I returned home to Columbus safely Thursday morning. I am now in Boston for the weekend.
There is upsetting recent news from Kabul.
On Thursday afternoon a suicide bomber entered the rear of an auditorium at which a number of students from the music school were performing and detonated a bomb. One person is reported as having been killed, a German citizen who was presumably not directly associated with the music school. A number of others were injured.
Among the injured was Dr. Sarmast, founder of the music school. My understanding is that he will be fine, but he has been admitted to the hospital for treatment. This article provides some details and quotes Dr. Sarmast commenting on the incident. There is also a picture of him in his hospital bed. Dr. Sarmast had received an award from the Center just prior to the performance, as I understand it.
The venue was the French Cultural Center, which has a fine auditorium. The students of ANIM perform there frequently. I had spent much of the previous day there with the students, as the Chamber Orchestra performed in that hall Wednesday afternoon. My flight left at just about the time their concert began, so I only heard the rehearsal.
I have direct word from the school that no students or staff other than Dr. Sarmast were injured. The students are all physically well. I am sure everyone is deeply shaken. They are doing noble work, important and useful in ways that are unique to Afghan society.
By virtue of the simple fact of being born in that country, these children are at significant risk. But to cede to outrageous brutality would lead to even greater risk. I feel sure the school will bolster their security procedures and physical plant, and continue to bring their special brand of light into a world that desperately needs it.
We offer our thoughts, prayers, and wishes of infinite goodwill to the entire community of ANIM tonight.
“Dr. Sarmast is a national hero.”
- James Cunningham, US Ambassador to Afghanistan
It has been an honor to teach at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music these past two and a half weeks at the invitation of its founder, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast.
When Dr. Sarmast founded ANIM in 2010, he invited the most famous musicians of Afghanistan to lead its curriculum. Most who answered the call returned from exile. The founding faculty are a courageous lot. The performance of music was entirely banned by the Taliban. Today, the school’s emphasis on ethnic diversity, cultural tolerance, and the education and advancement of girls remains controversial with many Afghans.
Among the founding faculty is Ahmad Farid Shefta, a vital and joyful presence in the life of the school. He is Afghanistan’s premiere clarinetist and founder of ANIM’s Wind Ensemble. Shefta’s involvement represents the continuation of a long friendship with Dr. Sarmast: they had been classmates at ANIM’s predecessor school, the School of Fine Arts, more than thirty years ago.
According to Milad Yousufi, ANIM’s conductor, Shefta was the only teacher of music in the entire country during Afghanistan’s Civil War. No one else dared. But after the Taliban took over, he was forced to abandon his professional life in Afghanistan. He eventually moved to Russia. Over dinner recently, Shefta explained how he reached that decision (if only you could have witnessed the delivery and facial expressions):
When the Taliban first seized power, Shefta submitted to the diktat that all men grow a beard. For a while, he felt distinguished in his neatly cropped beard and kola (white skullcap). But as his beard grew, he thought it made his head look too small. So to compensate, he started wearing a loongi (a full turban). As his facial hair grew more and more unruly, he acquired an even bigger loongi with lots of extra waves and folds. Finally, growing less attractive by the day and having exhausted his options in headgear, he moved to Moscow.
Many people have described the mood of the citizens of Kabul as nervous but hopeful. Nearly everyone in my circle believes that the newly elected government has set a brave course, and that popular support for the insurgency has all but vanished. The recent past is so filled with horrors that only a new direction seems acceptable. One young musician recounted being with his mother during the Taliban era when she was brutally beaten by the religious police. They left her bruised and battered on the street, punished because her ankles were visible under her burqa. Head-to-toe burqas concealing every part of a woman – even her eyes – is still a common sight in Kabul. Change is likely to be slow and unsteady.
We had our concert at the Embassy yesterday. Milad called it “an historic day.” There were over a hundred Embassy staff and Afghan guests in attendance. The Ambassador had sent his personal greetings prior to the concert, but by coincidence had relinquished his post that very day. The Deputy Ambassador, Michael McKinley (former Ambassador to Colombia) and his wife Fatima, served as attentive, eloquent and generous hosts. The orchestra played by far the best they had in my time with them.
Afterwards, there was a holiday party given by Public Affairs. A staffer told me that serving in the Embassy is like living in a sealed can, as they almost never leave the Green Zone these days. Even a year ago, some mobility in Kabul was possible. But not now. Everyone is hopeful that calmer days will soon return. For that to become a reality, Afghanistan must first weather the impending exodus of foreign troops. Things may get worse before they get better.
I had the opportunity to visit with the head of the CIA detail at the Embassy following our concert. He confirmed what many have said: that security throughout the country has deteriorated somewhat in recent weeks, but that in the long run, the Afghan National Security Forces are greatly improved in their ability to maintain security and fend off the insurgency.
