And the Music Plays On

Afghanistan, a historical region previously known as Aryana and Greater Khurasan, has one of the most rich and interesting histories of music making in the world, despite the tendency of musicologists to neglect its independence and important contributions to the music of the surrounding area. Since prehistoric (Vedic-Avestan) times, music in Afghanistan clearly indicates that the country due to its central location was an important contributor to the reciprocal development of music with people of Central Asia, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent. The subsequent historical, cultural & religious developments such as Greek, pre-Islamic Buddhist, Islamic, Ghaznavid, Timurid, and Hindustani, further demonstrates the intercultural development of music in the region. This multicultural music thrived for centuries and held an extremely important place in the lives of Afghan people until the late 20th century when the unfortunate discrimination began against music and musicians.

Attempts to introduce music education date back to 1924 when the first music school attached to the military college was founded and an effort was made to include music as a subject in the overall curriculum of the secular schools. In 1934, the music college within the Afghan Army was re-established and taught Western notation and wind instruments by Turkish instructors. Attempts to establish music education outside of the Army goes back to the establishment of music appreciation classes through the Ministry of Education in 1959 by Austrian musicians. After their departure in 1974, the classes were converted into a secondary vocational School of Music run by the Government of Afghanistan. In 1988, this school merged with the School of Fine Arts, and operated until 1992, when civil war consumed Afghanistan. It was during this unfortunate period that the suppression and even banning of music was implemented. The traditions of Afghan music were forced to migrate along with the refugees or go ‘underground’ within the houses and proponents who remained inside the country. After the social-political changes of 2001, the music department within the School of Fine Arts reopened in 2005 with many limitations and existed only by name.

At the end of January I had the honor of attending a performance by Afghanistan’s Youth Orchestra at the French Cultural Center. Dressed in colourful outfits, the 62-member orchestra enthralled its audience with melody of both eastern and western music — using a variety of traditional Afghan and modern western instruments including Ghichak, Dilruba, Rubab, Tabla, Sitar, Sarod, Guitar, Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute, Violin, Viola, Oboe and Trumpet.

Speaking at the opening of the show titled “Improving Lives with Education and Music”, the Deputy Minister for Education, Mohammad Asif Nang said that 200 students from different provinces of the country took part in the eight-week long programme of ANIM’s third Winter Academy under the guidance of expert music teachers from Afghanistan and abroad.

“Our aim is to creating cultural and conceptual dialogue through promotion of music and to portray a golden and colourful page of Afghan culture to the world,” said Mr. Nang.

The show was also a preparatory exercise for the orchestra for its upcoming two-week visit to the United States, where they will perform in the world famous Kennedy Centre and Carnegie Hall alongside other important shows.

The ANIM orchestra also performed at a UNAMA ceremony organized to mark the International Day of Peace, in Kabul, in September 2012.

All arrangements have been finalized for 62 students of ANIM — boys and girls – to travel to the US with the aim to reflect positive changes in Afghanistan during the last ten years.

“A country where music was banned 10 years ago, now has biggest symphonic orchestra, which is going to perform in the prominent halls of the world such as Kennedy Centre and Carnegie Hall,” said Dr. Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the Founder and Director of ANIM.