Army band builds bridges with Afghan musicians

Mansoora Shirzad, a recent graduate of Kabul University's music program, rehearses for a joint concert with musicians from the U.S. Forces Afghanistan Band at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017.


Musicians from the U.S. Forces Afghanistan Band and students and instructors from Kabul University play “Towards the Wind,” an original composition by university music professor Mohsen Saifi. Mansoora Shirzad, a recent graduate of the music program at Kabul University, conducts "Conquest of Paradise," by Vangelis, during a concert at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on January 26, 2017.
E.B. Boyd

By E.B. BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 26, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan — 1st Lt. Philip Tappan, a composer and conductor with the U.S. Forces Afghanistan Band, sat Wednesday in a large circle in the basement of a U.S. Embassy building, telling a group of students and instructors from Kabul University about ways to make a living as a musician.

It was the second day of a makeshift music conference attended by members of the band and the university’s music program. The band members, all of them highly trained musicians, and the students and instructors traded lectures and discussed everything from arranging and composition to the intersection of New Age and Afghan music.

While the primary mission of the band, which is a detachment from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, is to play at ceremonies and host morale-boosting concerts, the musicians have been hosting a series of events to foster connections with the local Afghan music community.

Last fall, they organized a concert at Bagram Air Field with Afghan-American linguists. In November, they held a conference with high school students from the highly regarded Afghanistan National Institute of Music. In February, they will host a concert featuring musicians from Georgia, one of the NATO coalition partners whose troops are serving in Afghanistan.

“Music is a universal language,” said Sgt. Kendell Rivera, a trumpet player from Sacramento, Calif., who has helped organize the events. She said they give young Afghans a new perspective on U.S. soldiers, whom they usually only see dressed in body armor and wielding weapons.

A joint concert at the embassy at the end of the conference drew a packed house of college students, women from a local cultural center, workers from nongovernmental organization and embassy staff.

Sharing music, Rivera said, is a way “to try to understand each other rather than through this war we’re in.”

Music was banned during the time the Taliban were in control of Kabul. Radio stations were forbidden from playing songs, and a location in Kabul where people would go to hire musicians for weddings was shut down, said Faith Rynders, a U.S. music instructor who works as a consultant at the university.

Music returned after the Taliban were defeated in 2002. Stores now sell CDs, and music blares from car stereos in crowded city streets. Nuptial celebrations at Kabul’s giant wedding halls always feature boisterous bands.

Professional instruction lags, however. Of the 17 universities in the country, only two have a fine arts program, Rynders said.

Kabul University is the only one with a music department. The program has about 200 students, but many arrive never having played an instrument. Of the nine professors, only four have a master’s degree or doctorate.

Meanwhile, some religious leaders continue to teach that music is a vice. Mansoora Shirzad, a recent Kabul University graduate who has started giving private music lessons, said her violin case sometimes draws insults when she walks down the street.

By contrast, members of U.S. military bands are often highly accomplished. Tappan, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has two bachelor’s degrees, one in music composition and the other in education, as well as a master’s degree in conducting. Specialist Peter Bailey, the band’s French Horn player, from Detroit, Mich., has a master’s from Indiana University. Sgt. Wesley Wagner, from Garden City, Kan., has played with Norah Jones.

“The opportunities to study music at that level are very rare (in Afghanistan),” Rynders said. She said she hoped the conference would help the students believe they could have a future in the field.

“They need vision,” she said.

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