Portland musician Michael Lewis recently traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, to teach music at Rock School Kabul. The school is one of several projects run by Sound Studies Projects, a Kabul-based non-profit, which also runs a performance venue, recording studio and art and cultural center. Lewis first heard their work from another Portland musician, Michael Herrman, who is currently artist-in-residence at the Rock School. Together they’re teaching guitar, voice and songwriting to youth and adults, recording and filming music with local artists in Kabul, and helping put on a concert, called “Vote for Peace.” Michael Lewis will be blogging from Kabul for opbmusic, and this is his first dispatch:
I arrived in Kabul little a few days ago, leaving the near triple-digit temperatures in Dubai to arrive in Afghanistan’s capital city, nestled within the Hindu Kush mountains at 6,000 feet above sea level. Temperatures at night are just hitting freezing as winter begins to set in.
Flying north, the plane wends a circuitous sky path through rows upon rows of jagged, sawtooth mountains. Below, small towns and villages reveal themselves in between the spiraling peaks, each building boxed in by high security walls such that the townscape far below looks not unlike a Roman archeological dig.
It’s early Monday morning, and my jet lag-addled body is still adjusting. I rose at sunrise to the morning call to prayer, and am quietly typing out this post in the kitchen of the two-story mini-palace my hosts have provided as lodging, flanked by their adolescent pug happily snorting his way through a chew bone nearly as big as he is. Today is the first day I’ll be giving guitar lessons at Rock School Kabul, one of the many programs of the two-year old Sound Studies Projects (SSP) non-profit that serves as a music school, recording studio, venue, and art and cultural community center to all walks of city life. The first evening of my arrival saw me commiserating with the thirty-some folk there for a community social event featuring Latin music and culture.
SSPs founders, Humayun Zadran and Robin Ryczek, have become instant family. Jovial, positive, easygoing and gregarious, it is easy to see how they have put this all together. Humayun, a local Afghan and self-proclaimed music lover, owns the center, called The Venue, which is a daily bustle of activity. He seemingly knows everyone and is always working and networking to improve the center, connect with local and regional artists, and source whatever is needed to facilitate all the music work they are doing. Robin, a phenomenal cellist from the States, came here originally as a music teacher. Graceful and soft-spoken in a way that belies the passion behind her eyes, she is an inspirational spark and organizational dynamo. Her classical students started inquiring about learning rock and roll as well, but resources for such learning simply did not exist here. So together with Humayun and a little elbow grease, they decided that they could be that resource…hence how Rock School Kabul was born.
They just added a new wing two weeks ago to house an expansive new stage in preparation for an upcoming vote-for-peace concert series promoting election awareness that will bring in rock bands from neighboring Pakistan and India, as well as include us roustabouts from the States.
Outside, the city is sprawling maze of half-built roads, fortified domiciles, razor wire and machine guns on every corner. Traffic and pollution are rampant, with the war driving in people from outlying areas in search of the safety the city provides. But underneath and in between the ever-present cloud of unsettled dust, power outages, road blocks and artillery, there is a palpable air of hope and renewal. New restaurants and shops are opening up every day amongst the carts of local organic produce, children bustling to and from school and the near daily, lavish marriage celebrations held at monstrous, neon-girded wedding complexes. Talking with residents here, there is a nascent and ever-growing belief that life without war is possible, and that Kabul can reclaim the life of beauty, art and culture that once bloomed here decades ago.
Michael Lewis is the lead guitarist for Portland band Blue Skies for Black Hearts.