There is, by the way, nothing green about the Green Zone. Driving through a dreadful grey maze of concrete and dust, there’s nothing to see but colossal barricades crowned by razor wire, interrupted by stations manned by guards with machine guns. At each of the checkpoints – I counted eight of them – there is a series of gates. And at each gate the weaponry appears more sophisticated than at the last one. Most of the guards work for foreign contractors, and a great many of them, I’m told, are Nepalese.
A couple of notes for fans of skateboarding:
The music school is one of many creative enterprises setting a new course in Afghanistan. One of the most talked about NGO’s here is a skatepark. Skateistan began in Kabul, but the organization has now built parks in Cambodia and South Africa as well. At the US Embassy, I met a staff member named Billy O’Connor, a skater from the old days – as in Dogtown and Z-Boys days – who is quite involved in Skateistan. We had a lot to talk about.
And I made one more skateboarding connection here. I have shared breakfast every morning with Nick Turner, a teacher of First Aid whose two sons are skateboarding enthusiasts back home in Wales. Nick’s wife recently led a successful effort to raise an astounding 500K pounds to build this stunning park in their hometown. I’ve extended an invitation to the Turners to pay us a visit stateside whenever they have the chance.
I fly home tomorrow. Kabul – Dubai – Dulles – Columbus. I look forward to enjoying the company of family and friends, celebrating the holidays, and of course, finally having a beer.
My day begins with music – shortly after 5 am – with the Call to Prayer. It isn’t my intention to wake up at that hour, but I love it. There are several muezzins in this area, but none of the residents of the German-Afghan Guest House – including the Afghans – seem to know where these particular voices are coming from. They sound other-worldy, and maybe they are.
The orchestra of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music sounds like no other. It is made up of both Western and Afghan instruments, and every piece they play is specially arranged. The orchestrations these days are prepared by the young Afghan musician, Milad Yousifi. Milad is quite a pianist, as you can hear, a fine conductor, and a wiz with Sibelius software. He is also an artist and a philosopher-poet.
Milad said to me this morning, “Did you know that the brain works 24 hours a day? Even when we’re sleeping, the brain is working. It keeps working all the time. Until we fall in love: then it stops.”
I feel fortunate to have had an extended period of time with young musicians who play the Afghan instruments. In this video of a recent rehearsal of Mozart’s Turkish March, you can see and hear the following traditional instruments:
Rubab – small wooden body, plucked, four frets, (the instrument on the left in the opening frame)
Sitar – which are half Indian, half Afghan
Sarod – a larger version of the rubab, no frets, metallic body
Tanboor –wooden, sympathetic strings, frets. These are Afghan, but there are Iranian and Arabian tanboors as well.
Harmonium – small keyboard instrument, pumped by hand
Delruba – bowed with sympathetic strings, frets, made of animal hide and metal
Ghichak –wood with iron body – sometimes from an oil can – bowed, only 2 strings. From Badakhshan, northern part of Afghanistan.
Music is the thread that knits this community together. All students take a full curriculum here – from science to history to Islamic studies – but the deep bonds of community are formed in the orchestra. That feels familiar to me: watching an orchestra of young people, deeply committed to music making, come to form a family unit. The El sistema approach to music education works on this principle. So do the best youth orchestras. That was my experience under my most important mentor, conductor Benjamin Zander, 40 years ago. And it is still a thrill to watch Ben lead an orchestra of young people today with consummate skill and purest devotion.
The faculty at ANIM are the secret to the school’s success, and they are on a mission. The first conductor here was American violinist William Harvey, who started the orchestral program. He left the school last spring after four years of invaluable service. Teaching strings now is American violinist and pedagogue, Jennifer Moberg, originally from Rochester, NY. She is teaching herself cello during my time here, playing with us in support of our cello section. Camilo Jauregui, newly arrived from Colombia, is captain of the percussion department. Allegra Boggess is an oboist and pianist, and she too is playing in the orchestra this week. Allegra is currently organizing the artistic side of things, as Dr. Sarmast is away tending to family matters.
Dr. Sarmast, the founder of the school, is a visionary, master motivator, and a prominent performer on trumpet. He earned his PhD in musicology from Monash University, Australia, and has written the definitive history of Afghan music. Dr. Sarmast’s father was a renowned conductor in Afghanistan, and founder of the first symphony orchestra in Afghanistan. Here is Milad and the ANIM orchestra rehearsing a song all Afghans know. It’s by Dr. Sarmast’s father, and is in 7/8 time. That time signature at this speed would cause many an American youth orchestra considerable angst, but these kids don’t even think about it, I’m quite sure. It’s in their blood.
