JOURNAL EXCERPT: Afghan Youth Orchestra Finds Peace Amid Violence 
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is an excerpt from a story in our Summer 2017 journal, “Over Yonder,” that we’re sharing in light of recent events in Afghanistan. There are ideas for ways to help amid the current humanitarian crisis at the end of this post.
The day before Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast had scheduled a Skype interview for this article, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Kabul. The first attack took place near a police station in the southwest part of Afghanistan’s capital, while the second blast shook the eastern side of the city, near the National Directorate of Security. Afghan officials told The New York Times that 23 people were killed and 106 were wounded.
Sarmast, the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) is, unfortunately, all too familiar with such attacks. He survived a suicide-bombing attempt during a performance at the Centre d’Enseignement Français en Afghanistan, a Franco-Afghan school in Kabul, back in 2014. The pianist, trumpeter, teacher, and music administrator nearly lost his hearing in the blast, undergoing emergency surgery in his adopted home of Australia to correct much of the damage.
The bombings didn’t really affect daily routines within ANIM. We had to find another time for our interview, but that was mainly because Sarmast had a busy day, and the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference between Kabul and New York City didn’t help.
When we managed to connect via a WhatsApp-powered audio call a few days later, Sarmast stated, rather objectively: “Well, we’re working in a war zone, and it happens from time to time. We are continuing to work.
“Day to day, we’re not even thinking about what’s going on around us. There’s not a suicide bomber every day. It happens from time to time, but generally the situation is not bad.”
Still, this is the reality that ANIM faces as it tries to teach music to Afghan youth and provide them with safe spaces to learn and perform. Since April 2008, the institute has been functioning as an organization within the Afghanistan Department of Education, with additional support from the Deputy Ministry for Technical Vocation and Educational Training. But providing music education for Afghan youth has been Sarmast’s passion for much longer.
As the son of one of Afghanistan’s most recognized conductors, songwriters, and composers, Ustad Salim Sarmast, the younger Sarmast grew up surrounded by music. He graduated from music school in Afghanistan, earned a master’s degree in musicology from Moscow State Conservatory, and eventually was granted asylum in Australia before earning his doctorate in music from Monash University in Melbourne — according to him, the first Afghan to earn a Ph.D. in music.
With asylum papers, Sarmast could have stayed in Australia. But having fled his home country in the midst of the Afghan Civil War — which ravaged the country between 1996-2001, as the Taliban captured Kabul — Sarmast knew he had to come back if he truly wanted the culture to change.
“When I returned to Afghanistan from Australia back in 2008,” he says, “from the very beginning I was very eager to provide music education to boys and girls of Afghanistan regardless of their gender, social circumstances, or religious sects.”
As it stands now, ANIM is one of the largest, safest, and most important music education facilities in the county. In fact, Sarmast likes to call it “the happiest place in Afghanistan,” even in the same breath as noting he and ANIM are both on the Taliban’s hit list. These days, 250 students — about a third of whom are young women — study at ANIM and perform in eight ensembles. The faculty consists of 40 locals and expats who teach Western music, Afghan music, and general education, as well as 15 other support staff members.
In addition to support from national organizations, ANIM boasts a diverse roster of international backers. The World Bank is the largest funding body, but Germany’s Goethe Institute, the British Consul, the embassies of Finland and Demark, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations have all collaborated with ANIM and/or offered financial assistance. The US Embassy in Kabul is ANIM’s second biggest economic backer, awarding project-based grants to the organization since 2011, including English-language music instruction (seen as beneficial for encouraging young Afghanis to explore and learn in Western musical environments), instrument repair clinics, and more.
“One element in our public diplomacy programming in Afghanistan is to help preserve the country’s incredibly rich and historically important cultural heritage . ..both the tangible — such as monuments and archeological sites — and the intangible, such as music,” says Terry Davidson, a spokesman for the US Embassy Kabul, via email.
Historical, musical, and cultural preservation is at the heart of ANIM’s multi-purpose mission. Although the country enjoyed a rich musical for centuries, culminating in the golden ages of the 1970s-1980s, the Taliban outright banned music between 1996-2001. This included each of the three main types of music in Afghanistan: popular music that Sarmast compares to Bollywood pop, classical music that shares Hindustani theoretical and philosophical principles, and music of the people or regions of Afghanistan.
