Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan - DVD
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Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan
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cd cover What strikes one about the current landscape of Afghanistan is the rubble that remains after international conflicts and Taliban rule. The razed cities show only the surface of what was destroyed in the last several decades. The spirit of the Afghan people was crushed with the banning of their music. Live performances, tapes, radio and television were severely curtailed and altered under Soviet occupation and forbidden altogether under the Taliban. Instruments were destroyed and musicians who dared to rebel paid with their lives.

This documentary mourns the silence and celebrates the return of music to this struggling country. Through interviews with numerous musicians and footage filmed in Afghanistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, it tells a terrifying story of oppression. Images of shredded cassette tapes hanging from trees like Spanish moss, rubabs reduced to so many splinters and burqa-clad women being herded on the street by stick-wielding Taliban are chilling.

Director Simon Broughton interviews a cross-section of musicians. Creators of folk, religious, pop, and film music tell their stories, some passionately, others with a sense of shell-shocked acceptance. A former Mujahideen fighter plays a cassette of battle music, complete with sounds of gunfire, on a battered tape player. Pop singer Naghma's Soviet-era film is a stilted, cautious performance compared to her impassioned recording of post-Taliban music.

The renaissance began immediately after the fall of the Taliban. Television broadcasts began less than forty-eight hours later. Instrument makers made up for lost time. A rubab maker speaks with loving pride about his craft. Khalil House, a sort of clearinghouse for musicians, opened, hosting over fifty performing ensembles, and offering classes in harmonium, rubab, and dilruba.

The film makes it clear that much work is still to be done. Women are still underrepresented among performers. The cities are still shells of their former selves. The challenge of keeping dying traditions alive is intensified. Yet the smiles on the faces of the musicians in the many musical excerpts show that the healing of Afghanistan's spirit is well under way.

Extras in the DVD include musical performances by Ustad Mahwash, Ensemble Kaboul, Mashinai, and Rita Wahzma. Production of the musical performances is generally good, with the exception of Rita Wahzma's, with is marred by amateurish special effects and an echo-laden sound. The 2004 performance was the first post-Taliban broadcast of a female singer, so the rough quality can be forgiven.

Breaking the Silence is an eye-opening film, told in a clear, rational voice. The historical footage is remarkable and presumably rare, seeing that the country nearly had its history erased by one repressive regime after another. The only glaring omission is any analysis of the post-9/11 U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Still, the film puts a very human face on a tragic chapter in history. - Peggy Latkovich

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