Monday, May 17, 2010
By Jerry Harmer, Associated Press
From the outside, it looks like any other school in Kabul. A red two-story building is sealed off from the street by a high wall. A few trees stand in the front yard. Children constantly go in and out.
But listen carefully. When the noise of the traffic dies down, you can hear the gentle sounds of violins being played and the patter of drums. In this city where music was illegal less than a decade ago, a new generation of children is being raised to understand its joys.
"This school is unique in Afghanistan," said Muhammad Aziz, a 19-year-old student who dreams of becoming one of the world's greatest players of the tabla, a South Asian drum. "It's the only professional music school and there are so many good teachers here."
The new National Institute of Music has been offering some courses for the past several months, but the formal opening will be later in May.
The school's aims: to revive long-neglected musical traditions, to stock schools with qualified teachers and, perhaps one day, to form the country's first symphony orchestra. Of the school's students — there are 150 now, though there will soon be 300 — half are either orphans or among the tens of thousands of children who spend their days working on Afghanistan's streets.
Over a 10-year course they'll rediscover old traditions, master new instruments and learn their musical heritage. They'll study the music of Afghanistan, South Asia and the West. It's also a regular school, with courses in English, math and history.
William Harvey, who came from the United States to teach at the new school, knows what he has found.
"Great talent can come from unexpected places," said Harvey, a classical violinist from Indiana.
Just a few years ago, things were very different.
In 1996, Kabul was captured by Taliban militants as they fought to take over the entire country and impose their version of Islamic fundamentalism. The changes were immediate: men had to wear beards, women had to be veiled or at home.
Music was destroyed. Joyous Taliban fighters unwound audio cassettes in the streets of Kabul, stringing the tape from trees like Christmas decorations. Only singing was allowed — often limited to religious songs or songs praising the Taliban — and playing musical instruments was banned.
But in 2001, the Taliban fell, and one man dreamed of musical renewal. Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan music scholar and the son of a classical composer and conductor, came back to Afghanistan from Australia to rebuild its music scene after 25 years of war and five years of Taliban rule.
And, he thought, it had to begin with children.
"The musical tradition is in a big mess," said Sarmast, who formed the school as a joint initiative with the Afghan Education Ministry and Monash University in Australia. "I believe that through music education we can contribute to the revival of those traditions by including them in the formal training now."
Sarmast says it will cost about $11 million — in cash and donated equipment — to finish construction and run the school for its first 10 years. Funding came from a range of international donors, and nearly 5 tons of musical instruments came from the German government and the German Society of Music Merchants. The curriculum was developed with the help of the National College of Music in London.
Sarmast is hoping to produce teachers who can re-establish music programs in schools across Afghanistan. In a country with one of the world's worst poverty rates, he is also reaching out to Kabul's poorest children.
Twelve-year-old Marjan Fidaye used to sell chewing gum to passers-by to help feed her family. Today, she is one of Harvey's violin students.
Like the other street children, she is paid $30 a month to replace the lost income her family depends upon. But the school's aim is to turn the lives of children like her around, to give them an education, and maybe even a chance at a musical profession one day.
"I was selling on the streets before so I'm very happy I came here," says Marjan, clutching her violin. "I want to be a good student, to learn something here, to make something of my life."