Although that dialectical music is most comparable to what Americans would describes as folk music, the traditions within Afghan classical music are important markers of “roots,” as well. Sarmast explains that much Afghan music, both classical and regional, is passed orally from generation to generation. When the Taliban banned all music, the regime not only silenced Afghans at that time, but also stunted the passage of information and musical traditions.
The Taliban “deprived the people of Afghanistan of their very basic human rights — to listen to music, to practice music, and to learn music,” explains Sarmast. “In other words, they silenced the people of Afghanistan and they prevented the people of Afghanistan from singing.”
As a result of this political oppression (as well as technological advances and shifting cultural preferences), the future of Afghanistan’s most authentic musical traditions remains threatened.
“The classical tradition is in danger of becoming obsolete in Afghanistan,” says Sarmast. “That’s why one of the objects of the Afghanistan Institute of Music is to impart the classical tradition of Afghanistan…and make sure it is transmitted from the aging master musicians to the younger generation through a formal music education program.”
The Afghan Youth Orchestra is the largest ensemble that ANIM supports. The first of its kind in more than 30 years, the group consists of both boys and girls playing a combination of Afghan traditional and Western classical instruments. The traditional instruments include stringed instruments like the robab, oud, and sitar, the harmonium-like dutat, and percussion such as zerbaghali and tabla. Using Western and traditional Afghan instruments, they’ve performed works by Ravel, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and even Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on their most recent European tour to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and then on to Zurich, Geneva, Berlin, and Weimar.
But, it’s the Ensemble Zohra, the all-girl youth orchestra named after the goddess of music in parts of Afghan and Persian culture, that stands in greatest defiance of musical suppression and gender inequality in Afghanistan. As the country’s first all-female group, the Zohra Ensemble is comprised of about 30 girls between 13 and 20 years old and performs Western and traditional Afghan music.
In a region where early marriages, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other manifestations of gender bias proliferate, education is one of the most effective ways to combat such issues. Still, educational opportunities — and especially in music — are still extremely unequal.
“In many parts of Afghanistan, girls are not allowed to have access to general education,” Sarmast says. “We are living and working in a country where, in most of the provinces, girls are not allowed to continue their education after grade six. We are working in a country where music was banned and women were deprived from every human right. We are working in a country which is strongly segregated based on gender.” His voice rises passionately, as he continues. “But the Afghanistan Institute of Music is one, if I’m not over stating, or among a few organizations that are supporting co-ed education and is strongly committed to empowering boys and girls through music.”
Although boys can find private music education in Afghanistan, girls are still not allowed any educational resources. “For girls, there’s not a safe environment within the community to study music, to be part of a musical ensemble, and to make a contribution to the musical environment of Afghanistan,” explains Sarmast. “That’s why we are very much committed to contribute to gender equality in Afghanistan and to the empowerment of girls to music and education.”
Peace Through Music
Just as Sarmast seemed unafraid of the most recent suicide bombings, Zohra conductor and violist Zarifa Adiba pronounces her fearlessness in performing in a place with such regular violence. The 18-year-old speaks in quick English with an audible confidence, even when she laments that her language skills need to improve before she applies to universities in the United States.
“I’ve given interviews to maybe hundreds of media and all of them have asked me this question!” she chides when I probe about the lingering influence of the Taliban’s extremism. “At first I was really shocked about this because music is something in Afghanistan right now that is the only key that can bring peace inside you. You are hearing blasts, firings, news from the media. … In these situations, the only thing that can give you peace is music.
“When I take my viola, when I am sitting with the girls in Zohra ensemble and we practice, that’s the only time that we are feeling relaxed, without worrying about anything, and we just enjoy our lives,” she adds. “But when you get out of ANIM, you can see street harassment. You can see everything completely differently than sitting in orchestra with Zohra. That’s why I think that music is the only key that can bring peace inside me and everybody in ANIM and also for the country.”
Adiba grew up in Pakistan, but came to Ghazni, a city a few hours outside of Kabul, in 2012, before moving to the capital in 2014. A multi-instrumentalist, she first began playing the flute, but switched to viola about two and a half years ago. She began conducting less than a year ago.
