KABUL, Afghanistan — Every night, Mohsen, a slight, awkward 13-year-old boy, goes home from school to an orphanage here and does something that would probably have been impossible a dozen years ago: he practices his violin before going to bed.
The instrument, he said, has become his closest friend. “It has a sad voice,” he said.
All such voices, happy or sad, were banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, when they imposed their extremist vision of Islam on Afghanistan, a country with a long and rich musical tradition. Musicians were beaten, instruments destroyed, cassette tapes smashed.
But since 2010, an Afghan music scholar trained in Australia, aided by a Juilliard-educated violinist and with government backing, has kept a small music school going in Kabul, putting musical instruments into the hands of street kids and striving to make space for girls in a country where education is often denied them.
The very existence of the school, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, is a significant achievement. Now it is sending a group of youngsters, ages 9 to 21, to the United States for a 13-day tour. They arrive on Sunday, with performances scheduled for the Kennedy Center in Washington (on Thursday) and Carnegie Hall (on Feb. 12), not to mention an ice-skating trip to Yonkers and a visit to “The Lion King” on Broadway.
“It’s the responsibility of a musician to defend the right of human beings everywhere to be musical and to express themselves through music,” said William Harvey, the American violinist who is the conductor of the school’s Afghanistan Youth Orchestra. “We’re celebrating a victory: the return of music.”
The 48 Afghan students on the tour will perform in traditional ensembles and in a Western-style orchestra in tandem with players from the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra and the Scarsdale High School Orchestra, which helped raise money for the tour.
The Afghans will also play at the State Department, the Italian Embassy and the World Bank. They will stay together in hotels, traveling under the eyes of security guards. United States Embassy officials here have warned the students not to abscond.
The organizers say the tour has special significance in a country so marked by violence and misery. “We are taking the message of peace and stability to the international community to show what a positive change has occurred,” said the school’s founder and driving force, Ahmad Sarmast, who has a Ph.D. in music from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Yet worries linger. Music in Afghanistan still draws strident censure from the many conservative mullahs, who insist that it is un-Islamic. And once the American military withdraws next year, the school’s existence could become precarious if such conservative forces come to power.
For now, though, the school is pushing ahead with its ambitious plans. Altogether it will cost $13 million to run the school for the next 11 years, including the construction of a concert hall, rehearsal space and dormitories for the students, who attend free, Mr. Sarmast said. At least six embassies — including that of the United States — contribute to the school’s annual costs, along with the Goethe Institut, the British Council and Afghanistan’s religiously conservative Ministry of Education (a shield against accusations that the institute is “un-Islamic”).
The American tour is primarily sponsored by the United States Embassy, which is spending slightly more than $300,000, according to embassy officials. The World Bank, which is underwriting the school’s new concert hall and dormitory, is putting up more than $100,000 for the tour; other contributors include the Carnegie Corporation and the Asian Cultural Council.
Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center officials have also thrown their weight behind the concerts. Carnegie will bring schoolchildren to the performance in Stern Auditorium and has helped with publicity. The Kennedy Center has lent a hand with costs and is putting the Afghan orchestra in its Millennium Stage series in the main concert hall.
“This is a moment that they can grab,” said Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for community engagement. “They’re doing so in such a positive, public, global way. That’s super inspiring.”
Besides training in music theory and Western and Afghan instruments, the school offers its 141 students the ministry’s curriculum, which includes religious and Koranic studies. Significantly, a third of the students are girls, who often struggle to receive basic education in Afghanistan. Half the students are from orphanages or are former street kids. Few had any musical knowledge before they arrived.
The students come from almost every province and include members of the country’s three main ethnic groups, the Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the Hazaras, Mr. Sarmast said. “We have a wonderful mosaic of Afghanistan here,” he said. “Part of our commitment is to promote musical diversity in Afghanistan.”
The faculty includes a half-dozen Westerners.
The school offers something else: a place of security. For many students this is simply the first time in their lives that an adult has paid attention to them and encouraged their talent.
In fact, it might just be the happiest place in Kabul.
At midday recently, chattering children poured out of the red two-story building, each grasping a plastic-foam lunch container in one hand and a water bottle in the other. They wolfed down their food and raced back to class, showing a level of engagement rarely seen in Afghan schools.
In a cramped rehearsal room where the children and teachers were crowded in chairs barely an inch apart, Mr. Harvey was trying in vain to quiet the students so that they could begin rehearsing both the Afghan and Western pieces for their Carnegie Hall concert.
“We start from silence,” he shouted over the din. When he had quiet, he counted in Dari, “Yak, du, sei, char,” prompting the first soft notes of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
In another practice room two girls were playing a raga on sitars, their faces rapt in concentration. Next door three boys practiced the Western flute as a teacher supervised. At the end of the corridor, where the rooms have upright pianos, a thin lad, Arson Fahim, 14, played a Mozart sonata.
An organization that works with orphans, the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization, brought Arson to the school. Speaking in hesitant but clear English — English is a required course — he said he had no idea how he came to love Western classical music. “I had never had any hope I would ever see a piano,” said Arson, who was introduced to the keyboard just a year ago.
Now, after devouring recordings on the Internet by different pianists, he sounds like a savvy conservatory student. “I like the way Richter plays Mozart,” he said, referring to the Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Another pianist, Milad, 18, also in English, declared himself partial to Bach. Both said they were in awe of the pianist Glenn Gould and carried on a 10-minute conversation about his technique.
“Glenn Gould was a genius because he could watch 12 movies at the same time, and that’s why he plays Bach so well,” said Milad. “Because you have to have five voices at the same time with Bach. I can listen to two, but five is almost impossible.”
Marjan, a 14-year-old girl with a face at once tough and sad, came to the school through Aschiana, a nongovernmental organization that works with Afghan street kids and displaced people. She has been playing the violin for three years. Mr. Harvey, the youth orchestra’s conductor, said her story encapsulates the hope of music.
“When you see a little girl who was selling chewing gum on the street because her father was beaten by the Taliban with a chain so badly that he couldn’t work, and her mother does laundry to bring in enough money,” he said, “this is really a historic moment.”
Americans are weary, even cynical, after reports of so much violence, he said. “But with these two big concerts in New York and Washington, we are showing people not to give up on Afghanistan.”
The New York Times, February 1, 2013
Alissa J. Rubin reported from Kabul, and Daniel J. Wakin from New York