter what the situation. It's a difficult place to shoot no matter what, and it's not shot like you would shoot here in Melbourne, it's just a different way of shooting. You shoot from the hip, you shoot more discretely."
'Only 10 years before, the Taliban had outlawed or forbidden all music. That includes all genres of music. It didn't matter if you were playing hip hop or if you were playing metal, it was all seen as a threat.'
Despite a blossoming music scene at the time, things have become more complicated in Kabul since many of the Westerners have moved on. "Hip hop was the only [genre] that was really surviving, because it has less a footprint than rock or metal music. But three or four months ago, this young kid contacted me. He found out about my film online and he said to me, 'Hey, I want to start a metal band. Can you help?' And I went, 'Wow. That seed we planted has finally nurtured into a seedling.' And so now he's found himself a drummer and we're trying to find him a practice studio, and there's a concert coming up which is called the Metal United Worldwide Concert. The only challenge left is we need to find him a venue. We're trying our best to support this young kid because he is the legacy left from all those years that we put into the country."
Since completing 'Rockabul', Travis has been working hard to get the band's story seen around the world. "I find it quite interesting in regards to the different countries and the way the film is received. Norway with its strong metal/black metal history, they loved the film. It's also done really well in Germany, and also Italy particularly. I don't really understand why it resonates well there, but they have been the forefront of the of immigration exodus of Muslims coming from the Middle East and Afghanistan, Iran. So maybe that has also sparked interest in it."
Not quite free of the Afghan bug, Travis is planning to follow up his debut feature film with a politically-driven investigation of Afghanistan. "The new film looks at what is foreign intervention, what is foreign policy, why did we go into these so-called emerging countries, and actually does it work? Looking at eight different characters that lived in Afghanistan through the height of the so-called war on terror, we want to know why do these people get involved and do they actually have an effect."
'Rockabul' is in limited release across Australia from the 14th May 2019, with a number of Q&A screenings with Travis. For more information, head to the film's Facebook page.