Even as a child, Adiba loved music. “When I was in Pakistan,” she says, “I used to sing in a chorus and I was very interested in arts. But I didn’t know that that’s what music is! I was living in Quetta, which is a city of Pakistan where a lot of Afghan people are living. … In high school I was singing songs during the assembly and stuff like that, but usually I was singing songs at home — while cooking or cleaning the house.
“When I moved to Afghanistan,” she continues, “I took the decision that I wanted to be a top singer. I was trying to find a vocal teacher in Kabul, but then I found out about ANIM and I was so excited that I was going to join a music school here! I never imagined that in Afghanistan they were going to have this school this soon.”
For Adiba and the other members of the Ensemble Zohra, just seeing other young women in music is vital to female empowerment and long-standing change in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many regions throughout Central Asia. But that notion isn’t geographically limited. Courtney Hartman — singer-songwriter and former member of the bluegrass/folk group Della Mae — recalls that even growing up in Colorado, seeing a female presence in music helped her forge her own career.
Calling from Brooklyn before a brief run of solo shows opening for banjoist Noam Pikelny, Hartman says, “When I was 10 or 11, I saw a girl playing guitar, a woman playing guitar. And it’s not that that’s what made me play guitar necessarily. But in my mind, I looked at her and I said, ‘Oh! I can do that! I’ll do that!’ I don’t understand how that works, but I think there’s power in just seeing someone that you can relate to.”
When Della Mae participated in a US State Department-run American Music Abroad (AMA) tour to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in 2012, Hartman remembered her initial reaction to seeing someone like herself playing music. Then, through the band’s subsequent AMA tours to Saudi Arabia in 2014 and Brazil in 2016, and now, she uses those memories as motivation to share that inspiration.
“If I can do that personally, or if Della Mae can do that to young girls here in the States or [for] women in Saudi Arabia — whether that be musical or just them saying, ‘Oh! I have a voice and I can use it!’ in whatever way that is — that’s why I think [women perform] is important.”
It’s working, too. By seeing, learning with, and performing alongside other young women in ANIM and Ensemble Zohra in particular, Adiba’s dedication to gender equality have intensified. Now, she hopes to study psychology and music business in order to help change the culture in Afghanistan.
“When I started playing with Zohra orchestra, I just realized that there is no difference between boys and girls,” Adiba says. “We all are human and we are born as a human. We all have human rights. And this is the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from Zohra, is to know yourself as a human, rather than being a girl or a daughter or sister or anything. So it’s the most important thing that I’ll never forget and forever I’ll work for it in Afghanistan.”
Still, it’s the music itself that seems to speak loudest among the students at ANIM, its administrators and teachers, and those who discover the sounds of Afghanistan; theirs is the music of the people, after all.
“People ask us all the time, ‘How could you communicate musically with people from such different cultures or with such different languages?’” says Hartman. “And when you break down what folk music means, it’s music and stories about folk, which is why the songs written a hundred years ago still translate to today. They’re about struggle and triumph and love and sorrow. It’s why our folk songs can feel very similar to the folk songs in Afghanistan or Kazakhstan or Vietnam.”
The music wafting through the halls at ANIM represents the intersection of progressive education and historical and cultural preservation in Afghanistan. And as long as the music is not silenced there, it will continue to be transcribed, recorded, played, taught, and learned. It will help convey life skills of cross-cultural communication and collaboration. It will continue to help performers and listeners heal and find hope in unstable times.
“What brought me to Afghanistan is my strong believe in the ‘soft power’ of music,” says Sarmast. “Almost every member of this nation, in one way or another, has been impacted by the war. [It’s] a country that still lives under enormous stress that at any moment anything might happen to our citizens. Therefore, I strongly believe in the healing power of music. I strongly believe that music and music education can help Afghans recover from the miseries of war and to forget about that they’re experiencing every day … and enormously contribute to their healing process.
“Music can teach out youths, our children, to respect each other and have respect for each other’s differences,” he adds. “[and] live in peace and harmony the same way they are playing in an orchestra.”
You can read the whole story — and much more — in No Depression’s Summer 2017 journal, available in print or digitally here. Learn more about the Afghanistan National Institute of Music here. CNN has also compiled a list of how to help Afghanistan refugees during this current humanitarian crisis and NPR has more information on ways to help Afghan women in particular.