Last fall, Michael Lewis wrote for opbmusic about teaching at Rock School Kabul. Lewis spent several weeks in Afghanistan teaching guitar and voice at the privately-run music school, along with another Portlander, Michael Herrman, recording songs and planning for a concert for peace that was to be held at the same venue.
We recently checked in with Lewis, who’s raising money for a return to Kabul later this year. Among the challenges: how to ship instruments, including full drumkits, to Afghanistan. While back in the U.S., Lewis also finished working on a video shot near the end of his stay in Kabul, with Herrman, and cellist Robin Ryczek, one of the school’s founders. Our Q&A is below the video player.
When did you write “Angels of the Underground” and where did you shoot the video?
I wrote that song the week before I left for Afghanistan this last November. The November prior, I was touring in Lebanon with Jerry Joseph. We were in Beirut and the Becca Valley, and had an amazing trip where we played in centuries old buildings, reunited Jerry with Lebanese family he’d never met, and heard the U.S. Presidential election results over the radio in a cab on our way to the airport. It was intense. While we were there, we had this phenomenal guide and translator, Sami, and we literally could not have done the trip without him. When you travel in general, but especially as an artist, there is an unspoken underground network of generous and kind-hearted people who help you connect to artists and fans within that community as well as circumnavigate the culture and place that you’re in. These are the people I mean by angels. The song itself was recorded in this large stone basement of the house I was staying in when I was in Kabul. The house was gorgeous and had this beautiful natural reverb which I just had to capture. Most of the video was filmed there. The rest of the video was shot in Darulaman Palace, a massive building originally built by King Amanullah Khan that was heavily shelled by the Mujahideen and is pretty much now a ruin.
You wrote that you were impressed by the songwriting you encountered at the Rock School. Do you remember any of the songs?
One of the students, Omar, had written a poignant song about a loss of a family member. It was very visceral, raw and honest. Also, we worked with a rapper there, Shekeb, on a song Michael Herrman and I wrote together with him. He raps about struggle, of which Afghanistan has its fair share, but he also puts forth a clear call to action to make things better. There was a lot of that there… community involvement, positivity, hope… a lot of that coming from young artists.
How much Western music had your students grown up with?
Most of the students have heard western music. Afghanistan has been connected with the internet for over a decade now, and everyone has a phone to connect. However, because they find that stuff on their own, it’s cherry picked. They know different music across the decades at random. When I was there, Robin kinda blew their minds by introducing them to Queen. All the kids there seemed to know the Foo Fighters and The White Stripes. Plus neighboring Pakistan and India have bands, and Sound Studies Projects brings them in for shows and festivals.
How safe did you feel while you were there?
Honestly, I felt safe the entire time I was there… and frankly safer than I have in many parts of the U.S. in places like New York and Chicago…or even internationally. I felt safer there than I did in San Jose, Costa Rica…which has a lot of violent crime. Most of my anxiety over safety was in my head…but after a few days there, that calmed down. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be smart or cautious. It’s still a place of conflict, so there are a lot of people with guns. I came back from Lebanon to Sandy Hook, so I think here in the States, we’ve all seen what can happen when you mix angry people with easy access to weapons.
There was a bombing in Kabul while you were there. Were you concerned that would overshadow what else happened while you were in Afghanistan?
Absolutely. Really, the violence thing is all anyone seems to ask about here. It’s so pushed and sensationalized in mainstream media it’s awful. From what I hear from those who have been there for years, recent changes, culturally, educationally, economically, etc. in Afghanistan, particularly in the last two years, have been so dramatic and positive. There were so many students, male and female, in school that I met. There was rebuilding of roads, infrastructure and buildings everywhere. There’s a lot of great things going on there that I wish took more of a front seat in conversations about Afghanistan.
How did your time in Kabul change you?
It reminded me just how vitally important art is to a community. It made me evaluate everything I was doing as an artist, because frankly, I was very selfishly motivated. It made me want to do more with what I have been blessed with for others. That’s why I’m going back to Afghanistan to teach again this spring with my friend Jerry Joseph, and with any luck, we’ll raise enough money to bring a slew of music equipment to the school as well.
The “Concert for Peace” that was in the works had to be postponed. Did that concert take place?
It absolutely did. Sadly for me, a week after I left, because I would have liked to have been there, seen the bands, be involved, etc. They had Noori from Pakistan, Faridkot from India, and Morcha from Afghanistan. Plus lots of information on the upcoming election.
Are you still in contact with any of the students or others you met there?
Yes! I am in contact with pretty much all my students, and am so excited to be able to see them again soon!
You can find more info about the fundraiser supporting Lewis’ and Joseph’s trip to Kabul here.
Also see PBS’ Newshour story about their work at Rock School Kabul here.