Thursday, 30 August 2012

Afghanistan: Alive again to the sound of music

By Zia Ur Rehman

Like many thousands of Afghan children, Wahidullah, 13, spent much of his childhood running around on the streets of Kabul in all weathers, selling plastic bags to earn livelihood for his family.
But his life was quite changed when he was accepted as a student at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), a government-private partnership initiative that gives orphans, street vendors and other disadvantaged children a chance to express and develop themselves through music and help them recover from the war.

 After decades of civil war and the Taliban’s five year ban on music, the government, musicians and cultural organizations are trying to resuscitate the musical life in Afghanistan. Music teaching has been returned in the country with founding of the ANIM.

Taliban’s ban on Music:
When Taliban took over the control of Afghanistan, they announced a complete ban of music. “Taliban infamously beat musicians, destroyed instruments, and publicly burned recordings in the name of that regime's extreme version of Islam”, said Waheed Gul Wafa, a Kabul-based local singer.
“Women and music were two key targets of Taliban”, Wafa said. “Adopting an extreme interpretation of Islam, the Taliban decreed that women could not work or study while also prohibited music, calling it "un-Islamic," and burned instruments, cassette tapes and other musical recordings, Wafa told the scribe  Even today, Taliban attacks shops selling music cassettes and instruments and harass the musicians in some parts of the country, he said.
Many musicians fled the country especially to neighboring Pakistan where some of them started working in Peshawar. “After the fall of Taliban regime, many Afghan musicians returned from lives as refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran and started working again without any fear”, Wafa said.

ANIM launched to rebuild musical life in Afghanistan
One was Dr.Ahmad Sarmast, a musicologist who returned from Australia to his native Afghanistan to open an academy at the very site where his own musical education began as a boy.
For over 20 years, children couldn't learn music in Afghanistan. I wanted to create a proper school," Sarmast said, explaining why he returned.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Education established its first music school known as it was known as the School of Fine Arts in 1973 in Kabul but school has had a chaotic history especially during civil war among Mujahedeen groups and Taliban’s five years rule.
Since 2008, Sarmast have headed a new project at the ANIM at the same site that aims to help rebuild musical life in the country.

The Institute is functioning under ministry of education with the financial support of some countries and international musicians. Last year the institute was renovated with the funding provided by several western countries, said James Herzog, a music instructor at ANIM.
“The music school at same site was repeatedly shelled and looted by warring Mujahideen groups who used traditional and expensive musical instruments for kindling and to carry ammunition, according to caretakers.

 “Starting at age 10, boys and girls will learn Afghan and Western classical traditions alongside a regular curriculum that includes English, Mathematics and learning the holy Qur’an”, James added. Considering that Afghanistan has never included the arts within its general education curriculum, James termed it an impressive step.
“Historically, music has been a vibrant and important part of Afghan culture, but war and neglect has left students without teachers, teachers without resources, and professional musicians without a context for their art”, said Sarmast in an interview.

Prominent Afghan musicians, such as Gholam Hossein ,Ustad Amruddin, Abdul Latif, and Mohammed Jawid Mahmood, teach students at ANIM to play traditional Afghan instruments.
“The ANIM is prepared to offer music classes to our young generation”, Farooq Wardak, Education Minister, told media March 24. “We are making efforts to revive cultural and art activities across the country and the ANIM is an example of our ongoing efforts”, he said.  
Driven by the success of the ANIM in Kabul, Sarmast plans to open three more schools in Jalalabad, Heart and Mazar Sharif.
“The schools will be opened with the full support of the Ministry of Education and with financial, material and professional support from the international community and international music organisations, manufacturers and dealers of musical instruments,” Sarmast said.

Opportunities for orphan and street children:
The ANIM is committed to providing a dynamic, challenging and safe learning environment for all students regardless of gender, ethnicity or social circumstances.
“We also have a special focus on supporting the most disadvantaged group in Afghan society – the orphans and street children – to help them attain a vocation that will allow them to reach their full potential”, said James, adding that fifty per cent of the school enrollment each year is reserved for underprivileged children –both girl and boys, whose families receive a stipend of around $30 each month so that the children can attend the school instead of working.
 “When I used to sell plastic bags all over the city, I never could have dreamed that such a great change could happen in my life,” said Waheedullah.
‘White page’, a rock band
ANIM students and recent graduates have formed a rock band named ‘White Page’, who their own music alongside the covers of bands popular around the world.
“The ANIM has provided us a great opportunity to teach us traditional and western music”, said Rashed Afzali, a member of the band. “Our country has long legacy of music and poetry and now young generation is trying to revive it again”, he added.

(The writer is a journalist and researcher. His work is archived at This piece was first published at Central Asia Online)
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