Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Winter Academy Gala Concert of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Students ranging in age from 10 to 20 played Chopin and Ravel, as well as Afghan traditional songs and collaborative fusion pieces.
In a historic tour that began February 3, 2013, ANIM students are traveling in the United States to perform at venues ranging from the world-famous Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center to the headquarters of the World Bank and Fordham High School for the Arts. Even more impressive than where they are headed, though, is where they have come from.
To understand the history of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music is to understand the story of its founder, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast. While living as a refugee in Australia, he studied music at Monash University and became the first Afghan to hold a doctorate in music. In 2008, he returned to Afghanistan and began the hard work of building a music school in a country where the Taliban had repressed cultural expression.
"Historically, music has been a vibrant and important part of Afghan culture," he said at the opening of ANIM in 2010, "but war and neglect has left students without teachers, teachers without resources, and professional musicians without a context for their art." ANIM is Dr. Sarmast's way of bringing teachers, resources, and context to the youth of Afghanistan.
Driving through the streets of Kabul, one is surrounded by the cacophony of honking car horns, shouting street vendors, and the whistles of traffic police. The sounds on ANIM's tree-lined campus, however, are of a different sort: a bow being drawn across the strings of a violin, the soft plucking of a rubab, the first blast of a trumpet as a student warms up for his lesson.
The school highlights the strength in Afghanistan's diversity, admitting boys and girls regardless of their social circumstances or ethnic background. Many of the students are orphans or street children, whose families receive a small stipend from the school so that the children can attend classes instead of working as street vendors. 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 students 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 in Kabul funds English instruction for 140 students through the English Access Micro-scholarship Program, and also supports ANIM's Winter Academy, which unites guest artists from all over the world.
ANIM is both a source and a symbol of Afghanistan's progress, and is representative of Afghanistan's broader burgeoning music scene. Not all ANIM students limit their interests to the classical traditions of east and west, of course. Afghan rock band White Page is composed of ANIM students and recent graduates who sometimes switch their violins for electric guitars, and play their own music in addition to songs popular around the world.
The ANIM students traveling to the U.S. represent Afghanistan's potential. They work incredibly hard. They pay close attention to detail. They're very interested in learning about their own culture but also about other cultures, and I'm delighted they will be able to practice their English in the United States. It's often said that music is the universal language, and it's true that music speaks across cultures, distance, and time.
Related Content: Secretary of State John Kerry welcomes the Afghan National Institute of Music students to the U.S. Department of State on February 4, 2013.