«In the last few years, I have sung more than a dozen songs against the Taliban,» award-wining singer Khyal Muhammad tells IPS. «I got threatening messages on the mobile phone. But I will continue to sing because it gives me strength.»
Not all singers in the troubled north of Pakistan are as courageous. Shamim Ara, 30, a female singer, says she had received several letters from the Taliban after which she quit the profession.
«I still want to sing because it is my passion, but my brothers want me to stay away from singing,» she tells IPS. «Several actors and singers from this province had sought political asylum after they were warned by the Taliban to abandon singing or face death.»
Music is becoming the language of a challenge to the Taliban, as surely as the Taliban have attacked music. And music seems now to be on a winning track – despite repeated attacks on musicians and music stores.
«The endless series of bomb attacks on CD and music shops has become the order of the day, but we are undeterred,» says Sher Dil Khan, president of the CD and Music Shops Association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the north of Pakistan. «We will continue to produce new dramas and songs for the Pakhtuns. They are in love with songs and with watching films.»
Standing where the debris was from the bomb blast in the Nishtarabad CD market in Peshawar last month that killed seven and injured 30, Khan says Taliban militants are seeking to destroy the business. The district has about 500 shops selling music and films.
«We have been receiving phone calls and threatening letters from the Taliban to stop selling music CDs, because they see these as against Islam,» he tells IPS. But shop owners in the music district have already repaired about 20 shops damaged in the blast, and are getting on with business.
Last month was the third attack in Nishtarabad. In March a similar blast in the market killed one person and wounded 16. The market, that supplies audio and video CDs also to Afghanistan, Malaysia and Middle Eastern countries, came under attack earlier in October 2007, when two persons were injured.
«During their rule in Afghanistan from 1997, the Taliban had placed a complete ban on music. Transporters and hotel owners were not allowed to play music,» local singer Irfan Khan tells IPS. Musicians had to leave Afghanistan for fear of Taliban reprisals, he says.
After the Taliban crossed the porous 2,400 km border to Pakistan when their government was toppled by the U.S.-led coalition forces in the wake of 9/11, they began targeting music shops in the sprawling Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) near the Afghan border. Later their activities spread to adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – one of the four provinces of Pakistan.
Shabana, an artist who used to sing and dance to earn her living, was shot in the head in January 2008. Her body was hanged from an electricity pole in Swat, one of the 25 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Swat is a famous tourist resort and was home to about 500 women dancers and about 800 music shops before 2007. When the Taliban took over, all shops were removed within a year. Dancers migrated to other areas for safety or just stayed home.
«The majority of showbiz people who had migrated from Swat have now returned after the successful military operation towards the beginning of 2010,» Javid Babar, president of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Artists Association tells IPS. «Now everything in back to normal and the activities are in full swing.»
Babar, a recipient of the Presidential Award, says the Taliban were forcing people to follow their own brand of Islam. But music and drama are an integral part of the culture of Pakhtuns, he says.
The former local Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) government, that was close to militants, closed Nishtar Hall, the lone theatre in the province, soon after coming to power in 2003. The religious parties (MMA) government also cleared out the Dabgari Gardens market. Several musicians had their offices there. They made a living performing at weddings and on festive occasions.
The Awami National Party (ANP) which now runs a coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by President Asif Zardari, widower of twice prime minister Benazir Bhutto, reopened Nishtar Hall. Many musicians reopened their offices.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain tells IPS the government has ordered a tightening of security at music markets throughout the province.
«The shopkeepers in Nishtarabad have been asked to keep vigil and inform the police in case they spot any suspected element or unclaimed bag, motorcycle or vehicle,» Hussain tells IPS.
Omar Shah, 17, a student at the Government College in Mardan, says militants had destroyed about 100 music shops in his hometown but all have been rebuilt. The Taliban cannot eliminate music by force, he says.
«People are buying CDs of Indian and Pakistani movies, songs and telefilms which are produced by local artists. We watch the stuff with enthusiasm because they depict our indigenous culture, and there is no element of obscenity or vulgarity.»