At the end of June, while a bunch of people were losing their minds listening to music and stomping around Chicago, I too was surrounded by good vibes and thousands of revelers glued to a sound system somewhere. Only, that somewhere happened to be the Silk Road Festival in the soaring Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan's Bamyan province, far from the drug-induced spirituality of Union Park. Thousands of Afghans, having arrived throughout the day in a stream of aging pickups and Iranian motorbikes, had filled a meadow surrounded on all sides by soaring golden mountains. Their peaks formed a convenient natural amphitheater for the day’s performances.
The festival had opened the previous night with an exclusive gala evening attended by politicians and the crème de la crème of local society. One by one they gave their addresses to an unexcited crowd in a vast conference room. Soon, however, their talks gave way to what the audience had all been waiting for: live performances from a host of local and national musicians. The melodies of their damburas—a two-stringed instrument popular in Hazara folk music—loosened up the crowd, which was gradually coerced into a frenzy that culminated in explosive cheers as Adbul Hameed Sakhizada took to the stage.
Abdul is a national superstar and winner of the phenomenally popular TV show, The Voice of Afghanistan. His performance was so energetic that even some of the heavily armed guards patrolling the auditorium couldn't fight the urge to move, the one seated to my left smashing his Kalashnikov with worrying enthusiasm against the tiled floor.
Now in its fifth year, the three-day festival was started by the Bamyan Tourist Development Board with support from the Aga Khan Foundation. The aim of the festival is to celebrate and showcase the rich culture of the region following centuries of repression. As recently as 2001, some 6,000 Hazara were massacred by the Taliban after the occupiers had already outlawed much of their expressive music and dance.
And during the festival—as some 10,000 Afghans from across the region danced on the plains surrounding the sleepy town of Bamyan—the dark, repressive days of Taliban occupation couldn't seem further away.
The energy continued well into the evening, when the crowds began to dissipate back into the hills, leaving a select few to witness an intimate acoustic performance held in a legendary ruin on top of a steep hill. Named Gholghola, or the "City of Screams," after its inhabitants were massacred by Genghis Khan, the high-domed rooms that remain in the ruined city provided excellent acoustics for the hauntingly melancholic music.
Before culminating with the grand closing ceremony, the final day provided more demonstrations of the local culture, including bizarre interpretive dance and a game of tug of war. But by far the most memorable was Buzkashi—a game played on horseback in a field without boundaries, with the headless carcass of a goat in lieu of a ball. In our match, two teams of 20 had to drop the lifeless animal into a hole dug into the field. In retrospect, it was slightly less bougie than polo.
After the match, the crowd congregated in front of a large stage for the grand finale, which mostly involved dancing to more dambura jams until a power cut plunged the crowd into darkness. But before long, the ancient diesel generators kicked back in, and with them the boom of some Persian-inspired techno to finish the festival off for good.
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