Hope after war

Photo Razeshta Sethna

Photo Razeshta Sethna

It’s called the ‘happiest place in Afghanistan’. Teachers at Kabul’s Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), the first academy of its kind in the country, hope that one day their students will form Afghanistan’s first national symphony orchestra.

The road to ANIM is uneven, marked by potholes and crowded by traffic. An unmarked tall red boundary wall welcomes you at the corner of a long road; once inside the large iron gate manned by two old caretakers, your perceptions of Afghanistan – shaped by stories of the brutality of war and lack of education that Afghanistan’s war-weary generation, especially its women banned from public life during the Taliban regime, understands only too well – dissolve into nothingness.

A city that needs to watch its back, Kabul is a maze of tall, blast-resistant walls and multiple security barriers that are often no more than 10 metres apart. It is unimaginable that this city is home to a dangerous new breed of Taliban and 150 students – orphans, girls and street children making up half of them – who are committed to reviving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The sounds of the piano, cello and violin resound in the corridor here. With facilities equal to any world-class music school, including soundproof rehearsing rooms, a collection of instruments and an international faculty, ANIM’s Afghan Youth Orchestra frequently performs for President Hamid Karzai, members of the Afghan cabinet and visiting ambassadors. In May, the orchestra played for the Nato summit in Chicagovia a live broadcast session. In 2013, the Youth Orchestra has a packed calendar: they tour Brussels and France in January and later in the year they will perform at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall in the US.

When Dr Ahmad Sarmast, a 49-year-old trumpet player and musicologist who has studied in Moscow and Australia, decided to return to his home country in 2008, he formed the music academy with the support of the Ministry of Education and the World Bank at the very site where his own musical education began. As Afghans, particularly women and children, began the arduous process of rebuilding their lives in a post-Taliban country, Sarmast felt that music was an essential component in the process. “It’s been a long journey,” he says, but a very rewarding experience. “I see the progress and the impact these students are making on society and it makes me happy. My main goal is to return the musical rights of Afghan children taken away by the wars and discrimination against music,” he adds.

In a culture which is historically known for the legacy of its rich ancient civilisation at the crossroads of various Greek, Indian, Persian, and Central Asian empires, decades of war and repressive regimes have clamped down on Afghanistan’s artistic milieu. For more than a dark decade of Taliban rule, the Afghan people defied the authorities and hired professional musicians for clandestine music recitals. In Afghan culture, music is equated with happiness, pleasure and peace; music was banned not just during the Taliban era but also during the civil war when Afghans were pressured not to play music as a tribute to martyred resistance fighters. In 1992, after the Soviets withdrew from the country, music was not broadcast on radio or television. The already-bombed Kabul Museum was looted and artefacts and paintings from the National Gallery were hidden away in underground vaults in the archives. Today, the museum’s curators express great relief that many valuable paintings dating to the 18th century and artefacts (including Bactrian gold from the TelaTepa burial site, 2nd century AD) have remerged from these crypts. Over the last 10 years, however, the Afghan people’s resilience and desire for reconstruction are perhaps best gauged from the country’s nascent cultural awakening.

At ANIM, Fazeela is the first female rubab player, who will graduate to teach other students at the academy; young Wahid, a street child who sold plastic bags and is now learning to play the piano, “has come a long way,” explains trumpet and flute teacher James Herzog, also a music educator. Listening to Wahid’s magical recital in this austere-looking building where students are taught to play Asian string instruments and given tuition in Western classical music, you can scarcely believe you’re in Afghanistan. The academy runs under the Ministry of Education to provide internationally accredited music education and training in both Western and Afghan traditions. Here, Afghan musicians teach the sitar, sarod, rubab, ghichak, and dhol alongside foreign instructors who introduce students to the drums, piano, violin, string, wind, and percussion instruments. Peek into a classroom and you may see Aziza, an acclaimed poet, her laptop open on a table, teaching a physics lesson, as ANIM’s students are also taught from the standard Afghan secondary school curriculum so they may graduate with a high school certificate: after two additional years of study, the students gain an internally-recognised diploma in music.

