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Recreating Afghanistan's soundtrack, one young musician at a time


By Cheryll Simpson
Kabul, Afghanistan

The yellow rickety bus pulls up at the big iron gates. Enthusiastic students, in the midst of a harsh winter, arrive quickly. Others soon appear by foot or pushbike, and they all line up for their daily security pat-down to enter school. But this isn’t just any school, this is Afghanistan’s revived institution for the education of young Afghan musicians.

Ahmad Sarmast, 49, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, is an Afghan national from Australia who lives in Kabul most of the year.

“I identified the need to establish a dedicated music college, where the most disadvantaged kids of Afghan society can get their general education and specialist training in music that will guarantee them a bright future,”  he said.

The jovial father of two comes from a family with a rich musical pedigree -- his father was the late, well-known Afghan musician Ustad Sarmast. The younger Sarmast wanted to use that reputation and his qualifications to help his native country. His vision for the school took root in 2006 after he earned his Ph.D. in music at Monash University in Melbourne.

Several years later, the school is thriving, and music teachers come from all over the world to instruct the students.  Instrument tuition ranges from drums, piano and violin to traditional string instruments such as the Sarod and Rubab.

One of the students, who goes by the name Sapna, is an orphan from Jalalabad who is believed to be 9 years old. Now, she says, she can envision a future for herself.

 “When they did [the] entrance exam I chose piano -- and I also like violin,” she said.  “I want to be famous all over the world. All kids should learn these things.”

Afghan culture had always provided a rich tapestry of music tradition and history, but when the Taliban captured power in the 1990s, they forcibly banned music in Afghanistan. Musicians suffered discrimination – in many areas only chanting was permitted. Post-Taliban, Sarmast witnessed a bleak and discouraging picture of the music scene.

“When I saw that very grave picture – I decided my country needs me and I have to return back to Afghanistan,” Sarmast said. “That was the major factor for my decision.”

The school now has 140 students with 50 percent of the school enrollment each year reserved for the disadvantaged kids from Afghan society: orphans, street vendors and girls. Sarmast said his school is committed to not only promote music, but to rebuild ruined lives and to empower the women of Afghanistan to practice and listen to music.

“While we are preserving or reserving 50 percent of the places for the most disadvantaged group of Afghan society, the other 50 percent are the most talented kids of Afghanistan,” he said.  "If they’ve got the talents, we do everything to have them here.”

People in the community are very supportive of the promotion of music, and music education, Sarmast said. “ everyone is trying to get their kids here so that says a lot.”

One man who shares the same vision as Sarmast is popular music teacher William Harvey from Indianapolis, Ind. who has been teaching at the school since March 2010.  Harvey said he believes in the power of music to transcend cultural barriers. “It’s a positive experience that transforms the relationship between the countries one person at a time,” he said.

“When I first came here they could only play ‘Love Story’, or ‘Godfather’, now I have two top students learning Bach’s concerto for two violins,” he added.

Harvey said the students are exceptional and unusual. Teaching the Afghans differs from teaching students in the U.S. because the students often come from very difficult backgrounds. 

“It’s also possible in the U.S., but the social mechanism to support them isn’t always there. If a child is being beaten constantly by her father there is no child protective services here," Harvey said. "We do have children that used to be selling chewing gum on the street but thanks to the sponsorship program initiated by Dr. Sarmast, now they are studying violin with me.”

Harvey recalled a student of his, a girl who was forced to work on the streets, begging for small change to support her family. Her father had been paralyzed after being beaten with an electric cable during the Taliban’s reign.

"Instead of working on the streets this girl is now studying violin -- and I believe that she has a good shot at a career, not just in Afghanistan but perhaps internationally given the talent that she has shown.”

Harvey said he believes cultural diplomacy is essential for the United States' relationship with Afghanistan. "I remember conducting the orchestra for President Karzai, four times now, and one of those times someone who was a member of the previous government came up to me and shook my hand and I thought, ‘Wow – this is amazing,'” he said. "Because you know under the government that he served music was banned. And here he is shaking hands with an American who just conducted Afghan children – boys and girls playing Afghan music.”

Sarmast is confident that in 10 years there will be at least three other music schools in Afghanistan.  “That’s my vision and I’m dedicated to establishing three more. But on the other end I see, and it’s clearly in front of my eyes, the first symphony orchestra of Afghanistan completed by the graduates of ANIM!” he said excitedly. 

"When they play I can see the happiness in their faces – and how much they are enjoying it,” he said. “On Sunday I was in the orchestra room and they were rehearsing I couldn’t control my tears when I came out of the studio.”