The Future of Afghanistan: A Music School at the Forefront of Reconstruction

By William Harvey. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 4 (August 2012)

The red-hued music school sits at the intersection of a busy street and a small lane that has gotten less quiet as construction workers complete a drain project. Inside the campus, some students meet after school to play soccer on a broad dusty field as the trees rustle in the breeze and a few birds chirp. Other students hole up in a practice room to improve the fluidity of their Chopin.

This afternoon scene could happen anywhere, but this music school is thriving in Afghanistan, a nation where music was banned just over a decade ago and where society is still emerging from a period of war and conflict that has lasted almost forty years. Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the first Afghan with a doctorate in music, studied in Russia and then lived in Melbourne, Australia, for 15 years before returning to his native country. Dr. Sarmast was working as a Research Fellow at the Monash Asia Institute at Monash University in Melbourne. Monash supported his desire to return to Afghanistan to determine how he could assist its musical rebirth. After arriving in Afghanistan and surveying the needs of the community, he determined that founding a music school would be the best way to ensure the sustainability of a musical culture. The Ministry of Education was enthusiastic and agreed to include the school within the jurisdiction of the Afghanistan Skills Development Project, itself part of the Deputy Ministry for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (DMTVET) within the Ministry of Education. Including the school within TVET made the strongest possible statement of optimism about the future of Afghan music: since the entity supervising the school is tasked with preparing Afghans for jobs, this structure implied that not only would Afghans once again listen to music, but that it would be possible for talented Afghans to earn a living solely as musicians, a proposition that has become increasingly difficult even in the most developed nations in the world.

Yet Dr. Sarmast was far from alone in his optimism. He chatted with the fellow sitting next to him at the airport in Delhi, India, about the reasons for his willingness to return to Afghanistan. The man asked, ‘Why don’t you send a proposal to us?’ Dr. Sarmast asked: ‘Which organization do you represent?’ ‘The World Bank.’ A proposal was drafted and submitted, and soon, the World Bank became the first major donor.

In March 2010, I became the first of half a dozen expatriate faculty members to arrive in order to train our Afghan colleagues. Just three months later, Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was formally inaugurated.

One of Dr. Sarmast’s key reforms has been the promotion of music education for girls in a country where both music education and sending girls to school remain controversial among some. In addition to enrolling many girls formally, ANIM also allows girls and young women who are not enrolled at ANIM to come for lessons. I asked one of these girls, who studies violin with me, if she faced difficulties as a girl studying music. ‘When I come from home to school, I hear a lot of things from the people: “‘Oh, look at her, she is a not good girl, she is going to play music.” Also, even some members of my family do not agree with me to go learn music. I am not going to think about what they say. I want to fight against the culture that girls should not play music. If we continue like this, Afghanistan can never develop, because in other countries, girls have the same right as boys.’

Other families of ANIM’s female students have been even less accepting. I have lost two of my female violin students because their families pulled them out of school at age 15 in order to become engaged. But for every girl like that, there is another girl like the little piano student whose family originally would not let her perform and now allows her to participate in public concerts even late at night.

This commitment to educating girls is accompanied by a strong commitment to providing job opportunities for the underprivileged. The sponsorship program enables individual donors to sponsor one street-working student or orphan for a year. The student receives slightly more money than he or she used to make working on the streets, so that the families or guardians agree to keep the child in school. As an example, one of my violin students is the daughter of a man who was paralyzed when the Taliban beat him with a cable. Her mother does laundry to support the family of six children, and the girl used to sell chewing gum on the street. Now, she can play Bach Minuets on the violin.

ANIM offers Afghan and Western music, underscoring that since Kabul is the bustling capital city of an Asian country, its students should benefit from the same cosmopolitan smorgasbord as students in other Asian capitals. So, while students studying Afghan music on instruments like the rubab and ghichak occupy a critical role in the revival of Afghan culture, ANIM also enables students to learn Mozart piano concertos, Hindustani ragas, African and Latin American percussion, and rock and roll. ANIM students continue to persevere in their quest to ensure that their countrymen accept these new forms of music. A rock band of ANIM students recently performed at a major university here and was discouraged to discover how they were received by the audience: ‘They asked us to just play wedding songs and local songs. Just a few of them like rock. If there are a hundred people in an audience, just five listen to rock.’

Yet slowly but surely, various communities in Kabul have grown to accept the role of musicians. The politicians and diplomats have been particularly encouraging: I have conducted our Afghan Youth Orchestra five times for President Hamid Karzai. During the most recent of these performance, at the gymnasium of a high school near the presidential palace, he encouraged all young Afghan children to learn music, an extraordinary milestone given that the previous regime had outlawed music outright.

Recently, I sat down with a group of ANIM students over a meal of naan-e khoshk (a long and hearty flatbread) and french fries to ask them their views on the future of music in Afghanistan. A 17-year-old percussionist said: ‘Our students and their families are happy with music, but they have concern that, “Well, we like music, and it’s good that you learn, but what will you do with your future? How will you make your future life with music?’” Another student answered his rhetorical question: ‘Only by playing at weddings!’

Dr. Sarmast agrees that much work remains for musicians to be able to make a good living in Afghanistan: ‘Afghanistan needs a strong advocacy group to ensure that the rights of musicians are protected. This is the only place where musicians must pay for their music to be broadcasted. Piracy deprives them from their very basic rights and puts many inspiring musicians out of work. Lack of copyright and royalties laws, a clear stand by the government on whether music is permitted and protected: all this puts Afghan musicians in a disadvantageous position. From time to time, individuals with a narrow interpretation of the religion, affected by the policies of the late 1990s, might interfere in a musical performance.’

In spite of these situations, optimism abounds. Dr. Sarmast said: ‘No way will the youth of Afghanistan allow anyone to turn back the wheel of history.’ A student concurred: ‘There is a good future because there is a lot of media to show music.’ Recently, I had the privilege of conducting the Afghan Youth Orchestra on the season finale of Afghan Star, the televised singing contest that has become the most popular TV show in Afghanistan. This is just one of many recent examples of Afghans according music an increasingly central role in their society.

As Dr. Sarmast puts it: ‘Our students will be a leading force in changing the current situation. They need the support of their civil society groups, international music organizations.’ Students agree: ‘If music projects get big support and good promises from other places, in that case, I think more and more that musicians will like to continue.’ Additionally, they are excited about upcoming chances to encourage the outside world to associate Afghanistan with beautiful music, rather than protracted conflict. In February 2013, the Afghan Youth Orchestra will perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and Carnegie Hall in New York City, hopefully inspiring the American people to renew their commitment to the positive civilian reconstruction of Afghanistan.

This reconstruction continues in projects large and small, heralded and unheralded. A Friday morning walk in the neighborhood surrounding ANIM reveals workers busy cleaning up construction debris, children happily kicking a football around, and a brand new cafe serving pizzas, fruit shakes, and sugary cappuccinos.

In just under two years since its inauguration, ANIM has come to be regarded as one of the great successes of the reconstruction. When former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry visited ANIM in November 2010, he addressed the scrum of reporters who had gathered with bated breath to hear his impressions. ‘A number of people asked me what I saw here today,’ he said, as pencils poised over notebooks. ‘This is the future of Afghanistan.’

ANIM students seem to agree. ‘Without this school, for a guy who loves music, there will not be any possibilities to make a life in music. Without this school, what should I do?’

William Harvey teaches violin and viola at Afghanistan National Institute of Music.