After the Taliban: Afghanistan reclaiming its musical heritage

June 15, 2012

By WATARU NAKANO/ Correspondent

KABUL--The din of warfare has been vanquished in Afghanistan, and the sound of music is warily being heard again in mud-brick villages, bazaars and alleyways of the country's ancient cities.

Afghanistan until 2001, when it was under the grip of the Taliban, was a wasteland in terms of music.

Music, in all its forms, was simply banned. The penalties for transgressors could be harsh.

Now the capital, Kabul, is experiencing relative peace. It even has a music school where children study. But the resurgent Taliban still cast a dark shadow over anything that can be remotely construed as a cultural activity.

The Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996 and within two years had established effective rule over most of the landlocked country.

Adopting an extreme interpretation of Islam, the Taliban decreed that women could not work or study. The Taliban also prohibited music, calling it "un-Islamic," and burned instruments, cassette tapes and other musical recordings. Many musicians fled the country.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is about 5 kilometers southwest of central Kabul. As I approached the brown concrete walls of the two-story building, the sounds of various musical instruments came wafting out. While the city resounds with a cacophony of horns from cars spewing exhaust and kicking up dust, here there was gentle melody.

I went inside and found students practicing diligently on the trumpet, violin and piano, along with traditional stringed instruments from Afghanistan and the Subcontinent.

The school opened in 2010, and now has some 180 students ranging in age from 10 to 21. During the 10-year program, students do courses in classical and folk music performance alongside a regular curriculum that includes English, math and learning the Koran, the holy book of Islam. There are even rock, rap and jazz classes. Graduating students can obtain junior college-level academic credit.

Tuition is free. Aspiring students only have to take an exam to gain admittance. But what makes the school truly special is that roughly half of the spots for incoming students are allotted to orphans and street urchins. The school doubles as a place to learn how to live.

Until he joined the school, one 12-year-old-boy born to a poor family in the eastern province of Parwan had been sheltered by an NGO that helps street children. When I asked whether he had worked on the streets, the boy looked downcast and said, "I don't want to say." He is now learning the "ghaychak," a traditional stringed instrument that is played across Afghanistan.

Sounds on a ghaychak are produced in much the same way as a violin is seduced to giving up its secrets.

"In the future, I wan to perform professionally. I can make money if I'm a pro," the lad said with a smile.

A 12-year-old girl from the central province of Ghor was sent to a facility in Kabul by her relatives after her father, a farmer, was murdered by an unidentified assailant five years ago. Her relatives said they didn't have enough food to keep her.

She entered the school on the recommendation of a facility worker. "In the future I want to be a musician and play in front of my mother," she said.

Speaking with the students, I noticed there weren't any Pashtuns, members of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. I could only see children from the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek tribes.

The Taliban is primarily comprised of Pashtuns.

Far from withering away, the Taliban is now rebuilding its numbers.

The ethnic makeup of the institute's students reflects political realities in Afghanistan.

Principal Ahmad Sarmast, 50, is a trumpet player who fled abroad during Taliban rule.

The education ministry, which is keen to revive the country's musical heritage, invited Sarmast to return.

Sarmast's father was a famed composer in Afghanistan. Wanting to follow in his father's footsteps, Sarmast attended a university in Moscow after graduating from a music school in Afghanistan in 1981. There, he earned a master's degree in music.

Afghanistan later descended into civil war. Unable to return to Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power, Sarmast emigrated to Australia.

"For over 20 years, children couldn't learn music in Afghanistan. I wanted to create a proper school," Sarmast said, explaining why he returned.

More than a decade has passed since the Taliban fell. But in conservative areas, their influence is still strong. Stores selling music CDs risk being attacked.

Sarmast concedes that his school may also be targeted.

Even so, he remains resilient. "There's no going back for me. Afghanistan is not a land of death. We will not be bereft of music again."

Still, he faces numerous problems, among them, insufficient funds and a lack of instruments and teachers.

His main obstacle is reviving the country's love of music and dispelling the "curse of fear" that the Taliban propagated in anything cultural.

The belief that music is "evil" is still rooted in the minds of some Pashtuns and other conservatives.

But Sarmast remains optimistic and refuses to give in to despair.

Afghanistan over millennia has been at the crossroads between East and West, absorbing cultural influences and customs.

As a result, it has diverse musical forms and traditional instruments to match.

It has long been customary at weddings and festivals to summon musicians. Sarmast says this is true of all ethnic groups.

It is Sarmast's hope that the vocational school's graduates will become performers or music teachers in their communities.

The education ministry even has plans to create music schools in three regional cities: Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, Herat in the west and Jalalabad in the east.

Sarmast spoke emphatically when he said: "Music can alleviate the sadness and trauma felt by those who have suffered from civil war and terrorism. I ardently believe that our students will change our society into one that loves music."

By WATARU NAKANO/ Correspondent
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Students perform at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. (Wataru Nakano)

Students perform at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. (Wataru Nakano)

  • Students perform at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. (Wataru Nakano)
  • Ahmad Sarmast, principle of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (Wataru Nakano)

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