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Music School Looks To 'Heal' War-Weary Afghans

Disadvantaged Afghan Kids Find Home At Music Institute
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WATCH: At least half the Afghan National Institute of Music's students come from underprivileged backgrounds, including orphanages or the streets of Kabul. Hamid Rakin of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan recorded some of these promising performers.

Music in Afghanistan is perhaps best known, particularly in the West, for falling silent.

The Taliban infamously beat musicians, destroyed instruments, and publicly burned recordings in the name of that regime's extreme version of Islam.

Nearly as soon as the Taliban fell, in late 2001, disquieted musicians within and outside the country took steps to revive Afghanistan's unique musical tradition.

One was Ahmad Sarmast, a musicologist who returned to his native Afghanistan to open an academy at the very site where his own musical education began as a boy.

"Establishing and promoting music education is part of returning the musical right of Afghans back to them," Sarmast says. "Every Afghan should have the ability to listen to music, practice and learn music, and to express themselves through music."


Two years after opening its doors, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul instructs some 150 students from their first note through their graduation as seasoned musicians.

Students get a well-rounded education: Half the day is spent on math, science, literature, and other subjects, while the other half is dedicated to music.

The students choose their own path -- either Western classical or Afghan traditional. And there is a decided effort to develop pupils from all walks of life. Former street children, orphans, and girls -- who face particular obstacles in Afghanistan's patriarchal and culturally conservative society -- make up half of the student body.

All receive full scholarships to attend the institute, which functions under the Afghan Education Ministry and receives international funding, particularly from Australia, Germany, and Denmark. After completing their studies, graduates are awarded internationally recognized music diplomas.
A teacher adjusts a student's violin work at the Kabul Music Academy.
A teacher adjusts a student's violin work at the Kabul Music Academy.

With widespread backing, the institute has been able to hire Western music teachers and provide state-of-the-art facilities, including soundproof classrooms and a modern library. There is also a 300-seat auditorium being planned.

Sarmast, 49, says the institute's orchestra plans to visit the United States in February, where they will perform a series of concerts, including at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and Carnegie Hall in New York.

Dark Days

That is a far cry from the state the institute was in when Sarmast, who has studied in Russia and Australia, returned to Afghanistan in 2008. Sarmast studied at the site when it was known as the School of Fine Arts in the 1970s.

Students at the Kabul Music Academy play sitars.
Students at the Kabul Music Academy play sitars.

Before the school's revival, its caretakers say, it did not have any windows, its hallways were littered with rubble, and its classrooms walls pocked with bullet holes.

During the civil war in the 1990s, the campus was repeatedly shelled and looted by warring groups who -- according to its caretakers -- stripped the building of its electrical wiring and plumbing. Instruments, they say, were used for kindling and even to store and carry ammunition.

Sarmast says the civil war and the repressive policies against music during the Taliban period had a lasting effect on people's attitudes toward music and musicians -- some Afghan musicians, even today, complain they are looked down upon and even harassed.

Sarmast says that many things that Western musicians take for granted, such as copyright protection and payment for original material, do not exist.

"Right now, Afghanistan is lacking laws and regulations which can protect musicians' rights," Sarmast says. "I hope that very soon the Afghan government and the appropriate authorities will take necessary steps to ensure the musical rights of Afghan people and also to protect the musicians and their rights legally."

Despite the challenges, Sarmast says Afghan musicians are full of optimism and awareness of the important role they can play.

"Music can greatly contribute to the rehabilitation or healing process of the nation, which is badly traumatized because of 30 years of war," he says. "Music has a very strong power for social change. Music has the ability and the force to overcome social, economic, ethnic, and religious barriers and to unite the Afghan people."

Sarmast is now looking to export the positive vibes of music to other Afghan cities and planning to build music institutes in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Jalalabad within the next decade.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.