Razor wire pierces the orange sky as we drive through Kabul's haze and rush hour traffic to the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM). For the second year in a row, ANIM is hosting famed Afghan and international musicians for its "Winter Music Academy," an opportunity for the students to work with master teachers. Tonight, the wide community of ANIM's supporters -- including representatives from the U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs Section, which funds both the winter academy and ongoing Access English micro-scholarships -- has the delight of hearing these masters in concert. In the front row are representatives from the World Bank, and after the first song -- Henri Duparc's "L'invitation au voyage," sung by Kabul-born artist Mashal Arman -- one whispers to another, "You are in Kabul, not Paris. Kabul! Can you believe it?"
I can believe it, and not only because in Paris, such a talented crowd of musicians would not likely perform in this cramped room before tightly packed rows of folding chairs. Although decades of war and resurgent conservatism have left their mark on the cityscape (the Kabul River, which in old news reels flows magnificently between tree-lined banks, is now dry; the city is a maze of high blast walls and barriers; and women are still rarely visible in public life), there are signs of new life on the other side of these heavily guarded gates.
The existence of the Afghan National Institute of Music is both a symbolic and a real victory for the movement to revive Afghanistan's cultural heritage. The international donor community has supported restoration of historic monuments, such as the 15th-century citadel in Herat, and preservation of the significant Buddhist artifacts unearthed by archaeologists at Mes Aynak. Partners, such as the U.S. Embassy, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Goethe Institute, and the cultural missions of several NATO countries, are also working to preserve and revive living arts: traditional music, dance, and craftsmanship. ANIM, which provides internationally accredited music education to its students, trains them in both western and Afghan traditions. Afghan master musicians of such complex instruments as the sitar, ghichak, and dhol teach alongside expats, who introduce students to the full range of piano, string, wind, and percussion instruments taught in the West.
The school provides these opportunities to Afghanistan's most disadvantaged students: orphans and street children who might otherwise have few vocational opportunities. They also learn the standard Afghan secondary curriculum, graduating with a high school certificate or, after two additional years of study, a diploma in music. Helping these promising students make connections with the global community of musicians, the U.S. Embassy funds English instruction for 143 students through the English Access Microscholarship Program.
Of course, not all the students limit their interest to the classical traditions of east and west. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has twice hosted White Page, a rock band formed of ANIM students and recent graduates who play their own music alongside the covers of bands popular around the world. Their lead guitarist recently returned from a trip to New York City, funded by donors and sponsors who were impressed with his drive to take full advantage of the music and English education he received at ANIM.
Tonight, at the "Winter Music Academy," there will be no rock and roll, but there is innovation of a different kind. Master rubab player Homayoun Sakhi has composed an original piece for rubab, flute, viola, cello, and tabla called "Madawanti 2" that showcases the best of both traditions and infuses the room with energy. When Ms. Arman sings out in Persian to Afghan traditional tune "Dishab ke chunay," she is backed by a full orchestra of rubab, trumpet, viola, piano, cello, and tabla. It is the harmony of Western instruments backing up the joyful sound of Afghan culture renewed -- a metaphor for our overall mission in Afghanistan.
As we leave, the classroom-cum-concert hall's windows are opaque with condensation from the heavy breathing of the musicians and the heat of the crowded room. Music stubbornly flows through the glass and into the still night air. This is not Paris. In fact, this can only be Kabul.
For more information on the Afghan National Institute of Music, please visit www.afghanistannationalinstituteofmusic.org.