Music soothes extremism along troubled Afghan border

A new Pashtun TV station in Pakistan is revitalizing a traditional form of expression.

A musician plays his rabab, a guitar-like instrument, while singing a folk song at a Pashtun gathering in Islamabad. Soon many in the audience - including clerics - tie up their turbans and start dancing to the beat of dholak drums.

The lure of the music, for that moment, offers a rare outlet for self-expression in a society where frivolity is frowned upon.

Pashtuns are the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan - making them a key focus on the US-led war on terror. Pashto music, many believe, has the potential to challenge elements of religious extremism in a way that military action alone cannot.

"From mullah to nationalist and warrior, Pashto music attracts everyone in our society," says popular Pashtun musician Sardar Mohammad Takkar.

The art form is undergoing a renaissance with the help of the first-ever Pashtun TV station, which helps artists make music videos and gain instant stardom.

Featuring mostly men wearing trousers and T-shirts, playing guitar and keyboards along with Pashtun instruments, Khyber TV is fusing tradition with outside influences and creating space for change. "Khyber Beats," the channel's music video show, has gained millions of viewers in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Not only is music elemental and the response to it primordial, in the current context it is the most effective tool for subverting the social order," says Amir Mateen, director of the channel. But "we have tried to make inroads gradually ... as we are dealing with a conservative society."

Artists, who once struggled to scrape by, now get paid between $85 and $170 per song, and performances can fetch up to $1,700. The musicians' newfound popularity has emboldened some to push for social change. Several private production houses have been set up in Pakistan's Frontier province producing audio and video cassettes in defiance of a provincial ban on public music performances. The artists also perform in different dialects, a change that could diffuse tribal rivalries.

Many Pashtuns ascribe to a hard-line religious worldview that leaves little space for artistic expression. But this was not always the case. In the 1980s, anti-Soviet mujahideen commanders encouraged an Islamization movement that glorified jihad at the expense of "softer" indigenous practices such as music and poetry.

Subsequent mujahideen governments persecuted musicians, as did the Taliban, who declared music to be un-Islamic and whipped those who dared perform.

These days, Pashtun musicians enjoy more freedom in Afghanistan, while parts of Pakistan have grown intolerant. An alliance of religious extremist parties called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) now rules Pakistan's Frontier Province. The MMA has imposed a ban on music in public places, and their activists have manhandled Pashtun musicians living in Peshawar, forcing most of them to flee.

"The religious extremists also understand the power of music and that it is symbolic of an alter ideology. To impose their ideology of extremism, they need to eliminate all forces that would challenge it, such as music," says analyst Zalman Mommand.

However, many argue that Pashto music can only bring real social changes when the strong tribal system breaks-up. The music has always been an entertainment for males and traditionally it is played mostly in the sitting rooms of powerful men.

"Merely showing singers with trousers and T-shirts is not going to make the difference," says analyst Mohammad Riaz. "Pashtun society never accepts imposition.... The only lasting change comes from within."

However, fusion within Pashto music is making it easier to integrate new ideas into the culture. One popular video on Khyber TV tells a love story between a Muslim man and a Christian woman set near a church.

The videos are watched across divisions of ethnicity, age, and gender, helping to promote understanding. Often the lyrics break down barriers as well. Fizza Fyyaz, a popular Pashtun singer, has just recorded a new track called "Peace Song."

"The first stanza is for the praises of God and then there is message that [Pashtuns] are not terrorists. They are filled with love. Let's create peace in the world," says Mr. Fyyaz.

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