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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Afghanistan, where a violin may arouse

I have a friend called Padraig who is a bit of an idealist on the quiet. He is in his 30s, claims to be completing postgraduate degrees at a couple of highly regarded universities, speaks unfamiliar dialects of several Asian languages and has many thousands of friends on Facebook. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him "a character".

Last week I went to a meeting, at Padraig's invitation, at the House of Commons where a man called Dr Ahmad Sarmast made a presentation about a music school in Afghanistan that he is attempting to place on a long-term footing. It was fascinating stuff.

It turns out that Dr Sarmast, an Afghan, went to music school in Moscow in the years following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 but found himself basically exiled from his homeland after 1992, when the cultural forces at play in that part of the world created what Dr Sarmast describes as a profound "discrimination against music". The country's one music school closed, its teachers were dispersed and those playing music found that they were at risk of being punished for doing so, in a scenario not unlike that of Raymond Bradbury's sci-fi classic Farenheit 451 - only instead of it being books that were outlawed it was musical instruments.

Dr Sarmast sought and received asylum in Australia where he found that his Russian qualifications counted for very little, revisited large portions of his education and ended up as a research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne. He remained there while decades-worth of militia, mujaheddin, Soviet, Taliban and western troops skirmished across his homeland.

In 2006, five years after the US invasion and by then with a wife and family in Australia, Dr Sarmast created a project called ROAM, which is short for Revival of Afghan Music. A year later he was invited by the Afghan Ministry of Education to return and attempt to open an Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). The idea was to give children a vocational music education, doing academic lessons in the morning and devoting the afternoons to music - not unlike the Purcell School in the UK. However, differences include that ANIM reserves a certain number of places for girls, who might otherwise find themselves seriously discouraged from becoming musicians, and the same goes for orphans. After three decades of war Afghanistan has an estimated two million orphans.

Dr Sarmast's project looks increasingly as if it may be a success - he has the support of the World Bank, the British Council and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, among many others. His is not the only music school in Kabul - there is also one sponsored by the Aga Khan that specialises in traditional Afghan music. But ANIM is different because it also teaches in the classical western tradition, meaning that there will be a generation of widely trained musicians emerging from there - and returning to make Afghanistan a place deeply and culturally connected to the outside world - and because of the younger age at which its pupils can start, getting them off the streets.

To suggest that it was the Taliban that attempted to stifle music in Afghanistan would be oversimplifying matters. Dr Sarmast told me that he considers music to be an essential part of a functioning civil society and that "taking away music is a genocide against the culture of a nation". But for more about politics I turned to a British musicologist. This is because Dr Sarmast has been able to get as far as he has with ANIM by negotiating his way through the complicated political landscape of present-day Afghanistan. I wouldn't want to create any hostages to fortune for him.

Professor John Baily, head of the Afghan music unit at Goldsmith's in London, wrote a paper for Freemuse in 2001, called Can you stop the birds singing?, about music censorship in Afghanistan. "There has been a long-standing debate within Islam about the lawfulness of music, although there is nothing in the Koran about it," he said.

"Many Wahabis - a conservative sect - are very much against it, whereas Sufiism leans strongly towards music as means of expression." For instance, Richard Thompson the British musician, guitar hero and former member of Fairport Convention is a Sufi muslim (see him below, collecting an OBE from Buckingham Palace last week).

"A lot of Wahabis went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet troops after they invaded in 1979, which changed many things - before then Sufiism had been the more influential doctrine. In 1992 the existing government was overthrown by a coalition of resistance groups and for four years the mujaheddin ran the country. During that period Afghanistan became literally ruined by fighting. Then the Taliban came along in 1996 and banned all musical instruments - although unaccompanied singing wasn't counted as music. People were imprisoned and beaten for playing music. If you were caught with cassettes in your car you were in trouble. People used to hide them when they reached Taliban checkpoints."

I was fascinated to discover that stringed instruments were singled out by the Taliban as being particularly "arousing", as I really love the sound that a fiddle makes and, now I come to think of it, find myself drawn to fiddle players. I even play a little myself. The devil is said to have all the best tunes and when he went down to Georgia - according to The Charlie Daniels Band at least - it was his fiddle that he took with him. Wicked, arousing fiddles (and guitars) are a cross-cultural phenomenon, it seems.

Since the US invasion of 2001 matters have improved considerably for music and musicians, although a look at the Afghanistan page of Freemuse's website demonstrates that it's still not plain sailing, not least because the Taliban is not a monolithic organisation and many of its strands of thought are alive and well in the general population. "But there are music programmes on Afghan television these days that are like Britain's Got Talent, so if anyone chooses to get violent about their anti-music beliefs there are much more high profile targets than ANIM," says Professor Baily, not entirely reassuringly.

Three decades of exile for Afghanistan's musicians - there is a 60,000 strong community of Afghans in Freemont, California for a start - has meant that many things have been lost from their homeland, including the accumulated knowledge of how to teach several of the traditional instruments that are essential to Afghanistan's classical repertoire. Dr Sarmast mentioned the sarod and the dilruba in particular.

By coming to the UK and explaining what he's up to, Dr Sarmast was hoping to strengthen ties between British music schools and musicians with ANIM, as well as to encourage any Afghan musicians with a  surviving traditional expertise to get in touch.

* His email address is Do let him know if you are interested in sponsoring the school, making a donation or building international ties.

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