The school is situated not far from Kabul’s historic musician’s quarter where players of such traditional instruments as the rubab, dambura, dutar, and tambur once trained, passing songs and technique down through the ages. Now Sarmast is trying to rekindle and preserve these traditions, one child at a time.
Instructors, both local and foreign, are also exposing students to Western classical music by including string, brass, woodwind, percussion, piano, and guitar in the curriculum, along with regular subjects that will earn students their Grade 12 academic diplomas.
For years, Sarmast says, music instruction for children was neglected or forbidden. Fundamentalist factions banned music altogether for a time. Now, the prevalence of Indian “Bollywood” music and Western rock is threatening to obliterate other musical forms, he says.
Preserving tradition is a daunting task, but Sarmast says his larger goal at ANIM is more ambitious.
“I came here hoping to give a voice to the Afghan people, to ensure that they can express themselves again in music and hopefully bring about positive changes by challenging social, ethnic, and religious barriers. We want to re-establish mutual respect within Afghan communities and internationally as well.”
ANIM has started this process, says Sarmast, by recruiting half its students from local orphanages and children’s aid agencies. Girls currently make up one-third of the student body, but the ultimate goal is recruit half. Children also come from a wide range of ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Students wear uniforms so no distinctions are made, and all must audition to determine their musical promise. But the orphans have special meaning for Sarmast.
With obvious emotion, he recalls the personal struggle of his father, Ustad Salim Sarmast. After being left at an orphanage by a widowed and impoverished mother, Ustad managed to become the first Afghan to successfully compose, arrange, and conduct works for a symphony orchestra in his homeland during the Soviet occupation.
“This is in my blood. I am always inspired by my father’s story, and I tell the children that they, too, can accomplish such great things,” Sarmast says.
Fikrya was selling chewing gum on the streets of Kabul before an aid agency encouraged her to audition for ANIM. Now she’s one of the first in her country to play the cello. Eleven-year-old Said is sticking to his Afghan roots, focusing his musical efforts on the rubab, a short-necked, plucked lute often intricately decorated with pearl inlay.
“The rubab has such a wonderful voice. I first heard it played at my uncle’s wedding and thought to myself, I’m going to learn this instrument,” says Said, whose father is a local laborer.
Not all students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, however. Elham is a young pianist with promise, who loves Chopin and feels “like I’m in a garden” when he plays. He comes from a local musical family who can afford to pay tuition.
“In Kabul, there isn’t much classical music, and I want to introduce it to my people,” says the aspiring teen composer, before launching into a Haydn sonata, eyes closed, thin slippers slapping at piano pedals.
Another paying student, Shabeer says he experimented with numerous instruments and instructors before settling on the unlikely oboe at ANIM.
“After all these years, when I listen and play the oboe, it’s with love,” Shabeer says. “Dr. Sarmast has done everything for us and we have found ourselves as musicians. There is no place like this.”
The Afghan students will perform at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. This is a free event and tickets are required. Tickets will be distributed, two per person in line, in the Hall of Nations beginning at 5 p.m.. Click here for more information. At Carnegie Hall in New York, they will play at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Click here for more information or to purchase tickets.