New York – The Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) breaks new ground this winter, when leading ensembles of the institute – the nation’s sole music academy, founded and directed by Ahmad Sarmast, the first Afghan with a doctorate in music – make their American debut with a U.S. tour (Feb 2–17). Presented by the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, of which ANIM is a model school, this landmark visit will be crowned by performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (Feb 7) and New York’s Carnegie Hall (Feb 12). These concerts will feature the Afghan Youth Orchestra (AYO) and other ANIM ensembles performing orchestral and chamber music on both Western and traditional instruments; collaborations with their contemporaries from American youth orchestras; and guest appearances by award-winning Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan. Additional tour highlights include a residency and concert at Boston’s New England Conservatory, master classes, school outreach concerts, and a wealth of further opportunities for cultural exchange.
At the upcoming Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall concerts, ANIM will be represented by the AYO, conducted by ANIM violin teacher William Harvey, and three smaller ensembles: the Young Afghan Traditional Ensemble, led by ANIM Principal and ghichak teacher Muhammad Murad Sarkhosh; the Sitar and Sarod Ensemble, led by ANIM sitar/sarod teacher Irfan Muhammad Khan; and the Chamber Wind Ensemble, led by ANIM brass teacher James Herzog. Joined by Afghan and expatriate faculty members, including percussion teacher Norma Ferreira, cello teacher Avery Waite, piano/oboe teacher Allegra Boggess, and saxophone teacher Derek Beckvold, the performers will be drawn from the institute’s students, who are Afghans between 10 and 21 years of age.
Besides demonstrating their mastery of the orchestral and keyboard instruments of the Western classical tradition, they will draw on their homeland’s own rich musical heritage, playing on traditional stringed instruments – the rubab, sitar, sarod, dilruba, tanbur, and ghichak – and the tabla drum. In a characteristic example of invaluable youth exchange, ANIM’s students will play alongside American string players of their own age, from the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras when they perform at the Kennedy Center, and from the Scarsdale High School Orchestra when they take the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Repertoire will include original arrangements by William Harvey of two favorites of the Western canon – Ravel’s Bolero and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – alongside examples of Afghan traditional and folk music. Mikhail Simonyan joins the students to perform Lariya for violin, rubab and chamber orchestra, Harvey’s arrangement of a traditional rubab piece made famous by the Afghan rubab virtuoso Muhammad Omar (1905-80).
Funded by the United States Embassy in Kabul, the World Bank, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, the tour will showcase the extraordinary success of ANIM. Founded by Ahmad Sarmast, winner of the 2009 David Chow Humanitarian Award for his “brave and selfless” efforts to rebuild and promote music education in Afghanistan, the remarkable school and its achievements have already attracted international notice. As the New York Times described in a recent feature,
“The Institute teaches some 150 young people, about half orphans and street hawkers. … About 35 of the students are female, important in a country where women face obstacles to education. The young people study both Western and Afghan instruments…and music theory from both cultures. Many of the Western instruments are donated, and the World Bank provides financial support. Tuition is free.”
In a country where, as the Wall Street Journal notes, “there are some 70,000 street children in Kabul alone and as many as 600,000 across Afghanistan,” it is of the most profound significance that half of ANIM’s students come from such disadvantaged backgrounds. Reuters observed:
“At Afghanistan’s sole music academy, students are taught music with the hope it will bring comfort in the face of war and poverty, bringing back cellos and violins to revive a rich musical legacy disrupted by decades of violence and suppression. ‘We are committed to build ruined lives through music, given its healing power,’ Ahmad Sarmast, head of ANIM, told Reuters.”
The impact of ANIM, which is seen as a model for future Afghan music schools, can hardly be overestimated. “An effective cultural barometer in the Muslim world,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, “music has the potential to move Afghan society away from fundamentalism toward more moderate cultural values.”