Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan – Ten-year-old Maqsood Rehman always had a beautiful singing voice, and was often called upon to lead students at his primary school in their morning rendition of the national anthem.
One morning in 2005, however, things changed dramatically. Members of the Pakistani Taliban, who were gaining influence in the district at the time, burst into the school, as he was in the middle of singing the anthem.
Everyone else sat down, but Rehman remained standing.
“[The Taliban commander] gave a speech, saying that the army was coming. As they were speaking, explosions began to happen all around us. […] they hit the homes around us, we could hear the screams,” he says, recalling that day.
There was debris everywhere and he was petrified, he says. Rehman ran for hours to reach his home in the town of Sarwakai, about 20km away.
“What is the point of taking up the pen? We are studying and then we’re being attacked like this. Which direction should we turn?” he remembers thinking, at the time, wracked by fear and anger.
“That’s when I started writing poetry, and thinking that I need to do something for this country, and for the people of Waziristan.”
Pakistan‘s military forces launched an operation to retake South Waziristan, considered the birthplace of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2009, forcing the displacement of more than 600,000 people as they fought pitched battles with fighters from the armed group.
The Pakistani Taliban had ruled South Waziristan and parts of adjoining districts with an iron fist, banning all musical expression and even shutting down barbers who would shave men’s beards, deeming the practices un-Islamic.
Today, however, Rehman is one of a handful of young men who are leading a cultural revolution in conservative South Waziristan, by making music with a social conscience.
“If someone in our area heard that I was a singer, back then people would really look down on me, and I might even have been killed. That’s how difficult it was,” says Rehman, who is now 22 years old.
Currently based in the more developed district of Dera Ismail Khan, about 110km east of Sarwakai, he has been training in music for the last two years, trying to find a way to express his poetry to the world.
Rehman smiles broadly, and often, when he speaks of his work, and it is difficult not to be infected by his contagious energy. His passion for his people, and his music, is evident.
“Our culture was the first thing that was targeted. That is what divided us,” he says.
While South Waziristan is known for its conservative values, music has played a central role in the culture of the Mehsud and Wazir tribes, which dominate the area.
“Our attan [a folk dance] was based on unity, it would bring people together. We would also have the cheegha [a village-wide call], to gather people together in a group to resolve internal disputes. If we ever had disputes with another tribe, they would also be resolved this way, and the attan was a way of unifying people [to cement that resolution],” he says.
“But slowly that culture began to fade, and the dhol [drums] fell silent.”
Today, Rehman wants to change all of that. Singing a combination of traditional folk songs, modern pop songs and self-described “revolutionary” anthems, he wants to bring his people back towards their musical roots.
“My songs are often on these themes: on unity, talking about how our people should once again come together and should become self-aware. I want to deliver a message, of peace, unity and education.”
The young musician has held several large concerts in Dera Ismail Khan, as well as making television appearances on local Pashto-language stations. His audience, he says, is mostly made up of young people.
“Music was banned for 20 years, but now people are coming back towards this. There is a huge demand.”
The Taliban, however, were not the only threat to performers from South Waziristan.
“I don’t see any difference in the time that the area was under the Taliban and today’s situation,” says Shaukat Wazir, 28, a musician from the town of Wana.
Once a potato farmer, Wazir was always drawn to music, and would often play secret concerts when the area was under the control of the Taliban. He bought his first keyboard off the back of a smuggled vehicle when he was 16, managing to escape Taliban attention because “they thought it was a kid’s toy”.
When they were ousted, he made his first recorded album – a mix of folk songs, attan tunes and Pashtun nationalist anthems – in 2016, long after they were driven out.
“When my album was released, I could not go to my area for four or five months. When it was released, I saw that the attitude of people [there] had changed,” he said.
“In the Birmal sub-district, for example, I’ve been told I am not to set foot there.”
Wazir says that while the Taliban have been defeated, strong conservative values amongst the people of the area still mean that musicians are looked down upon, and performances are difficult to arrange.
Last year, the head of a local government-backed peace committee distributed pamphlets banning all musical and dance performances in South Waziristan. The government denies that such a ban was ever actually imposed, but locals say the event created an atmosphere of fear.
“This ban was being propagated through the local mosques as well,” says Wazir.
Natives of South Waziristan say that where the Taliban enforced a complete ban, similar restrictions are now socially enforced.
“Under the Taliban rule, it was banned outright, you could not perform at all,” says Mansur Khan Mehsud, the Islamabad-based director at the FATA Research Centre. “But there are also conservative values there, so most people do not consider it a good thing to do. It is considered an insult to call someone a musician.”
Rehman agrees that while he does not face the kinds of threats to his life that Wazir once did, there is immense social pressure for him to stop making music.
“In all Pashtun society, and particularly in Waziristan, singing and music is always enjoyed, but for some reason when the singer is from their own area or family, people look down upon that.”
Some people, however, remain willing to stick their necks out to help support the nascent music industry in the area.
One of the unlikely heroes of this scene sits in a small, cramped mobile phone shop in the Tank Adda area of Dera Ismail Khan.
Waheed Nadan, 22, is the owner of the Aman Mobile Zone, and musicians across the region have lauded his efforts to connect often technologically illiterate musicians with their audiences, by uploading their music onto users’ phones, as well as to social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.
“Aman Mobile Zone has done a huge service for musicians from South Waziristan,” says Wazir. “I would say that we have sung songs for South Waziristan, but he has been the one to take it to the people.”
Nadan’s Facebook music page now boasts almost 30,000 followers, and he has uploaded more than 80 music videos to YouTube, where he also has a large following. He monetises his videos through advertisements to earn a modest income off his work.
“There are no music centres here anymore,” says the long-haired young man. “I sponsored [an album] for the first time in 2014, and then in 2016, I worked with Shaukat Wazir. I now work with three or four Waziristani singers.”
It is allies like Nadan that allow Wazir and Rehman to continue to make music, and to dream of greater success. Either way, however, both expressed their desire to continue making music, regardless of the difficulties they face in making ends meet.
“My faith is that I have to keep the sadness of the world upon myself. […] Right now it is not the time to earn, it is the time to help people,” says Wazir.
“I have a poem: ‘If someone wants there to be silence, then they must either cut my tongue, or cut off their own ears’.”