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Creating youth with resilience. A music school in Kabul

Anne Gilby at the Babur

Melbourne oboist Anne Gilby recently taught at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music which was established by Ahmad Sarmast in Kabul in 2010. Gordon Williams spoke to her of her experience.

In Polly Watkin’s recently-released documentary Dr Sarmast’s Music School [check out the Sydney Film Festival’s blurb], we see students practising in sound-proofed rooms, or the familiar tableau of a violin teacher instructing a student, pointing to a passage of score with violin tucked under his chin. This could be a music school anywhere in the world. Except… it’s Afghanistan, the land-locked Central Asian country which has been a focal point of international contention while riven with its own internal conflicts for decades, if not much of its history. And this school is the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Above the sounds of music emanating from the two-storey music school, hovering NATO helicopters denote the lingering effects of the most recent conflict which began in 2001 with the overthrow of the radical Islamist Taliban regime, and is even now felt as dates are set for the withdrawal of the international forces that arrived here in the wake of 9/11.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is the brainchild of Dr Ahmad Sarmast, a jovial former PhD student at Melbourne’s Monash University, who in June 2010 established the school on the remnants of a Department of Fine Arts abandoned during an earlier outbreak of war in the 1990s. Dr Sarmast’s dream is to nurture the musicianship of Afghanistan’s traumatised children, to develop their talents and heal them. These kids have known little other than war and its aftermath, and Sarmast is trying to give them something else in life. Specially focussing on the most disadvantaged group in Afghan society, the orphans and street vendors (paying the vendors’ parents for lost earnings while the children are studying; indeed subsidising all students), and with a deliberate intake of girls (100% this year), Sarmast aims to effect social change. His aims are high. Not only does he want to contribute to the emotional healing of these war-ravaged children while helping them reach their full musical and human potential, he wants to rekindle Afghani folk music traditions and create the country’s first symphony orchestra.

Australians clarinettist Mark Walton from Sydney and Melbourne oboist Anne Gilby travelled to the Afghanistan capital, Kabul in January this year to take part in the Institute’s Winter Academy. I asked Anne her reasons for going.

Street and girls school

AG: I was interested in someone who was actually creating something through music as a discipline, something which had it as an aim to integrate a group of people into the wider world community. The staff-member I dealt most with was a woman from Colorado called Allegra Boggess. She’s a pianist but she studied oboe when she was in high school and here she was suddenly asked to teach oboe, so my role was really to help her set up a double reed program, write an oboe curriculum, get equipment organised. I was very excited to go. When I arrived we had one oboe student and when I left we had two and a bassoonist.

GW: Afghanistan is still occupied by troops, and hardline Islamic attitudes to women jostle with more moderate influences in the streets and marketplaces of Kabul. Did you have any fears for your safety in what Parmy Olson once described (in Forbes magazine) as the most dangerous country in the world?

AG: Everybody else in my immediate vicinity in Australia was incredibly apprehensive but I wasn’t. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs advisories were not to go. But I knew that the security would be thorough. ANIM put me in a guesthouse (it’s actually safer than an international hotel) down the street from the American embassy. Across the road was the NATO complex, where the international forces were housed – a huge wall with barbed wire on top.

GW: So it was a constant sensation of being in a cocoon?

AG: I knew that my basic safety was being looked after. But on the flip side I couldn’t do anything independently. The Institute had three cars. When I arranged to go to the Babur Gardens I was taken by one of the drivers, and he organised two of the students to go as well because I needed to be in the company of other people. He sat in the car. It wasn’t appropriate for him to go in with me.

GW: Because you’re a woman?

AG: For me, being a very fair complexioned person, there was no such thing as walking down the street on my own. I must say that the environment became very stressful after a while, as a woman. Everyone was wonderfully friendly and I was extremely well looked after but there was an undercurrent of anger and aggression and violence around all the time.

GW: Now that we can see end-dates for NATO involvement, Afghanistan is in a nation-building stage. But why does Sarmast put so much energy into music teaching at a time like this?

AG: Music is all part of a grand scheme that’s creating what you could call ‘youth with resilience’, people who can take their place in the future and can actually produce a better Afghanistan for everybody.

GW: But he’s also aiming to develop students’ talent to an international standard – is it a separate goal: ‘I’m going to heal some and develop talent in others’?

Rebuilding Kabul

AG: No. I was very aware that Sarmast was operating on many levels and, you know, we mount arguments in Australia to support why we should have music in schools. The health argument has been one that has been pushed to extremes. Another is the old one about how music helps other disciplines. What Sarmast has done is recognise that there are various things that music can be identified as appealing to, but most importantly music is a discipline in its own right. So yes, he’ll take a street kid, but he starts from the bottom line that there’s a talent there. If there’s no talent and if they don’t want to do it, then they won’t stay. But if they choose to stay, they’re going to engage with music in ways that make sense to them. The fundamental assumption is that music is a discipline and to be engaged with it you need to be disciplined as a person, as a human being. It deals with how you relate with other people. How you engage with authority, for example, is a big thing with the street kids.

GW: I’m interested in why Sarmast includes western classical music in his syllabus?

AG: I would say that he thinks it’s an important genre of music, that’s been embraced worldwide. From a musical point of view he thinks it’s important that young people in Afghanistan have an opportunity to make the music that a large proportion of the world does. But also, music is a language of contact and so his vision for the future of Afghanistan is that young people who are world citizens need to be part of classical music making, which is part of world culture. And he does that in an environment where other musics are there at the same time – it’s not being done in isolation. He has Afghani traditional ensembles, North Indian traditional ensembles. The main ensemble at the ANIM is the Afghani Youth Orchestra where everybody’s in together. While I was there, for example, they were rehearsing Ravel’s Bolero which started off with a tanbur solo, followed by a sitar solo. They’d chosen western repertoire that allowed for Afghani and Indian instruments to be played legitimately alongside western orchestral instruments, and also played arrangements of Afghan melodies. Sarmast considers it very important to acknowledge the musical integrity of different traditions.

