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Dangerous Music

Reviving traditional Afghan music in spite of terror threats

Years of war and Islamic extremism have left their mark on Afghanistan’s traditional music culture. Though the Taliban was driven from power some 15 years ago, a generation was “brainwashed” into believing music was sinful and against Islam. Now, one school is trying to plant the seeds of rebirth for Afghanistan’s musical heritage, despite stiff resistance from conservative elements in society, which often leads to inter-family conflicts, death threats, and sometimes even acts of terrorism.

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When Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster, he found the country’s once thriving music scene in ruins, without even one orchestra capable of playing the Afghan national anthem. In an attempt to rebuild it, he turned to society’s youngest and most needy members: its children. Since 1988, there hadn’t been a school in Afghanistan dedicated to teaching children, and education in the country, especially for girls, was minimal, at best. Dr. Sarmast founded the National Music Institute of Afghanistan to transform the lives of Afghan children for the better through the study of music and ensure that the country does not lose its unique musical identity.

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The project has now borne some impressive fruit. We’ll meet young Murtaza, who fell in love with the tabla on his first day of school, and sells plastic bags on the streets in the evening to support his family. Then there’s Wahid, who came to the school from the streets as a young boy and is now on the verge of graduating as an accomplished musician. He hopes to start his own music school one day to help people as he was helped. There’s also Negin, whose father split with his family, which objected to educating girls, and moved to Kabul so his daughter could study. She may be the country’s first female conductor someday and dreams of founding a national orchestra.

Though each has faced their own hardships to attend the school, their musical success has made them optimistic, enthusiastic, and ambitious – and none is willing to give up.