ANIM’s 141 students are a diverse group from all provinces; the school maintains that a third of the students must be girls, and accepts children of all ages. “It’s complicated in Afghanistan,” explains one teacher. “You’ll find children of all ages in one classroom because so many of them have lost out on their education and need to catch up.” The students here receive full scholarships, with significant assistance from India, Britain, Germany and Denmark, as well as a 30-dollar monthly stipend “so that they don’t need to work on the streets,” Herzog says.

“The idea is to create economic opportunities for our students so that the older ones can go on to graduate and teach others,” says Herzog, who also teaches a business class at ANIM. Come 2014, he wants his students to be able to apply for donor funding and develop business models that lay out a structure for applying for funding for the school. ANIM’s future plans include a recording studio, a modern library and a 300-seat concert hall for future on-site performances, a girls’ dormitory and a medical centre. With a recording label and evening tuition-paying classes in the works, Sarmast believes that when international donors leave Afghanistan, the academy will be in a position to generate revenue using its existing and developing infrastructure.

In one of the school’s carpeted rooms, you may meet Afghanistan’s first trumpet players — Khalida and Meena, both aged nine. Sarmast explains that he has been liaising closely for the past two years with government-run organisations, like Ashiana (which runs literacy programmes for street-working children), and the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (a non-governmental organisation that operates 11 orphanages providing education and homes) so that deprived children have the opportunity to learn music. “About 50 per cent of the students are from these organisations,” he says.

Another room is packed with students playing various instruments with orchestra director William Harvey at the helm. Also supporting Cultures in Harmony, a not-for-profit organisation working to forge understanding between different cultures through music,Harveyhas been a resident in Kabul since March 2010. In another studio, soundproofed with Afghan timber, students learning to play the tabla showcase a masterly performance with expert movement: many will travel to India on scholarships to further their musical education. One of the 16 foreign instructors, Indian harmonium teacher Ustad Murad is proud of his enthusiastic students but says economic conditions mean students lack opportunities that could help their music careers in the future. Additionally, the unending cycle of war and poverty hinders students from buying and owning instruments to practise on and with the average cost of a saxophone at 600 US dollars – 100 US dollars more than an average salary in major cities – the institute’s sustainability requires long-term international funding.

The Taliban’s censorship of music was one of the worst in the history of repressive regimes. They severely punished musicians, destroyed musical instruments and it is said that they displayed mangled audio cassettes with tape innards strewn to the winds as warnings to those music aficionados who thought to defy them. Professional musicians left Afghanistan during this period, returning after 2001 when Afghan music made a comeback with financial support from donors. The international community, keen to support and fund this cultural legacy and fusion with Western popular music through European teachers, has opened up windows of opportunity – such as ANIM – to a younger generation keen to rebuild its traditions and create economic avenues. Young artists, many having lived in exile in Iran and Pakistan until 2001, have also benefitted from international assistance and expertise provided to the Afghan cultural sector: Kabul University’s faculty of Fine Arts encourages students to experiment with their styles; a not-for-profit organisation, Turquoise Mountain, formed an Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul in 2007 (see Making a difference).

As caretaker of ANIM’s prized musical instruments, Abdul Mohammad has worked at this institute for 32 years, bearing witness to how political upheavals have destroyed the academy, first formed in 1973. He says he worked under the government of Najibullah (who led the last Communist government in Kabul) and then during the civil war in the 1980s, when the mujahideen looted the academy and refused to pay salaries to the staff. Mohammad shows photographs of the School of Fine Arts’ music department, forced to shut down in the 1990s and later turned into a madrasah.

When piano student Wahid rehearses a piece of Afghan music, the happiness on his face and the inherent pride in his performance moves you to tears. This is Afghanistan. And the future is waiting for young men and women like Wahid and Fazeela.