The boy singers of Kabul

They were beaten and jailed under the Taliban. But now child singers such as 13-year-old Mirwais Najrabi are fêted as stars, despite the taint of corruption that clings to them
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In the cramped upstairs office of a theatre in central Kabul, thirteen year-old Mirwais Najrabi is standing up to sing. As he begins the first sorrowful verse of a traditional Afghan lament, it soon becomes clear why this is the most sought-after voice in the city.

In the cramped upstairs office of a theatre in central Kabul, thirteen year-old Mirwais Najrabi is standing up to sing. As he begins the first sorrowful verse of a traditional Afghan lament, it soon becomes clear why this is the most sought-after voice in the city.

Dressed in an embroidered shalwar khamiz and green velvet jacket, with a great mop of hair falling over an innocent face, Mirwais sings like an angel. In post-Taliban Kabul, a voice like that can earn its owner - and his agent - up to $1,000 (£500) a night.

Of all the extraordinary changes of fortune to affect Afghans in the past three years, few have seen their luck change for the better as much as Kabul's boy singers. During the rule of the Taliban, they were a despised breed. Boys were often beaten and jailed if caught plying their trade; now they are showered with dollar bills and fêted as the showbiz stars of Asia's most broken-down city. The two singers' bazaars in the backstreets of Kabul's old town are crowded with hundreds of boys - talented aspirants, established singers from famous musical families, and for the really big names, canny agents.

The biggest stars make their main money from the lucrative wedding party appearances that pay up to $1,000 a time, plus tips. And Mirwais is the biggest star of them all. His father, Mazari Najrabi, was a famous singer; Mirwais discovered his gift singing along to tunes his elder brother played on an instrument similar to an accordion.

About a year ago, with the Taliban gone, he started attracting attention. Then a Svengali-like figure, Sidiq Darayee, an impresario and theatre owner, began to organise Mirwais's business affairs. Soon he was singing until 3am at wild wedding parties before going to school the next day.

I met Mirwais and his entourage in Darayee's theatre in the week he was putting on a comedy. After what they've been through in the past 25 years, Afghans like a good laugh. Two cousins accompany the boy everywhere; in lawless Kabul, a 13-year-old with a marketable voice is a valuable commodity, and it is not unheard of for commanders to arrange the kidnapping of boys they take a fancy to.

Darayee did most of the talking. Mirwais sat patiently on a worn couch as the agent explained rather bitterly that foreigners were not spending enough in Kabul. Later, eyes shining, the theatre-owner demanded $600 for a private singing appearance by Mirwais. Meanwhile the child star said little. He enjoyed singing. He would like to be famous. Coming to England is one of his ambitions.

He seemed a cheerful lad, if taciturn. And the rewards of his trade were obvious. Round his neck was a gold pennant on a gold chain and, on his finger, a gold ring. Farhad, my translator and one of Afghanistan's few true peaceful souls, was rather shocked. "What is such a young boy doing wearing gold? If my son did that I would strike him for not showing respect."

But Mirwais and others like him can scarcely be blamed for exploiting their temporary good fortune. The boy singers may be practising an art form with an ancient role in Afghan tradition, but their time at the top is brief, starting, if they are lucky, at the age of 12 or 13. Most of them are finished forever by the time their voice breaks a couple of years later. That doesn't leave long to rake in the cash, and the wooden huts of Chor bazaar where the boys and their families base themselves, resound with the harsh sound of haggling for fees as much as the sound of young voices showing off their talent.

Nor do the singers occupy a comfortable place in Afghan culture. Pre-pubescent boys with sweet voices are highly prized and highly praised, but they will never manage to shake off the taint of corruption that clings to even the most innocent of them.

In a land where women are unavailable outside marriage, except as prostitutes, sex with young boys has always been socially acceptable in most layers of society and not just in the southern city of Kandahar where it is a famous vice.

Everybody knows that beautiful young beardless boy singers are a source of lust for wealthy commanders, who would be embarrassed to take a female mistress. The pre-pubescent boy draped in gold, wearing the finest clothes and well known as a concubine, is a Kabul cliché, although such liaisons will never be acknowledged by either the boy or the commander. Many are chauffeured around in expensive vehicles and treated with deference by the commander's men. "You must be careful with some of these boys and their families even though you may despise them and what they represent," said one Kabuli. "If you laid a finger on them or said a bad word against them, the commanders would have you killed."

