Born in Arizona and now based in The Netherlands, N.R. Safi is an Afghan-American multi-instrumentalist and visual artist who co-founded (as Nick Rayne) experimental psych-rock band The Myrrors. Coming across a stockpile of cassette tapes of 1970s Afghani music collected by his paternal grandfather sowed the seeds for Naujawanan Baidar, N.R. Safi’s new experimental project. Combining the distinctive sound of Afghan street folk music with tape-saturated noise, lo-fi manipulation, drones and radio excerpts, Naujawanan Baidar imagines a parallel and retro-futuristic folk-punk tradition.

The release of a first cassette demo in 2018 more or less coincided with the creation of the Radio Khiyaban label. Based in Eindhoven with N.R. Safi at the helm, the DIY artistic platform is focused on underground international sounds combining traditional folk customs and instruments with contemporary experimental and avant-garde sensibilities. The label is also giving a glimpse into the raw power and vitality of what might otherwise be referred to as “overlooked or under-represented musics” from the SWANA region (Southwest Asia and North Africa) and the global diaspora.

Following on from the self-titled Naujawanan Baidar in June 2020 which compiles on a double LP the first two cassette tapes released on the label as Volume 1 & 2, Khedmat Be Khalq radically expands the original tape-based sound with the addition of a wide array of home-amplified acoustic folk instruments. First released digitally and as a cassette tape on 8th July 2022, Khedmat Be Khalq came out on Vinyl on 1st May 2023 last. All versions were co-released on the Radio Khiyaban and three other labels based in the US, UK and Australia to allow for an affordable worldwide distribution.

Naujawanan Baidar - Khedmat Be Khalq (2022 - 2023)
Naujawanan Baidar – Khedmat Be Khalq (2022 – 2023)

Opening the record, a saturated blend of drones and a radio dial attempting to tune in on a station gives way to a rocking and blown-out punk and metal mashup with an oriental twist which never abates. Completely eschewing the western electric guitars, bass and drums prevalent in such genres, the Naujawanan Baidar project strives for a saturated, distorted and manipulated sound which nevertheless manages to achieve an uncanny familiarity for Western ears accustomed to punk, noise and industrial music.

The heavy drum and bass beats underpinning the title track “Khedmat Be Khalq” feature over-amplified traditional instruments such as the Rubab. The short-necked plucked lute which proudly features on the artwork cover (designed by N.R. Safi) is one of Afghanistan’s national instruments. Two other amplified string instruments like the Ghichak or the Baglama can also be heard on the record. Various percussion instruments such as Tablas, Dholak drums or Goblet drums provide a consistent heavy throb on every track. Elsewhere, “Sang-e Khane” features traditional wind instruments such as the Zurna or the Tula flute.

The extended instrumental opening the B side “Koh Har Qadar Boland Bashad Baaz Ham Sar​-​e Khod Rah Darad” almost emulates the clamour of a larger music ensemble while the concluding “Raftim Az Ayn Baagh” is a reprise of a traditional piece. Songs featuring lyrics are almost shouted or delivered in a declamatory style, as if captured off the cuff from a passing street demonstration, or in a call and response style at a large crowd gathering.

Had the dusty backstreets of pre-war Kabul birthed an experimental music scene paralleling German’s krautrock movement, one can imagine that the results might have sounded a little something like this.

Much discussion revolves around the unprecedented vinyl record revival taking place in the last few years. The same can be said of cassette tapes which, like vinyl records, remain a hugely popular support, but for entirely different reasons.

Released on the market for the first time in 1963, cassette tapes radically altered the means of culture creation by simplifying the methods of production, distribution and duplication of new music. The format gave emerging bands, street buskers and amateur musicians at local and regional level in every country the possibility to bypass a complex and expensive production system which relied on record labels and pressing plants. From the 1970s onwards, this new reality became critical for the Global South where pressing plants were rare or unavailable in the first place.

Much more than an alternative media support, the emergence of cassette tapes in the 1970s and 1980s enabled a new freedom of expression, all the more so in the context of a pre-war and pre-Taliban Afghanistan. The entire Naujawanan Baidar project taps into this unprecedented wave of creativity by using vintage cassette tapes as a sonic reference, but also as a basis for new music.

This militant approach transpires magnificently in a highly original and rousing record dedicated “to all the peoples of Afghanistan in their ongoing struggles against imperialism, fundamentalism and cultural genocide” (N.R. Safi)