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Christopher Wilkins’ Report from Kabul – Chapter 3

December 6, 2014

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.

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