Delhi Sultanate and Begum X: The Kabul Project

23 April 2014

To most people, Afghanistan invariably and understandably conjures up the same few images: war, suicide bombings, austere bearded men who banned music, laughter and repressed women during their short stint in power, and, until he was found wrapped in a blanket watching reruns of himself in a neighbouring country three years ago, Osama Bin Laden.

It is safe to say that Caribbean music is not the first thing that comes to mind. It has probably never been played in the country, save maybe for a few expats jamming on rare open mic nights at the few Kabul bars where they gather to escape the boredom of barbed-wired compounds and to enjoy grossly overpriced liquor.

That is until last October, when Delhi-based reggae-dancehall duo Delhi Sultanate and Begum X were flown in for a “concert for peace” in the capital alongside Afghan pop singers and a duo of young Kabuli rappers. The event (in fact two events: one for men and one for women) was a success and the pair was re-invited a couple of months later for a more ambitious project, modeled on the now famous Coke Studio: a one-week collaboration with Afghan and Pakistani singers and musicians, to be recorded and filmed for Afghan television.

This time Samara (Begum X) persuaded the organizers to bring along some familiar reinforcements: the rhythm section of the Ska Vengers, the Indian ska-reggae band which she and Delhi Sultanate front. Enter yours truly on bass and “The Late” Nikhil Vasudevan behind the skins. Needless to say we both needed little convincing, even if our families did.

On March 6th, our visas firmly stamped in our passports and woolens in our suitcases, the four of us hopped on a SpiceJet flight to Kabul. After dropping our bags at our hosts’ house in the high-security Wazir Akhbar Khan neighbourhood (though a Swedish journalist would be executed at point-blank range, 3 blocks away from our residence a few days later), home to many NGO workers in the capital, we headed for Jawanan studio, a ten-minute drive away, through the dusty lanes of Kabul’s expanding suburbs. There we met the other musicians: Aryana Sayeed , an Afghan pop star based in London, singers Irfan Khan from Peshawar and Shafiq Murhid from Kabul, the aforementioned Afghan rap duo/couple Diverse and Paradise, and last but not least a group of local musicians who would soon become our closest collaborators and the backbone of the project.

The plan was to record four songs: “Globalistan”, a poppy theme song, of sorts, which was to feature all the participants; an adaptation of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining”; “Divide and Rule”, Delhi Sultanate and Begum X’s take on the popular “Cus Cus” riddim (instrumental) used by countless reggae-dancehall artists since the 60s, and finally a version of the Soul Vendors’ “Bad Treatment”, to which we intended to put a hip-hop twist, with the help of Diverse and Paradise.

We left for the studio early the next day to work on the arrangements for Globalistan, communicating with the musicians through a surprisingly efficient mix of Dari, English and Hindustani. The process was unexpectedly smooth, Nikhil taking the lead in structuring the songs along with our invaluable sound engineer Adam Nicholas. In turn, Ustad Khaled Hamahank, the tabla player and obvious leader of the group Afghan, took charge guided “his” musicians, keeping the ball rolling. Shafiq Muhrid, who had kept to himself most of the morning, heard us work on the song and decided to join in, busting into a rap in Dari followed by a soulful “Allah-u-Akhbar” chorus, which we would all be humming for the next two days. Everyone was starting to get comfortable.

A few hours and many tea and cigarette breaks later, the track was just about ready. A few run-throughs after lunch, 4 takes et voilà! Adam would have to work his magic in post-production. One day, one song, one video: this would be the formula for the entire project. No time for endless takes or fine-tuning parts to perfection.

Back at Christian and Hamida’s house, that night, the 4 of us huddled around the Bukhari in the living room to eagerly discuss how to best use the rubab, harmonium, tabla, and tambura so as to give our tracks a completely original makeover, without betraying the original vibe.

On day 2, we took on Divide and Rule, with a clear goal in mind: keep it simple. Something that isn’t always, well, simple for classically trained musicians used to playing raags and expected to display their chops for 5 hours straight at weddings parties. Nikhil and Adam worked relentlessly with the harmonium, rubab and guitar players, giving them a crash course in reggae 101, mainly stressing the necessity to maintain a repetitive pattern.

It didn’t take long for them to get in the zone and again, the recording surpassed our expectations. A work routine set in. Spending 12-hours a day in the studio, working, eating and joking together created a very strong bond between us, in a short period of time. To say we were a family would be a cliché, but we definitely became a unified team.

The final recording of “Sun is Shining”, perhaps the most accomplished track in terms of fusion (even if that word makes me cringe), was a direct result of this newfound cohesion. The melodica part was replaced by a serpentine saxophone line, while the tambura and the harmonium emphasized the percussiveness of the reggae rhythm. Unwavering in the background, Ustad Khaled’s tabla and stone-faced Timotsha Zahiri’s shredding rubab completed the picture, giving a distinct Afghan flavour to Mr. Marley’s tune.

After one last long day of recording for “Bad Treatment”, and a few vocal overdubs and interviews late into the night, we left the studio for the last time. It felt like we had been in Kabul for 2 months, cooped-up either at Jawanan or, on off-days, at home, as if under house arrest, save for an unforgettable one-day trip to the Panjshir Valley, generously organized by our host Christian. We flew back to Delhi the next day, still caught in a kind of daze. Let’s hope it’ll sound as good as it felt.


Words & Images: Tony Guinard (Border Movement)


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