Afghanistan is not known for its performing art scene — most likely because Taliban banned all music when they took power in 1996. The regime ordered the burning of musical instruments along with cassette players and thousands of tapes, while musicians were faced with 40 days imprisonment if caught making music. As the Guardian commented in 2001, “their impact has been catastrophic across all sections of Afghanistan artistic and cultural life.”
That, at least, has changed in the intervening decade. Ahmad Sarmsat, an Afghan musician who trained in Russia and Australia, was determined to reawaken the musical talents of his people once the Taliban regime fell. In 2009 he opened a school, the National Institute of Music, and now with the help of American director William Harvey, he’s working to send the school’s youth orchestra to the United States.
“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 told Al Jazeera. The two men hope to bring the orchestra, which consists of 52 musicians, to play at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in early February.
The music school educates 150 young musicians, half of whom are orphans and live on the streets, according to the New York Times. Similar to the world-renowned Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, whose musicians come from the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, Sarmsat has created a musical outlet for children and young people whose lives have been plagued by violence and destruction. About 35 of the students are female, an important step in a society where women are frequent victims of abuse and are denied countless fundamental human rights. “We have women’s rights, here we have children’s rights,” Fikria Azizi, a 12-year-old girl in the orchestra told Al Jazeera. “We want to show them in the USA that Afghanistan has achieved something. In reality, Afghanistan is being rebuilt.”
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Although most of the musicians are relatively new to orchestral music, they have created a performance which combines western classical music with Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage. As well as playing string and wind instruments, the concerts will introduce to American audiences some Afghan instruments such as the rubab, sitar, sarod, dilruba and ghichak. The trip is expected to cost around $500,000, but Harvey is optimistic that they’ll find the necessary funding through U.S. support. The children will be accompanied on the visit by about a dozen teachers, half of whom are Westerners, reports the New York Times.