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Soldier-songwriters beat Afghan blues

14 october 2011, 14:21
Armed with acoustic guitars, US troops in Afghanistan are writing songs about everything from fear of the Taliban to dreams of going home, all in a bid to beat combat stress, AFP reports.

At Bagram airfield, the giant US base north of Kabul, and scores of smaller outposts, soldiers keep a guitar by their bed or at their desk and pick it up at quiet times to play to themselves or perform for a group.

Soldiers sit on the steps of their wooden barracks strumming chords at night, or on the concrete security barriers which dot the base. Chinese-made acoustic guitars are on sale at many of Bagram's shops.

While their musical genius may not compare to stars like Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix, both of whom served in the US army, troops say it is an important way to wind down and taste normal life, albeit briefly.

"I play as often as I can, at least a couple of times a week," says Private First Class Zachary Short, 23, a combat medic based at an outpost in Paktya, eastern Afghanistan.

"We will all sit down after night missions or after we're done for the day and they (his fellow troops) will request some songs. It's a lot of fun. Some covers, some original ones."

Short mainly plays country music and has written around six songs about life in Afghanistan which often dwell on his memories of life back in the US.

Written under a stage name, Zac Charles, one of his songs, "Until I Get Home," about a soldier singing to his wife thousands of miles away, scored local radio play in Kentucky, where he is based.

"They say home is where the heart is/That's where I wanna be/But if the good lord says it's time to go/Please don't worry about me," he sings.

Short posts videos of himself singing on YouTube, dressed in combat fatigues in his sparsely furnished frontline bedroom.

While he dreams of a career in music one day, in Afghanistan he uses it as a chance to forget the strains of his war.

"It's an opportunity to escape. Music is a comforting thing to a lot of people, they cling to it, use it as an escape or something for them to relate to," he says.

-- 'Music a definite, huge relief' --

At Bagram, Ted Peterson, an American contractor working to set up a local radio station for Afghans, takes a more pointed approach.

He has written around six songs about life at Bagram including one called "Save Me From The Talibani."

It includes the lines: "I wish there were more than fields of poppy/That I could see from my Hummer jalopy/Promising dreams of a heaven to come/Without the smell of ammunition."

Despite all the shops, gyms and dining facilities at Bagram -- which, with a population of 30,000, is the size of a town -- Peterson says life is restrictive owing to security precautions and the threat of rocket strikes.

"It gets to you after a while," he adds. "You do feel confined. It's like a prison, soldiers say it's like being in prison."

The guitar is perhaps the ideal instrument for Americans deployed abroad since it is portable, he says.

"Everybody can play it, there is a lot of music written for it, it's convenient and everybody can sing along when you play it," he explains.

Specialist Chris Rettig does not write songs, but as part of the US army's First Cavalry Division band, he tours remote outposts playing covers of bands like Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a morale booster.

Rettig, who plays guitar, bass and drums, sees daily how music can act as a form of therapy.

"I have a feeling that music is a definite, huge relief as far as stress goes," he says. "You put your own situation in the lyrics. So I think that always makes a bleak situation better."

Professor Jonathan Pieslak, a music theorist at The City College of New York who has studied the musical preferences of US troops, says many listen to rap and heavy metal to psych themselves up for combat but that the songs they write themselves can be more reflective.

Soldiers listen to similar music to other Americans but are likely to experience it differently because of the danger and stress they face, he adds.

"What differs is the intensity of the depth of listening," he says. "Many soldiers and marines experience these feelings in more intense ways while at war.

"In other words, while at war, the feelings and emotions experienced through music seem to resonate more deeply."

By Katherine Haddon

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