Recently the US State Department sponsored a tour for young musicians from Afghanistan with much fanfare from the national media here in the United States. I learned about the tour from the Al Jazeera English Twitter stream and soon saw it on seemingly every other news outlet. Even the national news featured the story of the Afghan musicians’ journey to the United States. This musical diplomacy tour was a pronouncement of some of the small victories that are being won in Afghanistan, partially due to the involvement of the United States. Since the Taliban placed heavy restrictions on music in 1996, it may seem a victory for many musicians in Afghanistan to be invited to participate in music again.
The musicians on this tour were ensemble members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, playing a mixture of traditional Afghan and Western instruments. Under the direction of American conductor William Harvey, the orchestra played a mix of traditional Afghan music and hybrid arrangements of Western classical repertoire like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (with tabla and sitar!). The members of the ensemble range in age from 10 to 21 and consist of some of the country’s most disadvantaged youth.
The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was founded by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, who returned to Afghanistan in 2009 after exile in Australia with the express goal of using music education as a transformative tool. Sarmast is quoted as saying “Music breeds hope,” and he aims to give these underprivileged youth a chance to lead a different life.
With high profile stops at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, the Afghan youth orchestra garnered much attention. The Afghan ensembles collaborated with local youth orchestras on their tour and got to spend free time with their American counterparts. With trips to the local skating rink and lots of pizza, cultural barriers crumbled, or were at least softened. Both the American and Afghan groups got a brief look into what each other’s home lives look like and hopefully learned something about the other’s culture.
Video of the concert at the Kennedy Center can be found in their archives. It is really great to see is how much progress these young musicians have made in such a short amount of time. The institute opened in 2009 and these kids have quickly reached proficiency on their instruments and repertoire.
Why so much media attention?
Musicians from other countries come to the United States all the time with very little media coverage outside the standard concert publicity. The aim of this tour was clearly to show that things have progressed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. After over 11 years of war Afghanistan is slowly bringing its head above water and trying to have a semblance of normalcy. Police forces are being trained, women have more freedoms and children are back in school with Afghan officials stating that there has been a 1000% increase in school enrollment (from 800,000 to 8,000,000 kids) and girls now make up 40% of school population.
The media jumped at this story because these children made it easy to convey how far Afghanistan has come since the US-led invasion in 2001. Clearly the United States would like to take some credit for this progress, or at the very least feel like the last 11 years at war weren’t wasted. Bringing music back to the Afghan culture has been a priority for many people in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban because it was so prominent before the occupation. A small ensemble performed at WGBH in Boston, and some of the musicians talked with The World’s Marco Werman about the return of music to Afghanistan.
Diplomacy tours like this are typically aimed at strengthening the relations between the two cultures involved. This tour has been particularly focused on rebuilding the exhausted domestic political capital for the long American involvement overseas. The United States has spent over $600 billion and lost thousands of American lives and if a music school is a major victory, things must have been really bad. As Dr. Sarmast has said, “Music breeds hope,” and America has tried to restore hope in Afghanistan. If we can have Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, the Afghans can at least have an ensemble to play their own national anthem, right?
What comes next?
The picture of music in Afghanistan is not exactly rainbows and unicorns quite yet. The plan for this tour to the United States had begun in 2011 and as recently as September 2012 the Afghan Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs attempted to replace all music classes with religious classes. Many music programs have been temporarily closed or forced underground. Political uncertainty has made way for the return of some of the conservative Taliban tactics and this is unsettling for musicians throughout the country. It seemed that this story was not entirely the feel-good story that the media wanted to project. Margherita Scancati, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was one of the few journalists to call attention to this part of the story. Scancati points out, “As the U.S.-led coalition withdraws in coming years, the move against young musicians is one sign Afghanistan is backsliding on basic rights acquired following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime, which considered music un-Islamic and banned it.” Luckily, the music school chosen for this tour falls under the supervision of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, and the tour was able to proceed.
What is more interesting is how the Afghan news outlet Tolonews reported the return of the youth ensembles from America. Tolonews quoted the director Ahmad Sarmast as saying “All 62 students returned to Kabul, a feat in itself.” Even the director of the school thought some of the ensemble members might try to stay in America and seek refugee status. This is another reminder of how bleak the recent past has been and how much Afghans fear a reversal in policies.
For now the very visible tour by the Afghan musicians serves as a benchmark for progress and keeps the fight for cultural freedoms at the forefront of people’s minds both at home and abroad. With any hope, Afghanistan will continue to climb out of oppression and once again be a rich cultural center in Central Asia.