Afghan music school is silent, its future is uncertain under the Taliban

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The doors of the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul are closed. The young students, teachers and teachers of the music school stay at home – they have reason to be afraid. According to founder and director Ahmad Sarmast, “armed people have entered school property” recently. He says they tried to steal the cars the school uses for transportation and destroyed musical instruments. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, music was strictly prohibited. Playing, selling, or even listening to music at home could get you in trouble.

Now, the future of ANIM is uncertain. With the disorder caused by the takeover of the city by the Taliban, “the situation is very unpredictable,” said Sarmast. “Things change very quickly in Kabul these days. “

Sarmast, who has spoken to NPR from Australia where he visits his family, is in constant contact with the school’s faculty. He says some students have not brought their instruments home, “for fear that if the Taliban search door to door, if the instruments are found in the house, it could cause them problems.” When he reported on the recent break-in, he said a local police officer “blamed our security guards for failing to open the school doors.”

It is the main music school in Afghanistan

With the help of donors, including the World Bank and the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), ANIM opened in Kabul in 2010. Boys and girls study music and academics at the same. classroom. Students learn to play instruments from classical Afghan and Western traditions.

The school was touted as a great achievement in the effort to renew cultural life and the arts in Afghanistan. Ensembles from the school, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, have performed around the world. From Carnegie Hall in New York to the World Economic Forum in Davos, these young musicians, many from underprivileged communities, showed audiences a side of Afghanistan that often gets lost in the news.

Making music can have deadly consequences

Making music has long been a risky business in Afghanistan. Over the years, musicians have reportedly been threatened, kidnapped or killed. During one of the ANIM concerts in 2014, a suicide bomber sitting behind Sarmast exploded. Two people were killed and several others were injured. Sarmast lost his hearing for a while and had surgery to remove shrapnel from his head and body. “Fortunately, no student was injured or killed,” he said, “But of course the trauma they received from that bombing would probably have stuck with them their entire lives.”

While the Taliban have presented themselves to the media as less violent than they were in the 1990s, Sarmast is skeptical. “Today, the Taliban promise that they would respect human rights and respect diversity,” he said, “But (…) the video footage posted on social media is not very encouraging “.

Music entertains, strengthens and heals

Sarmast is concerned about the future of the school’s students. He says 10 of his graduates have received scholarships to study music in the United States, including pianist Elham Fanoos who attended Hunter College in New York City and recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with his master’s degree. Speaking from his home in New York City, Fanoos credits ANIM with “the reason I’m here”. He, too, is worried about the safety of everyone involved in the school and hopes that Afghans can continue to make music.

“I think a culture makes the country and gives the country the strength it needs and to represent the country,” says Fanoos. “Without … cultural activities, a country is completely incomplete.”

Sarmast appears determined not to let the Taliban hinder ANIM’s progress. The school had recently expanded into a larger building to accommodate more programs and ensembles. “Music isn’t just a type of entertainment. It’s not just an art,” he says. It is a “powerful force” to help Afghans heal “from years of civil war”.

Sarmast plans to reopen the Afghan National Institute of Music because, he says, “the nation needs it.” He hopes the international community will “keep an eye” to ensure that the Taliban keep their promises to respect human rights, “to ensure that the musical rights of the Afghan people [are] not knocked down again. “

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over the past two decades, efforts have been made to renew cultural institutions and the arts in Afghanistan. One such success story is the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul. It is a place where boys and girls study music and academics in the same classrooms. The school’s ensembles have performed around the world, including at Carnegie Hall. And now this school is closed. Her future is uncertain, as NPR’s Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The Afghan National Institute of Music, or ANIM, has been celebrated around the world for the return of music to the country.

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

BLAIR: Founded by musicologist Dr Ahmad Sarmast, the school’s donors include the World Bank and the US and German governments. The British Royal Air Force airlifted musical instruments to the school when it opened. When the ANIM Orchestra performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in 2013, CIA Director William Burns, then Assistant Secretary of State of the United States, introduced them.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

WILLIAM BURNS: Afghanistan’s rich musical traditions were once silenced by war and the Taliban regime. But when democracy returned to Afghanistan, Dr Ahmad Sarmast saw a chance to bring that tradition back to his country, founding what is now Afghanistan’s only music academy.

BLAIR: The musicians were students of the Afghan National Institute of Music and the Maryland Youth Orchestra, playing both traditional Afghan and Western instruments.

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

BLAIR: When the Taliban took power in 1996, music was banned. Musicians have reportedly been threatened, kidnapped or killed. This week with the return of the Taliban and Kabul in transition, the school is closed. Sarmast says some students haven’t brought their instruments home.

AHMAD SARMAST: They returned the musical instrument to us at school for fear that the Taliban would go door to door. If the instruments are in the house, it could cause them problems.

BLAIR: Sarmast told me about Australia, where he visits his family. He says he is in constant contact with the faculty of the school. Recently there was a burglary and some instruments were destroyed. Sarmast contacted a police officer in the area.

SARMAST: He blamed our security guards for failing to open the doors to the school. They weren’t supposed to open it.

BLAIR: We don’t know what the Taliban will do now. They have presented themselves to the media as less violent than they were in the 1990s. But Sarmast is skeptical.

SARMAST: Today the Taliban promise that they will respect human rights and respect diversity. But the video footage emerging on social media is not very encouraging.

BLAIR: He’s worried about the future of the students at the school. He says 10 of his graduates have received scholarships to study music in the United States, including pianist Elham Fanous.

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

BLAIR: Fanous attended Hunter College in New York City and recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with his Masters. He is concerned for the safety of everyone involved in ANIM and hopes the Afghans will continue to make music.

ELHAM FANOUS: Culture makes the country and gives the country the strength it needs to have and to represent the country. I think that without cultural activities the country is completely incomplete.

BLAIR: Dr Ahmad Sarmast says he plans to reopen the Afghan National Institute of Music because, he says, the country needs it. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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