With aid of S.F. man’s project, Afghan women risk lives for a song

With aid of S.F. man’s project, Afghan women risk lives for a song

By Fariba Nawa
January 14, 2008
The San Francisco Chronicle

At a clandestine music school sponsored in part by a San Francisco resident, male students come and go through the front door while their female counterparts enter through a dark hallway.

The school, which has no name or sign, is run by a noted pop singer who is well aware that teaching women music – he has 12 female students out of 67 – could mean a death sentence for them or himself. Many Afghan men believe a woman’s voice should not be heard by men, and some conservative clerics believe it is a crime against Islam for women to sing or perform music.

“If they are going to put their lives in danger,” said musician Nazir Khara, “I’m going to make sure that I do my best to protect them.”

Although there are female entertainers in Afghanistan, their families often face intense criticism from neighbors and relatives. Some women eventually stop their music careers, while others perform only on radio to avoid being seen or lie to parents when attending music classes.

Roya, who declined to give her full name, studied guitar with Khara and often sang in public. But she quit after several neighbors threatened to throw acid in her face if she continued. “I went to her neighborhood and tried to convince them that they should not harm her,” Khara said. “I don’t blame her for leaving.”

Student Farida Tarana, 24, was driven out of the western city of Herat after singing on national television. She is one of the school’s few female students willing to be named and photographed. For the past seven months, she has been taking voice and guitar lessons three times a week.

Almost seven years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted the fundamentalist Taliban regime that banned music and all but confined women to the home, the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has failed to change many societal attitudes toward women. Numerous schools for girls have been burned down, causing the literacy rate for women to remain among the lowest in the developing world – 12.6 percent, in contrast to 43.1 percent for males. Some parents still force girls as young as 9 to marry older men, and the average life expectancy for women is only 44 years.

Khara’s school is party funded by the Afghan Music Project, the brainchild of Chris Becherer, 31, of San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood and Adam Gouttierre, 36, of Seattle. Both were studying business at UC Berkeley in 2005 when they developed a “social entrepreneurship” project for Afghanistan as their final master’s of business administration assignment. The idea was simple: record an album of traditional music featuring a female vocalist, and sell it and an accompanying video on the Internet to pay for musical instruction for young Afghans yearning to play their own music.

But when they arrived in Kabul, renowned musician Ustad Ghulum Hosain told them that finding a female singer would not be easy.

“Everybody was interested in the project, but no women wanted to be involved with it,” recalled Becherer, who now works in marketing for Apple Inc. “We found that it was still dangerous for females to collaborate with Westerners.”

With Hosain’s help, the American students found a singer known professionally as Zamzama, who still performs at weddings and private Kabul parties. She agreed to participate on the condition that the CD cover and video not include her real name or show her face. She and Hosain’s band then recorded seven instrumentals and four songs in the local Dari and Pashto languages.

When Becherer returned to San Francisco, he persuaded the independent Ioda label to distribute the album online. After its launch in 2005, the album hit No. 12 on iTunes’ World Music Chart. “The Afghan Music Project,” which includes a CD and a 20-minute documentary, is available at www.afghanmusicproject.org.

Becherer says the venture has netted more than $3,000 for Afghan music teachers such as Khara to teach young Afghans – and especially women – how to play their traditional music. Gouttierre, who now works in digital media for Microsoft, said he and Becherer are planning to return to Kabul and create more opportunities for female musicians.

“We’re trying to convince a Western artist to do a follow-up recording with an Afghan artist for a second album,” Gouttierre said.

Back in Kabul, Khara is teaching guitar to Tarana, who grew up in Iran and returned to her hometown of Herat after the Taliban were ousted. Two years ago, she was one of a handful of female contestants on “Afghan Star,” the nation’s version of “American Idol.” Khara, who was one of the judges, found her voice captivating and encouraged her to keep singing.

“My only wish is to continue my music,” Tarana said.

But performing in public turned out to be a dangerous undertaking.

After appearing on “Afghan Star,” Tarana received a death threat by telephone. Then, former mujahedeen fighters stopped by her home to implore her to stop singing in public. Even her uncle, a court judge, received a death threat.

Forced to wear the head-to-toe burqa and frightened for her life, she moved to Kabul, the nation’s most liberal city, to live with a younger sister and work as a financial administrator for a bank. Although Tarana says she feels safer, she is glad that an armed guard paid by the bank is stationed outside her home.

In the meantime, Tarana and Khara have recorded a song, which the pop singer hopes to perform on television with his star pupil. In recent months, Khara’s songs have hit the top of the charts on Afghan radio and television, with many listeners saying the secrets of his success are duets with unidentified female vocalists.

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