- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

KABUL | Two teenage violinists scrape their way through a French gavotte in a chilly classroom at Afghanistan’s only high school for music, a bleak building and one-time ruin of Kabul’s civil war.

“When it is cold, our fingers don’t work so well,” says 18-year-old Hogat Ruzabeh. His dream, he says, is to one day perform in an Afghan symphony orchestra.

Clad in denim jeans, Mr. Ruzabeh has turned up to practice an art form that he says is as important to him as “eating and drinking.”

Yet Afghanistan’s potential musicians are starved in a nation where war and Islamist extremism have eroded classical culture and destroyed a wealth of ancient art, film libraries and paintings.

The Taliban regime, which ruled from 1996 to 2001, banned music, forcing many musicians to put away their instruments or go into exile.

While the American-led ouster of the brutal regime revived musicians’ fortunes, age-old traditional instruments are nevertheless on the brink of extinction.

Classical Western disciplines introduced in the 1940s and again in the 1970s have almost been lost.

Kabul’s Secondary Vocational School of Music embodies such decay, having been plundered during the civil war in the 1990s between various political and military factions that ousted the Soviet occupiers.

“Everything was stolen,” says Abdul Mohammad, the school’s caretaker for 30 years. “It was a battlefield; they took everything, even the power lines.”

“They used tablas (traditional drums) for flower pots, pianos for firewood, brass instruments were sold as scrap metal in Pakistan,” he says.

Mr. Mohammad holds up a small stool, the only item remaining from the school that once flourished in the 1980s.

“I couldn’t do anything to protect the school and the musical instruments,” he says. “I would have cried blood instead of tears if I could because of the destruction.”

Hand grenades were tossed into concert pianos to splinter the wood into manageable sizes, adds musicologist Ahmad Sarmast, a driving force behind post-Taliban efforts to revive music in Afghanistan.

It is “more like a prison than a music school,” he says of the dark corridors and damaged doors fastened with padlocks.

The 90 or so students also have few usable instruments: 35 students share a single drum kit, while 17 share one saxophone.

However, the dark times and sour notes may soon be coming to an end for the school, which is to be given a makeover due to begin next week.

What is now a crumbling symbol of broken dreams is to be transformed into a world-class National Institute of Music for Afghanistan, Mr. Sarmast says.

Classrooms will be overhauled, a concert hall will be built and students will follow a new curriculum that will guide the school toward international affiliation and accreditation, says Mr. Sarmast, the new initiative’s director.

Specialist music teachers also will be employed to bolster the sparse number of five or six Afghan instructors currently at the school. Mr. Sarmast says he had little trouble filling the new positions.

“We got a very good response for the teaching positions advertised,” he says.

Recruitment is under way to select students and future stars from the war-ravaged country’s large number of orphans and street children, whom Mr. Sarmast hopes will make up half the future student body.

Years in planning, the effort involves a host of donor governments, international music colleges and instrument suppliers. About 200 donated instruments in Germany, in fact, are ready to be shipped over for the new institute.

It is only the beginning of a long journey in a country where the army band is possibly the only group capable of performing the national anthem; itself produced abroad.

“In eight or 10 years, we should have the first symphony orchestra or a well-qualified brass band,” Mr. Sarmast says.

Mr. Sarmast, who has a doctorate in music from Monash University, Australia, where he is now a research fellow, says he believes that music can heal his war-torn and ethnically divided nation.

“In a country that has had 30 years of civil war, music and music education can assist traumatized people, especially young children and orphans who witnessed the killing of their parents and destruction of their homes.

“No one can argue against the unifying power of music.”

Back in the classroom, the other teenager battling with the tricky French score, 19-year-old Ramin Shekwa, also believes music is “good for the mind and soul” of his traumatized nation.

“Music is good to keep away sorrow and feel the happiness of other countries through their music,” Mr. Shekwa says, wrapping his cold fingers around the violin he hopes will one day put him in his country’s first symphony orchestra.

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