Afghan orchestra set to hit the right notes

Country’s first post-Taliban orchestra set to travel to the US to disprove stereotypes associated with Afghanistan.

In a crowded rehearsal room at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, the country’s first post-Taliban orchestra is preparing for its international debut. Conductor William Harvey takes the musicians through their paces, practicing a new arrangement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Harvey has adapted it to be the Four Seasons of Afghanistan.

“It’s based on the original Four Seasons,” he explains. “It also includes Afghan rhythms, improvisations and instruments.”

And so surrounding him on the floor, beneath the violins, flutes, trumpets and cellos sits a clutch of musicians with Afghan instruments, the rubab, sitar, tanbur, dilruba, gilchak and tabla.

The Taliban did its best to silence these instruments – some of them rooted in centuries-old tradition. It banned music when it took control in 1996 and during its five-year rule, burned instruments in public along with anything else that could produce music.

Dr Ahmad Sarmast says those days will never come back. He returned to Afghanistan in 2006 from Australia, after becoming the first Afghan to earn a PhD in music. In 2009, he founded Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music. Forming the Afghan orchestra and taking it on tour is a longstanding goal.

 Witness – Dr Sarmast’s Music School


“We want to use music as a source for social changes and a source for building bridges between Afghanistan and our friends outside of Afghanistan,” he says.

In the rehearsal room, the musicians work their way though the seasons.

“Your bird sounds tired,” Harvey tells the pianist. “He needs coffee to wake him up.” The other musicians giggle. Harvey leads, pleads and cajoles them in a mixture of English and Dari. He waves his arms and brandishes his baton, keeping time to the score. The classical Vivaldi is about to give way to an Afghan passage, but he brings it all to a halt when a musician misses his cue. “Sitar, koja asti?” he asks: “Sitar, where are you?” They start over from the beginning.

The musicians are confident they will be ready for a US concert tour next month that will take them to Washington DC, New York City and Boston in famed concert halls.

‘There’s also peace’

Farhad Safari, 12, is the youngest in the group. He’s playing the Afghan dambura, which looks a little like a banjo, but is played with a bow. Like many of the 52 musicians travelling, it will be Safari’s first trip abroad. He says he wants to make his people proud and represent his country well.

“People in America, they think that Afghanistan is always at war,” he says, sitting cross-legged in a rehearsal room. “We want our concert to tell them that there’s not only war in Afghanistan, there’s also peace.”

Fikria Azizi has been with the school since its inception. She says it saved her from a life on the streets: at the age of 12, she was selling plastic bags on the crowded roadsides of Kabul. Then the institute came to recruit at her school for working children. Azizi was taken with the idea of music and began playing the traditional rubab, the national instrument of Afghanistan. Nearly three years later, she has grown taller, eschews a headscarf while playing and is now a cellist. The message she wants to take to the US is that Afghan girls and women are making progress.

“We have women’s rights, here we have children’s rights. We want to show them in the USA that Afghanistan has achieved something,” she says. “They think that the women are under the burqa and can’t do anything. We want to tell them that we can do something. In reality, Afghanistan is being rebuilt.”

The school, too, is building. A concert hall, classrooms and dormitories for girls are under construction. By 2015, the school hopes to more than double its intake of musicians to 300. Right now there are 141 students. Tuition is free, and half the spots are reserved for orphans or street children, like Azizi. Competition to get in is fierce. This year, 200 children auditioned for 50 places.

The orchestra plans on playing in Kabul in February before its US tour. Its one concert last year in Kabul was vastly oversubscribed. “Last year we had to turn more than 200 people away,” says Sarmast, the school director. “We wanted everyone to have a chance to come this year.”

Music has come back to the only country in living memory where it was banned entirely. And that’s a cause for celebration, especially now that music is again under attack in northern Mali.”

– William Harvey, conductor

Sarmast’s office was a hive of activity the day Al Jazeera visited. His staff was trying to purchase uniforms for the orchestra from local stores in Kabul, and ensure that the last of the US visas were approved. Luggage still had to be bought and plane tickets confirmed. Sarmast says it is all worth it.

“I think their presence in Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center will change the perception about Afghanistan,” he says. “I think it’s important to show that in spite of reports about suicide bombing, killing, destruction, and corruption, there’s been many positive changes in Afghanistan – one of which is the establishment of the National Institute of Music in Afghanistan.”

As the orchestra breaks for lunch, children, teenagers and staff spill into the halls, many with instruments tucked under their arms or slung over their shoulders. They each collect a plastic bag with a Styrofoam container of rice and cooked meat. Everyone eats the same lunch.

In a rare quiet moment, conductor, arranger, and music teacher Harvey reflects on the impending US tour.

‘Music has come back’

“I think this is a real cause for celebration. Music has come back to the only country in living memory where it was banned entirely. And that’s a cause for celebration, especially now that music is again under attack in northern Mali.”

Harvey says words cannot describe how he feels about taking the orchestra to his native United States, how proud he is to showcase what’s been achieved. His parents and friends are coming to the concerts and he is especially looking forward to one moment.

“After the Vivaldi arrangement, I’ll leave the stage, and they will play Shakoko Jan,” he says. Shakoko Jan is a traditional Afghan song written by Salim Sarmast, the school founder’s father. Harvey thinks his departure from the stage will be symbolic.

“To see this American conducting the orchestra and then he walks off, and then the Afghans lead themselves. I think that’s the model for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

Harvey, Sarmast and a number of students say they are not worried about the withdrawal of international forces or the possibility that the Taliban might have a future political role in Afghanistan. They believe now that music has returned, it won’t be banned again.

When they return to Kabul after the tour, there will still be something to look forward to, and prepare for. The school’s new concert hall is scheduled to open in August with an inaugural concert. Sarmast hopes to attract international talent to play with the Afghan musicians, and he’s confident the orchestra’s first international appearance won’t be its last. 

Source: Al Jazeera