Peshawar (Pakistan) (AFP)

For years, Kalashnikov fire and deafening attacks have covered the wild melodies of Pashtun music. But centuries-old tradition is returning as the security situation improves in northwest Pakistan, where this ethnic group is from.

The shows that used to take place in secret, for fear of reprisals by extremist groups, come back to life. Musical instrument stores are again open and thriving, while Pashtun pop singers are favored by Pakistani TV channels.

"Music is the spice of life ... it has been part of our culture from time immemorial," says Farman Ali Shah, a poet from the village of Warsak, near the tribal border areas of Afghanistan and his four decades of conflict.

Pashtun melodies are based on rubab chords, traditional string instruments, placed on the clear sound of tablas, local percussion.

They push men, in this very conservative and patriarchal culture where women are absent from public events, to dance in a circle. Each participant swirls there with force reels of arms and other pirouettes.

"For centuries, we have been a liberal society," said the rubab player and MP Haider Ali Khan, originally from the Swat valley. "We love our religion but at the same time we love our traditional music," he adds.

For a long time, the Pashtun melodies have been silenced by the extremists.

From the 1970s, rigorous Islamist movements gained influence in the Pashtun areas along the border with Afghanistan. Their strict interpretations of Islam despised music.

- Chaos -

Then extremism became violent, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which saw the emergence of a generation of mujahideen. The Taliban, in power in Kabul between 1996 and 2001, had banned music.

The intervention of an international coalition led by the United States in Afghanistan overturned their reign. But it also plunged Pakistan into chaos.

Many insurgent groups have taken refuge there. A Pakistani Taliban movement has formed, taking control of parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwest province of which Peshawar is the capital.

"The extremists killed artists and singers to create fear," said singer Gulzar Alam, himself attacked three times, and who has taken refuge in Afghanistan in recent years.

"If you remove the culture of a community, a tribe or an ethnic group, the community will be eliminated," he laments.

Public performances were practically interrupted by suicide bombings. Bombs exploded in the CD markets. The instrument stores were wiped out.

Some brave men continued to invite musicians for private shows and other weddings. But the groups had to perform sotto voce, to avoid being heard by the Islamists.

"They asked people to stop the music, but the villagers never accepted it," recalls Noor Sher, whose family has been making handmade rubabs for 25 years.

Musicians from Afghanistan, where the Pashtuns are the main ethnic group, have also fled the violence raging in their country. Some settled in Peshawar, where they opened music schools, keeping the tradition alive.

- "Free the mind" -

The Pakistani military stepped up efforts to defeat the extremists in 2014. Security has improved considerably since then.

Between 2015 and 2018, violent deaths - of an extremist, political or criminal nature - fell by 80% in the country, going from 6,574 to 1,131 recorded deaths, according to CRSS, a Pakistani research center.

"Now the situation is good, very good. We can play anywhere, when people invite us," said Akhtar Gul, a rubab player.

But many remain cautious in northwest Pakistan, still fearful of reprisals. Some AFP interviewees refused to criticize the extremists.

Conservative attitudes towards music also continue to resonate in the region. Abdul Latif, 24, hides his love for the rubab from his family, who considers that this instrument dissolves with Islam.

"It is part of the Pashtun culture, but I think my family is not aware of it," he said.

For musicians like Gulzar Alam, forced to flee, the damage is deeper.

"It takes a long time to free the mind or the brain of artists from fear," he explains from Kabul, whom he seeks to leave to live as a refugee in a western country.

"You can change the policy of a government with a simple stroke of the pencil, it doesn't take much time," said MP Haider Ali Khan. "But changing the mindset you have forged in two or three decades is not easy," he says.

© 2020 AFP