OpEd in the Boston Globe

The songs of Kabul

The radical sound of music comes back to Afghanistan

Renee Loth, The Boston Globe, July 16 2011

IMAGINE A world without music. It’s like something out of a soul-deadening, dystopian future. And yet the people of Afghanistan living under Taliban rule in the 1990s were forbidden to sing, play an instrument, or listen to music except for prescribed religious or patriotic chants. Anyone in violation, the mullahs decreed, would have molten lead poured into their ears on Judgment Day – and be subject to jail or beatings here on earth.

The Taliban smashed instruments, burned recordings, and destroyed the archives of traditional Afghan folk songs at Radio Kabul. Even after they were routed from power in 2001, and fatwas gave way to the secular depredations of war and poverty, music has been treated with suspicion. Playing Mozart in Kabul can be a little like reading Lolita in Tehran. So it was an act of bravery as well as hope when the Afghanistan National Institute of Music opened last summer.

“Music is a potent mechanism for self-actualization,’’ said Tanya Kalmanovitch, a violist and professor at the New England Conservatory of Music. “To be able to convey something through music requires you to recognize that you have something to say, and that you have a right to say it. That alone in many contexts can be a radical political act.’’

Kalmanovitch took a small delegation of conservatory students to help teach at the institute last winter, and she is going back in August. She works with the founder and principal, Ahmad Sarmast, son of a famous Afghan composer and conductor. With the help of funding mostly from the World Bank and Germany, and with the full support – for now – of the Afghan government, he has stocked the school with traditional Afghan rubabs (a short-necked lute), stringed ghichaks and sarods, and sitars, as well as Western instruments.

“Many of our master musicians have passed away,’’ Sarmast says in a trailer for a documentary film being produced about the school. “We have instruments no one can play. Afghanistan does not even have an orchestra to play our national anthem.’’

Half the seats at the school are set aside for war orphans or street children, who normally subsist selling gum or plastic tote bags to cars stuck in Kabul’s relentless traffic. With the help of the non-governmental Aschiana Foundation, families are given a stipend of about $30 a month to keep their children off the streets and in school. Most are adolescents who have no memory of life without war or oppression.

Music has been a propaganda tool and rallying cry throughout the centuries, striking discordant notes among tyrants who fear threats to the political or social order. Slaves had their drums seized lest they be used to communicate and plan rebellions. The Ayatollah Khomeni banned secular music in Iran. It was taboo to listen to the Beatles in Cuba in the 1960s. In Somalia in April, radio stations were ordered to stop playing music and jingles on the grounds that songs are un-Islamic.

Music can also heal, as anyone who has sung a lullaby or even a funeral hymn can attest. At the Kabul institute, the healing comes in part through the strangely soothing repetition of practice scales. “In the midst of seemingly relentless tragedy and complexity,’’ Kalmanovitch said, “doing the simple, ordinary work with the children of repeating the physical movements just struck me as enormously rare and important.’’

Kalmanovitch is hosting a benefit concert with other New England Conservatory faculty and students on Monday at the Lily Pad in Cambridge (disclosure: my husband, who also teaches at the conservatory, will be among those performing). She is calling it “Music from the Front Pages,’’ and asked the musicians to select pieces that reflect their views on the war.

She worries about the fate of Afghanistan after American troops withdraw in 2014 and the world’s attention drifts elsewhere. Insurgent Taliban continue to attack, even in Kabul. Suicide bombs and assassinations destabilize the country. But the music keeps her coming back. “Already the children are playing at such a high level,’’ she says. “To see these traditions revive before your eyes in the hands of children is really inspiring.’’ For now, Afghanistan’s musical future is upbeat.