AFree spirit Ruth Owens

By Raisa Wickrematunge Picture by Pavithra Jovan de Mello

Look up the band White City on YouTube and one of the top hits is a web-based documentary called ‘Big in the Stans’, which follows the Kabul-based band as they go on tour, bonding with local musicians, jamming on the streets and living out of suitcases.

It doesn’t take you long to realise that lead vocalist and bassist Ruth (aka Ru) Owens is a free spirit. Born in London, she moved to Afghanistan and ended up working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

But the story really starts with Ru’s abiding passion for music. “My father was a tour manager… so I grew up with acts like Roxy Music, Genesis and King Crimson,” Ru explains. Her mother was a singer, though not professionally. Ru describes the passage of her childhood not through memories, but musical albums which she treasured.

In fact, Ru says she has played in bands since she was 14 years old. Most prominently, she was session bassist in the UK based band Echobelly when she was just 18 years old.

She counts musicians like Patti Smith, experimental musicians like Michael Patton and Kim Deal, the female bassist of the Pixies, among her musical inspirations.
In March 2009, Ru took a bold step – she moved to Kabul, Afghanistan. “When I’m feeling flippant, I say it’s because I was bored,” she says. Yet the truth isn’t as shallow as that.

Prior to moving to Kabul, Ru was working primarily as a technology journalist. She worked briefly with the BBC, and also assisted with military training – showing the military how to deal with journalists. This involved living with military personnel on a ship for a week, and ‘putting them through the wringer,’ as she put it.
However, Ru found her main bread and butter job to be quite mundane. “If you work in that field (technology) you know there’s this fetishisation of objects,” she explained. Ru grew disillusioned about the job and its emphasis on gadgetry and commercialisation. At the time, a friend who she knew was living in Kabul and had asked her to visit; and she did.

The Kabul she found was not quite the town portrayed in the media. Reporters have to portray Afghanistan in tight one and a half segments in technicolour, so what usually make the news are stories of bombs and explosions. Yet in fact, there is a lot more to Kabul than what’s been portrayed in the media, she says. Kabul has mountainous peaks and even a ski resort. Like any developing city, it has huge buildings and piles of garbage. Children go bowling in bowling alleys and there are 3D cinemas. The city is similar to Colombo in some ways – apart from the heavy presence of guards, barbed wire and AK47s, particularly over the four years Ruth lived there.

When Ru first arrived in Kabul, a friend was working at a company focusing on developing media in conflict zones, contracted to work for NATO. When Ru’s acquaintance left, she found herself stepping in, even living on a military base. Working for NATO, there were plenty of other foreigners, but they rarely ventured out beyond the military base and when they did, they were cautious.

Then Ru met Travis (the White City guitarist) and all that changed.

White City was originally a covers band. They had seen a lot of band members come and go – and they were looking for a vocalist who could play bass. “I met Travis, this wild-haired, crazy man who showed up on his bike in flip flops!” Ru recounted. Yet she found that they got on. In fact, Travis showed her a side of Kabul she had never seen until then; a Kabul which was full of musicians all eager to showcase their talent.

At that point, Ru made the decision to move out from the protective walls of the military base and move in with the band, just six months after she had entered Kabul in March 2009.

By the second rehearsal, Ru asked the band why they didn’t try to write their own content, rather than solely doing covers.

Today, Ru describes White City’s sound as ‘punk rock, progressive, with a little stoner rock thrown in.”

Not content with writing their own songs, White City set out to give all the young musicians of Kabul a stage. In 2010, Travis and the band wanted to have a concert, a special ‘Battle of the Bands’ in a place which didn’t really have concerts on a regular basis. “It was the first Rock Fest, post-Taliban rule,” Ru said. Everyone was skeptical; no one knew where the money would come from, whether the venue would be attacked, or whether people would complain or be outraged by it in general.
Another worry was what the audience’s reaction would be to having a female vocalist on stage. “This show was important to me because Kabul is a place where men and women don’t really mix,” Ru said.

The influences from the West (Hollywood) and from the East (Bollywood) show women who perform as sexualised beings and Ru wanted to stray from that. “I wanted to be rebellious, to create a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’. So, I wore jeans and a T-shirt, but I didn’t cover my hair. People understand I’m a foreigner and not Muslim, so they’re open minded,” Ru said.

The first Sound Central Festival was held in a huge public garden, a 3 day fest which celebrated not just rock, but also fusion and other alternative styles of music. “The main aim was to introduce something for the kids of Afghanistan who had no youth clubs… or any sort of organisation to help them in a positive way,” Ru said.
Similarly, during the 2011 ‘Big in the Stans’ tour, the band found themselves acting as the glue bringing together musicians from different places – countries which had never dreamed of collaborating together musically before. “We found that along the way, even in the most run down places, the most amazing musicians were making music. It was way better than just us teaching… we were listening to them and jamming,” Ru said.

Apart from this, Ru was experiencing the adrenaline rush of covering life in a conflict zone. “I have a high fear threshold,” she explains. “I’ve been on patrols where IEDs have gone off close to us… or people have opened fire and run away. But I wasn’t really afraid during those times.”
The one time she did feel fear was when she was doing a piece on a project run by a woman based in a very dangerous area close to the Pakistani border. While filming, the woman she was interviewing came up to her and said “We have to go now”. The woman had overheard the guards telling someone there was a foreigner in the area with an Afghan woman and added, “If you come fast, you can get them”.

What followed was a heart-stopping car chase through the mountains. “I was mostly worried about the local woman, because if she were caught, she would have been made an example of. I would have felt guilty about that,” she said.

Last weekend, White City performed alongside Paranoid Earthling at Anarchy United, a concert at Rhythm and Blues. The collaboration between the two bands first started when Paranoid Earthling toured Kabul. If you missed the show though, you can always catch the next gig in Kandy on June 20.

The band has found inspiration here, writing material for their upcoming album. Most of Ru’s older songs have a theme, involving her putting herself into the minds of other people, from a soldier to a lecherous old man or even a restless young woman wanting to leave town. In terms of melody and rhythm, it is often a collaborative effort, drawn from the sights and sounds that surround them. For instance, White City found inspiration in the rhythmical clatter of kottu roti being made – a uniquely Sri Lankan sound which they might incorporate in one of their tracks.

What’s their next move? Ru says she has no idea; at the moment, she’s still living out of a suitcase (next year, foreign missions will be withdrawing from Kabul) and

looking for a label to take on their new album as well as go on tour. One thing is for sure – it won’t be in the West.

Who knows, perhaps we will be seeing a lot more of White City and Ru, in the future.

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