“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
If anyone ever doubted that music can affect the quality of the day, she ought to pay a visit to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Dr. Ahmad Sarmast has created a sanctuary in which music fills the lives of a diverse population of young people. They come from all over the country. Half are orphans or from impoverished homes. Milad Yousufi, conductor of the school’s orchestras – and for these 2 ½ weeks my student – said to me this morning with a beaming smile: “ANIM is the happiest place in Kabul.”
Here is a pic of me giving an impromptu conducting lesson to young applicants to the school while they awaited their interviews for admission. At the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, we call it the “Maestro Zone.” These are lucky kids to be headed into this environment.
We – Milad and I and the ANIM Chamber Orchestra – are busy preparing a concert for the US Embassy this Sunday. The program will be: national anthems of the US and Afghanistan, Adeste Fideles, Deck the Halls, Silent Night, two traditional Afghan pieces, Bizet’s Farandole, Jingle Bells, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Yes, everybody’s pretty on edge after the recent attacks. And some of the kids are concerned, especially about us foreigners. The truth is that I am extremely fortunate in my residence. It is out of the way, unmarked on maps, far from any road, well guarded, associated with the Ministry of Education which has never been under threat, there is a good alarm system and a safe room (essentially a bunker) 30 feet from my room, and so forth and so on. And the food is pretty good.
The attitude of most people here that I speak to – including the kids – is remarkably optimistic. It is a dangerous place, they recognize. But over the course of fifteen years, they have seen it go from downright hell to something they mostly believe is moving in the right direction. The mere fact of this school is testament to that.
The absolute rejection of Sharia in the current government is essential. Politically that could change of course, but the general direction does not seem likely to since the alternative is considered unacceptable to a huge majority. The Taliban were at first greeted with open arms because they ended a ten-year civil war. Now they are almost 100% rejected by people living in this city, from what I hear and from the polls I have read.
There are enigmas everywhere you turn, questions that certainly challenge my understanding. According to a recent poll by the Asia Foundation most Afghans are remarkably happy (http://asiafoundation.org/country/afghanistan/2014-poll.php).
And they are optimistic about the future. 79% say they are “somewhat happy” or “very happy.” 55% say the country is moving in the right direction. And 73% believe that reconciliation efforts with armed opposition groups can help stabilize their country. These are all surprising numbers to me, and a cause for self-reflection. I believe these numbers are higher than the statistics of many similar polls in the US.
Tolerance for diversity, a strong push to improve education, and growing faith that democracy will take hold are keys to that optimism. And there is no doubt that the current government’s emphasis on empowering girls and women plays a major role as well. In all of these respects, the music school makes a small but growing contribution, a fact which is now widely recognized. The US Ambassador wrote recently to Ambassador Swanee Hunt, copying me: “Dr. Sarmast is a national hero.”
The school is a powerful symbol and a shining example. But it also improves lives dramatically. With enrollment growing by about 25% per year, ANIM has the potential to lift up many more in succeeding generations of Afghans.
Here is the latest update from KABUL, AFGHANISTAN in the form of a letter from our beloved conductor C. Wilkins:
Dear Landmarks Community,
I arrived in Kabul Tuesday morning, where I am teaching at this school:
Some of you will have seen the 60 Minutes piece on the Institute a couple of years ago. And if you have 45 minutes to spare, you can watch a very moving documentary prepared by the Australian Broadcasting Company here:
All of this came about because Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the school was awarded the Charles Ansbacher Music for All Award (http://www.asdp.af/?p=803) in Boston in the summer of 2014.
About half the kids at the school (9 – 19 yrs) are orphans or from disadvantaged backgrounds, which in a country this poor is saying something. For them, getting into this school is like getting into Harvard. It is transformational. Students take both general studies and music classes. There are presently about 200 students, though the student body will continue to expand by about 50 students a year.
The Institute enjoys strong support from the Afghan government, as well as support from many countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Germany, and China. My trip is sponsored by the US State Department.
There are currently three orchestras: the symphony orchestra, the chamber orchestra, and the all-girls orchestra. One point of emphasis is to promote education and opportunity for girls. You can see the empowerment many of these girls experience, no doubt a rare feeling in their lives to this point. All are excited by the curriculum and the opportunity.
The orchestras include both Western instruments and traditional Afghan instruments. So, for example, we are preparing Beethoven and Bizet with the usual forces, plus sitars, rubabs, tablas, etc. It’s an amazing sound – somehow it works! The school is equally committed to both traditions.
I have one conducting student, Milad Yousufi, who serves as their main conductor. Milad is a graduate of the school and is now junior faculty. He is a terrific young man, and a real talent. He’s a good pianist and also a fine visual artist.
Right now we are working together to prepare arrangements for the Holiday Concert at the US Embassy on December 7th. Once the materials are prepared, we will turn our attention to conducting. I brought my oboe, but don’t know if there will be an appropriate moment to play, plus I need a lot of time to practice to get into shape again!
