In Afghanistan, teaching music to overcome war's percussion

Students learn drums at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, a school aiming to rebuild Afghanistan's musical heritage through education. Half the school's students are orphans or were working on the street before coming to the school.


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 26, 2013

KABUL — When insurgents launched a brazen attack that turned into a nine-hour siege in the heart of the capital, many government and Western offices shut down for the day. Down the road from the attack, young Afghan students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music were playing Bach and Mozart, punctuated by the occasional thud of an explosion.

“Why we should shut down? Give up to the Taliban?” the institute’s director, Ahmad Sarmast, said incredulously a day after the attack. “When I came yesterday, I was amazed to see 137 students at the school. They came from all over town. It’s a nice way to say ‘no’ to violence.”

Sarmast is the founder and driving force behind the music institute. Six days a week, young Afghans come to learn and play Western and regional music. Next month, more than 50 students from the school will embark on a two-week U.S. tour that includes dates at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

Sarmast, an animated musical crusader who chased his education from the Soviet Union to Australia as Afghanistan crumbled, has made it his quest to rebuild his country’s musical heritage. The institute, which opened in June 2010, grew out of his Revival of Afghan Music project, which he launched in 2006.

Most of the teachers at the school come from abroad, including a large contingent from the U.S.

The school has about 140 students, half of whom are either orphans or who were working on the street selling trinkets and chewing gum. There are plans to greatly expand in the coming years. Tuition is free for all students and the school compensates families of former street kids so they don’t have to work during their studies. While Sarmast set out to re-establish music education, his goals are much broader.

“Music has got a strong healing power,” he said. “In a post-conflict country like Afghanistan, where the majority of people are badly traumatized, definitely they need music for their healing.”

In the bustling hallways of the school, anyone who has spent time in Kabul is struck by one aspect: Girls and boys study together, still a rarity in Afghanistan and something on which Sarmast has been insistent. Students are also carefully picked from across Afghanistan and from the country’s different ethnic groups, which Sarmast says is aimed at building national unity. He hopes his project helps build not only the country’s music scene but the foundation of a democratic future.

“You can’t establish a civil society or democratic society or contribute [to] human rights when you’re ignoring cultural rights,” he said.

Many of the students at the school harbor hopes that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: They aim to become professional musicians. Whether that will be possible in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but there’s no lack of optimism among the students.

Confident, curly haired Sapna, 10, came to the institute from an impoverished family. Her father is dead and her mother struggles to support her five siblings. Sapna said she was immediately drawn to the piano when she came to the institute two years ago.

“It has a very sweet voice,” she said.

Now a top student, Sapna will be representing the school on the U.S. tour, and aims to become a concert pianist.

“I can teach a lot of people about Afghanistan,” she said. “Just yesterday, there was fighting in Afghanistan, and we don’t want this fighting in Afghanistan. We are the future of Afghanistan, and we continue to change the future.”

Faiz Sultani, 18, a violin student, said he looks forward to the cultural exchange between Afghans and Americans on the tour.

“I’m sure American people think just about war and fighting (in Afghanistan), but I think they should know we can do something else,” he said.

The school is supported in part by about $500,000 per year from the U.S. State Department that goes toward both English language programs and a winter music academy. The State Department is also spending about $355,000 on the institute’s U.S. tour.

It’s part of a U.S. Embassy Kabul cultural affairs program that also included funding for the short film “Buzkashi Boys,” which was shot entirely in Kabul using Afghan actors and recently snagged an Oscar nomination.

The tour is not only a good opportunity for the students to experience the U.S. but can provide an opening for Americans to learn more about a country they hear about mostly through the prism of war, said Michelle Jones, a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy Kabul.

“I think it will incite people to want to know more about Afghan music and Afghan culture,” she said.

Sarmast has another goal: to show Americans that their 11-year venture in Afghanistan has meant something.

“One of the major ideas behind the tour of the United States is to show the taxpayers who have been supporting the army in Afghanistan — people who supported the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, people who have been eager to help the Afghan people stand on their own feet — to show the investment … is not gone,” he said. “I believe musicians are the best ambassadors of the nation.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.


Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes