KABUL (Reuters) - A cacophony ranging from Asian string instruments to the delicate cadences of classical piano pours out of a two-storey building in central Kabul.
Here, at Afghanistan’s sole music academy, students are taught music with the hope it will bring comfort in the face of war and poverty, bringing back cellos and violins to revive a rich musical legacy disrupted by decades of violence and suppression.
“We are committed to build ruined lives through music, given its healing power,” Ahmad Sarmast, head of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, told Reuters.
The trumpet player turned musicologist set up the school two years ago on the site of the School of Fine Arts’ music department, which was forced to shut in the early 1990s as civil war engulfed the country following a decade-long Soviet occupation.
The austere Taliban, who took over in 1996, then banned music outright, something unthinkable in today’s Afghanistan, where cafes and cars blast Indian love songs and the tunes of 1970s Afghan crooner Ahmad Zahir.
But while the institute’s 140 full-time pupils have little recollection of that time, they still face hardships in their musical pursuits.
Half the students are orphans or street children, with the rest selected after a music exam.
All are passionate about music, said voice and flute teacher Mashal Arman, daughter of famed Afghan musician Hossein, whose black-and-white photographs grace the school’s hall.
“They are so thirsty for music and art, it is fabulous to see the country finally changing,” said Arman, whose accent hints at her connection to Switzerland, where she fled with her family more than 20 years ago.
Sarmast said he had also set a quota that a third of students must be girls — a gesture towards the plight of Afghan women, who still struggle for basic rights such as education after 30 years of war and harsh Taliban rule.
All students receive full scholarships to attend the school, which operates under the Ministry of Education with significant foreign funding, notably from Britain, Germany and Denmark. They are awarded internationally recognized music diplomas.
“The return of music is one of the most positive changes in post-Taliban Afghanistan,” said Sarmast, who studied in Moscow and Australia before returning to Afghanistan in 2008 with a mission to establish the academy.
In one of the school’s carpeted rehearsal rooms, recently soundproofed with Afghan timber, 14-year-old orphan Fatima strums a sitar, conjuring up sounds familiar to Afghan children, who adore Bollywood films and their music.
“I was encouraged to come here and I am happy for it. I love playing,” Fatima said, adjusting the pink cap covering her hair that she uses instead of a headscarf.
Her Indian teacher, Irfan Khan, one of 16 foreign instructors at the school, watches approvingly but laments the poverty that prevents students from owning instruments, hindering their progress.
“We are reviving music for those who have been deprived,” he said. “However, many of the students do not come from affluent families and are only able to practice here.”
At $600, a new saxophone is more than $100 higher than an average worker’s annual salary, according to Finance Ministry estimates.
For star classical piano pupil Sayed Elham, a jovial 13-year-old with a passion for Chopin, the $3,000 needed to trade his family’s Casio keyboard for a full-size piano is nothing but a dream.
“I want our government to improve the state of Afghan music,” he said after performing Chopin’s Nocturne for some fellow students, who gathered to hear him rehearse.
Despite the school’s success — it takes on an extra 80 or so students for its two-month winter academy and is building a 300-seat auditorium and separate building for rehearsing — the future for musicians in Afghanistan is bleak.
Rights taken for granted by musicians in the West, such as copyright and royalties, do not exist, and most recording and broadcasting fees must be paid out of the musician’s pocket.
In addition, there are scant prospects of jobs.
“We have a long way to go to make sure that our graduates are getting just remuneration and their rights protected,” Sarmast said.
But he now hopes his graduates will form Afghanistan’s first national symphony orchestra, a vision already in the works.
Editing by Elaine Lies and Robert Birsel