Yesterday, I also taught a general conducting class. They thought there would be 4 or 5 students interested, but 17 showed up. It was quite open-ended and highly participatory, and everyone had a ball.
The faculty are mostly young and highly international. Today is a school day (Friday is the day off), but Dr. Sarmast is throwing a “Thanksgiving Dinner” for all the faculty tonight. There are two Americans who work at the school full-time. My Dari (dialect of Farsi/Persian) is expanding by about five words a day.
I’m home on December 10.
In the meantime, much love to you all!
The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s next free concert at the DCR’s Hatch Shell will take place on Wednesday, August 20 at 7 PM. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.
One of many traditions begun by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s founder, Charles Ansbacher, that we are pleased to continue is the annual Green Concert. Performing music about nature invites appreciation of the scenic beauty of the Esplanade. It also brings to the oval many long-term partners, people and organizations who help protect the world we live in. We welcome them all tonight.
Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”) is considered by many to be the first masterpiece of German Romantic opera. The overture sets the scene with slow-moving phrases shrouded in mystery and foreboding. We are at the edge of a dark forest in a small Bohemian town at the end of the Thirty Years War. Four hunting horns offer a contrasting image of the forest, which now appears as a fairy-tale woodland. The horn music presents the vision of a happy, loving existence for the forester hero, Max.
The horns recede, and in their wake emerge low mysterious chords in the strings and deep thumps in the timpani. It is music from the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene of the opera, in which Max makes a pact with Samiel, the satanic spirit of the wood. The main allegro now begins. It also has a dark and a light side. A shadowy agitated tune associated with the hero in a fearful disposition is followed by the irresistible folk-like song of Max’s love interest, Agathe.
Near the end of the overture, evil is finally vanquished by a full orchestral outburst in C major, the key of purity (having no sharps or flats). The musical language of Der Freischütz influenced the entire development of German Romantic opera. Richard Wagner cited Weber in his own autobiography as a key influence, mentioning the “Wolf’s Glen” scene from Der Freischütz in particular.
Jean Françaix wrote his oboe concerto, The Flower Clock, in 1959 for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal oboist, John de Lancie. The work is built in seven continuous short movements, each of which is named for one of the flowers in a botanical clock designed by Swedish botanist, Carl von Linne (1707-1778), known as Linnaeus. Linnaeus is the founder of the modern botanical classification system still in use today. His Flower Clock consisted of a series of flowers organized according to the time of day at which each bloomed. The work is laid out as if passing through the cycle of a single day. The music shows exquisite attention to detail. It is colorful, attractive and, as with all of Françaix’s music, full of charm and wit.
Edward MacDowell is the best-known American composer of the Romantic era. His Orchestral Suite No. 1 was composed while MacDowell and his wife lived in Boston (1888 to 1896), and was premiered by the Boston Symphony under Emil Pauer. MacDowell’s musical style derives largely from his German training, though his subject matter is often American. The three movements performed tonight (out of the suite’s total of five) provide an excellent example of his imaginative scoring and his penchant for creating beautiful small-scale tone poems inspired by nature.
In 1896, the MacDowells purchased land in New Hampshire on which they built a cabin and set up a writing studio for Edward. It was on this property that the MacDowell Colony was established in 1907. The colony remains a vital force in American arts and letters today. It has been a sanctuary for composers, painters, authors, and sculptors for more than a century.
The Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius is outdoors music. He composed most of it while traveling in Italy, where the Mediterranean air seems to have done his Finnish soul good. Simon Parmet, the Finnish conductor and composer, said about the work: “the quiet inward gaiety of the music shows him in the sunshine, face to face with the miracle of high summer… The Second Symphony is a song of praise to summer and the joy of living.”
Sibelius had an uncanny gift for deciphering the sounds he heard in nature. He once invited a friend on an unusual excursion, a site-listening trip to one of Finland’s natural wonders, the rapids of Imatra. “He had a passion,” Rosa Newmarch wrote, “for trying to hear the fundamental notes of natural forces. The fundamental tone of Imatra no man has gauged, but Sibelius often came away satisfied from his rapt listening.”
Sibelius was not so much interested in mimicking the sounds of nature, but in capturing the mysteries behind natural phenomena. Notes in Sibelius’s manuscript give us other clues as well: parts of the symphony are tied to a dramatic work Sibelius intended to write. In the second movement, for example, the word “Death” appears over a dark phrase in the violas and cellos; and later a reassuring idea in the upper strings is accompanied by the word, “Christ.”
The Second Symphony is music of deep personal experience. It covers an enormous emotional range, including grief, spiritual contemplation, ecstatic outbursts, and yes, “the joy of living.” But as with many works of Sibelius, the awe-inspiring voices of nature can be heard throughout. They ring memorably in the ear, and haunt every listener long after the work’s triumphant final chords have died out.
− Christopher Wilkins