A couple days ago, I came to the set of the show as the guest judge. “Don’t be like Simon Cowell,” my friends had joked. “Don’t worry,” I would respond. “I only know enough Dari to be positive.”
Technical crew and audience members milled about the side door, as one man took the entrance cards (which apparently fetch quite a price on the black market) and men busied themselves with set-up. I was shown to the make-up room, where I met one of the co-presenters, Mozhdah Jamalzadah, the very popular Afghan singer and talk-show host who has performed for President Obama and who Time Magazine called “Afghanistan’s Oprah.” After changing clothes and going through the rundown of the show with the producer, I sat down for my make-up. I winced as the lovely young woman applied something to my eyelids and then my lips. In Dari, I joked, “I don’t do this every day; just once a week.” She smiled and said in English, “Your face is already beautiful.”
Finally, it was time to go on. A member of the crew ushered me the long way around the set. Mozhdah and the other co-presenter, Omaid Nizami, introduced me to sustained applause. I played my mournful, contemplative rendition of the popular Afghan folk song “Bia ke Birim ba Mazar,” which the audience twice interrupted with applause. Afterwards, Mozhdah interviewed me in Dari, which went fine except when I didn’t understand a question and simply said, “Tashakor” (Thank you) and the audience laughed.
I crossed the slick white stage with a star on the center, sitting in a comfy red armchair just to the side, finally able to absorb my surroundings. Bright points of light shone from a dark canopy covering the wall, suggesting the galaxy of stars the contestants aspired to join. A broad cross-section of Afghan society, from young men having a good time to proper young women to older men to a tiny little girl about 3 years old who clapped along with every song, packed the studio to capacity. In front of the circular stage, the three regular judges sat behind an imposing table with the Afghan Star logo and logo of Roshan, the wireless company that is one of the sponsors. Ustad Gulzaman, the famous Pashto singer, ANIM faculty member, and frequent collaborator of mine, looked resplendent in his chapan. Qasem Rameshgar, whom I know from various dinners and meetings, looked relaxed and vigorous. The one regular judge I didn’t know already was Ahmad Fanoos.
The four contestants came out one at a time to sing a song, and then came back to sing another. All four were young men, showing various degrees of nervousness and rapport with the audience. I wanted to be the encouraging judge, so since I can’t speak much Dari, I came up with a few simple compliments that I used at the right moments: “az diletan da dilem raft” (it went from your heart to mine). “Da chauqi raks kardam” (I danced in the chair). “Khana-e concert masle khana-e shoma ast” (The home of the concert is like your home). Hopefully that one sounded better in Dari!
I was surprised that they wanted me to play on the final number, an Afghan song involving all the contestants, when I didn’t know it and had not rehearsed it, but I was so excited to be there that I jumped in and did it. Fortunately, the harmonies weren’t too hard to find, so I improvised a few musical asides that were perhaps more Argentinian than Afghan.
After the taping finished, the technicians took the set down with remarkable speed. I wanted to linger, to talk to the audience, take some pictures, exchange cards. I felt like I had just been in a movie, and indeed, I had been: a movie that started when I got a job in Afghanistan a year and a half ago and reacted by taking a friend of mine to a documentary about some televised singing contest that was creating a sensation in that faraway country. Just as the singer who is eventually declared the Afghan Star will hopefully see his dreams fulfilled, one of mine came true tonight as I watched the show broadcast on Tolo TV.