As the commanders enrich themselves on drugs and corruption, the number of kept boy singers proliferates and the parties become wilder.

Whether the boys have personally been corrupted or not, and even if they are stars, they will never be truly free of the low-life reputation which surrounds their calling. But for all the dubious morality of the profession, Afghans love music and are happy to celebrate the return of the boys with beautiful voices.

Music-making here nearly perished for good in the war and during the Taliban persecution that followed. Even now, in more relaxed times, it remains at risk of being eclipsed by youthful Kabul's new obsession with all things foreign and especially anything emanating from Bollywood.

But slowly, the old ways and habits of Kabul are regaining a foothold, and Afghans are rediscovering a part of their heritage.

The district where musician families lived for centuries, Kocha Kharab, used to be famous for its racy nightlife. Afghans would go in search of the sad songs of longing sung in the classical Mahali tradition, with their hypnotic beats on tabla drums and a range of stringed instruments such as the 19-stringed habab, a kind of mandolin, and a traditional accordion.

According to mood, men would sit in clouds of hashish smoke chatting with friends and letting the music wash over them, or clapping along with the beat and getting up to dance, hands waving above their heads in wild abandon.

Afterwards, many would discreetly slip into Kocha Kharab's brothels in search of boys or girls according to taste, or would even put a bid in for the dancing boys or the young singers. Like so much else in the city, Kabul's unlikely bohemian world came to an abrupt end when the rockets of the fundamentalist leader, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, flattened it during the war - Kabulis claim the puritan, psychopathic warlord singled out Kocha Kharab for his special brand of violent attention.

The musicians' families were then scattered across the city. The Taliban destroyed the instruments and threw anyone caught dancing or singing into prison. To an Afghan puritan, Kocha Kharab was Afghanistan's Sodom and Gomorrah. Notwithstanding the return of the singers, it will probably never return to its heyday. But in a city of overnight millionaires and with the freedom to once again perform in public, the success of boys like Mirwais underlines a mini-revival.

During the three month wedding season before Ramadan, he was booked every night, singing songs of impossible love, bloody betrayal, and heroism. As with many Afghans, these are themes that have touched his own family.

Mirwais's father was killed when he was five, and the family lived on the front line during the fighting between factions that tore the city apart. When the Taliban came, they had to bury their instruments in the garden.

After such traumas, he is at the top of the singing hierarchy, for now. According to Darayee, he has rivals but the agent refused to name them.

"They laughed at Mirwais when he started singing because he is small," he said. "But they are not laughing now."

One rival, reportedly, is Wali Fateh Ali Khan, 14. There are others. But Mirwais proved his worth by winning a singing competition at the Park Cinema last year, blowing the competition away with his stage presence.

His cassettes sell out routinely. Shaky DVDs of his performances at wedding parties outsell Bollywood hits. Posters of him adorn the teashops of Kabul.

Protected from press questioning by his entourage, it is difficult to say what effect all this is having on his 13-year-old mind. He insists school is fun and he is treated the same as any other boy. As for the unwanted attentions of older men, Mirwais is lucky; his family are respectable musicians and the protection of his cousins can be relied upon. He is probably safe from the predations of corrupt old men. But other boys do not have such protection, as post-war Kabul becomes ever wilder.

One horrified Afghan even reported that he had seen women dancing at a wedding party thrown by one of the capital's richest families. They were beautiful girls, he admitted, and demurely dressed, but they were clearly prostitutes, and therefore to see them in public was even more shocking than seeing a kept boy. Boys who had been corrupted by commanders were also there, and the illicit alcohol had been flowing freely.

"I have never seen anything like it," the man said. "Ninety per cent of the men there were criminals. There were dozens of police outside protecting the party. I left when it started turning violent."

Many Afghans are pleased their musical tradition has survived, but are embarrassed it is turning out to have such a sleazy side. In Kabul, perhaps inevitably, beauty comes at a price.

"These songs are beautiful. They make me close my eyes and dream," said one. "It is when I open my eyes and look that I have such a rude awakening."