Also, Sarmast is interested in the mindset that it takes to play western classical music. It was really quite fascinating to me how the students conceptualised their work. Obviously they were used to an oral tradition of learning. Their notion of what a notated octave meant, for example, was totally different from mine. An ‘e’ was an ‘e’ was an ‘e’. It didn’t much matter what octave it was written in.

GW: He is teaching notation isn’t he?

AG: He is teaching notation, but what he’s actually dealing with, apart from notation, is a framework which has been established in these students from a very young age for approaching music-making and learning in general that doesn’t necessarily assist with western classical music. The numbers of very young students at ANIM should find it easier than their older colleagues in the future.

GW: I’m struck by the fact that the ANIM website talks a lot about the bravery of teachers and students. For example, this announcement: ‘The ANIM student body courageously held their first Student Association election on Thursday October 13, 2011.’

AG: But think of the background. While I was there, ANIM was visited by various members of parliament who were asking questions like, ‘Why aren’t you doing more Islamic studies? Why are girls here? Why are you concentrating on science and maths?’ [because the music lessons are combined with a general education similarly to the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School or Sydney Conservatorium High School]. ANIM’s constantly being asked for more Koranic studies, to remove anything that smacks of western-style curriculum. There’s constant pressure. And, for example, I met a UN employee who told me, with tears in his eyes, about his work in the regions where people have absolutely nothing, they were living in caves. You look at the devastation in Kabul, the bullet holes still in all the major buildings, the bomb sites. Electricity has only just recently been connected to all households. You still see people walking up mountains carrying water up in jerry cans. You can track many of the incredible problems in Afghanistan back to five conflicting tribes, back to the Russians and the English and ‘The Great Game’ [for control of the East] they played across Afghanistan in the 1800s. And you can see why there are incredible problems there right now. And these kids who choose to come to music school are at the forefront of these conceptual and physical conflicts. One of the students was quite upfront in telling me about the destruction of his home when he was three as part of the demolition of the Musicians’ Quarter of central Kabul because it didn’t fit the religious point of view of the party that came to power, and about the response of his neighbours to his studies. His family has moved and lives two hours away from school in an outer suburb. He travels by bus over the mountains and then walks 45 minutes from the bus terminus. The kids in his area shout at him that he’s going to the devil because he’s making music. He’s a devout Muslim himself so he understands what it means to have chosen a different path from most of his peers.

And yet, on the other side of that, there’s a whole group of human beings over there in Kabul who wouldn’t do anything else, devout Muslims who stand up in the middle of a lesson and say, excuse me I just have to go off and pray. Back in an hour.

GW: Sarmast has been incredibly successful with garnering support from a wide range of sources. Just look at ANIM’s website – the World Bank, German Foreign Office, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Mikhail Simonyan’s Beethoven not Bullets… The German Society of Music Merchants, for example, donated five tons of instruments.

AG: It’s an intensively difficult situation over there and with the Coalition and NATO withdrawing obviously there’s already a huge jockeying for power. There are going to be tough times ahead politically. Islamic militants don’t necessarily agree with what Sarmast is doing. But Sarmast is currently arranging a tour of the Youth Orchestra to Washington and New York next year. So one of the survival things that can happen is connections. If Sarmast can get enough international agreement that this is something that needs to be protected then maybe he has a chance. He basically has a year.

GW: Do you have any particular highlights of the visit?

AG: There was a concert at the French Cultural Centre. It was one of those Kabul affairs where you had to be totally frisked to go in – a rather bored lady security guard made sure I wasn’t carrying anything dangerous. It was freezing cold. The whole building was made out of concrete, there were rollerdoors to the back and the wind was gusting in. I was so cold I was nearly paralytic, but once onstage the overhead lights made it a little warmer. Concerts there are always at 5.30 in the afternoon because foreigners employed at the embassies and international companies are not covered by insurance after 8pm. The audiences are always by RSVP for security reasons. The concerts I played while in Kabul were largely attended by expats and music students. This concert was called Celebration of the Tanbur and featured an Afghani group connected with ANIM. I was in one piece. The group played from memory, I had a written part. It was just like a jazz piece, there was the head, and a number of times through with the different variations. They had their various techniques for making the music faster. I was in ‘seventh heaven’. I had a special part that was designed for me by one of the AMIN staff – a violinist from the US who is very interested in Afghan music. The players were all very polite, told me I did a grand job and everyone applauded ….And it was really very interesting because the leader of the group could have been one of the Afghani warlords. Quite honestly, he oozed power. Anyway, during rehearsals this person was very friendly, but the moment it was over I was a woman.

GW: By any account, this school has been a success hasn’t it? And now ANIM is planning replicas in the provincial capitals of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Jalalabad?

AG: And our own music system, at all levels, could well look at what people are doing over there. We have it materially very easy here, but the lack of physical stress doesn’t mean that our society is not under threat. The daily newspapers give us examples in every issue. Even though we have in our community people who have direct experience of life in places such as Afghanistan we really are as a nation generally complacent about nurturing and protecting notions that underpin our quality of life. One is that access to high quality music making is integral to communities and is not an elitist idea. Dr Sarmast is making a stand in Kabul and we should think about why he is doing it. He is succeeding in giving young people hope for the future and inspiring them to inspire others. For me that is the reason why there are plans to replicate ANIM.

To find out more about the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, please visit their website.

Photographs, Anne Gilby (c) 2012
All views expressed in this interview are either those of Anne Gilby or Gordon Williams