In the United States, the phrase "rock school" rings a tad false. There's nothing wrong with empowering kids through music they actually listen to, but teaching something as fundamentally non-pedantic as rock 'n' roll in an institutional context seems like a contradiction in terms. (Have any School of Rock instructors actually heard "School's Out"?)


Doing so in Afghanistan—a country where, as recently as 2011, Islamic militants beheaded civilians for participating in mixed-gender dance parties—is a different story. There, giving young people the tools to express themselves is a revolutionary act. Earlier this year, Michael Herrman, of Portland chamber-pop group Buoy LaRue, found himself in Kabul, teaching AC/DC riffs to teenagers afraid to be seen in the streets carrying a guitar. Now, the 35-year-old musician is back in Portland, looking to raise funds and collect instruments for donation to the country’s first music-based youth center, Rock School Kabul. WW spoke to Herrman about the Afghan rock scene and the joy and danger involved in what the school is doing.

WW: How did you wind up in Afghanistan?

Michael Herrman: My wife works for an [international nongovernmental organization] that’s based in Kabul. We’d been apart 10 months, and I basically said, “This isn’t working, so I’m going to come to you.” When I got there, my wife introduced me to some friends, and one of them happened to start a rock school that’s in its second year. Of course, before I left Portland, that’s what I did here, I taught guitar. I started volunteering there and teaching about seven Afghan kids a week. 

What are the kids interested in musically?

There’s a big metal scene there, which is interesting. It made me think back to my youth, when I was learning to play guitar and writing my own songs. When you start out, as a teenager you have all this built-up angst, and naturally, your music is going to reflect that kind of emotion. There’s a lot of anger there, frankly. These kids have a lot to say. They’re very political in their lyrics, and they’re speaking their mind, which is dangerous to do, in some ways.

Is there a rock scene developing in Kabul?

There is a little scene there. There aren’t your Dante’s or those kind of clubs. The shows are more controlled. They’re also way earlier in the day, at like 5 pm, because a lot of these kids have to be home by 7. But they’ll pack a 200-seat house.

Is there danger in what Rock School is doing?

I think I’d be naive if I said no. I have had kids talk to me about being uncomfortable carrying a guitar down the streets of Kabul to the Rock School, because they don’t want to be seen. In terms of getting people in danger, it’s just about being smart and knowing, yes, it is a war zone. For example, for the performances I had there—I had over 20 gigs when I was there, believe it or not—the shows I did, you don’t publicize them. Here you send out a big Facebook invite, you text all your friends, you send a press release. None of that happens [in Afghanistan]. The day before the show, you send an email out. You don’t want there to be this knowledge of when, where and what you’ll be doing.

Were there any moments when you actually felt in danger?

I was at the school, it was about 5:30 in the evening. I got a text from my wife’s NGO and their security department saying everything’s on lockdown, no movement until further notice. We came to understand that was the attack on the U.N. right before we left. You could hear the gunfire from our street. I’m not sure what’s stranger: The fact that there was gunfire six blocks away from me, or that by the time I knew it, I was OK with it. I wasn’t numb to it, but it’s just part of the life there. I went out on the street and there are kids playing soccer. There are guys at the grocery store and vendors selling produce. Life doesn’t change because there’s gunfire happening down the street. 

SEE IT: The Rock School Kabul Benefit, featuring Naomi Hooley, Buoy LaRue, the Heritage and Tufan, is at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Monday, July 1. 8 pm. $15-$20 sliding scale. 21+.