Afghan Youth Orchestra brings message of hope on two-week U.S. tour

The lulling sound of the sarod is loved by many, but the fretless instrument is difficult to master. That Negin Khpolwak’s fingers are tough enough to press the strings is, in itself, a musical feat. But the sound of her sarod is all the more powerful because Khpolwak is an orphan, only 16, born the same year that the Taliban took control of her native Kabul, the same year it pummeled pianos with grenades and chopped off the hands of men who dared to strum sitars.

Eleven years after the fall of the Taliban, Khpolwak now performs in the Afghan Youth Orchestra, a celebrated ensemble of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, where she studies.

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The Afghanistan National Institute of Music began a two week U.S. tour beginning at the State Department on Feb. 4, 2013. John Kerry welcomed the Afghan students on his first official day as Secretary of State.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music began a two week U.S. tour beginning at the State Department on Feb. 4, 2013. John Kerry welcomed the Afghan students on his first official day as Secretary of State.

(Musadeq Sadeq/AP) - An Afghan youth, Sayed Menhaj Sadat, practices playing the cello in a class at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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“Normally, Afghan girls are not picking traditional instruments,” Khpolwak said in a phone interview through an interpreter. “I am one of the first. It’s an honor to play with the orchestra and to act as an ambassador for Afghan music and culture.”

Khpolwak seems aware of the symbolism: She is a girl attending school in a country where the Taliban silenced both women and music. On Sunday, she and 47 other young Afghans will board a flight bound for Washington to showcase their talents and triumphs when the Afghan Youth Orchestra begins a two-week tour of the United States. The tour will include a free concert at the Kennedy Center on Thursday, master classes at the New England Conservatory in Boston and a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The students, ages 10 to 21, have not practiced their entire lives to get to Carnegie Hall, but the school wasn’t built for Langs, Mas and Perlmans. Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan music professor educated in Russia and Australia, founded the school in 2010 to bring music back to the country after it was banned in the name of the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam.

“Music can play a role in bringing about social changes and breaking taboos,” Sarmast said. “That’s why many of the activities are designed not only for education but also to contribute to establishing a civil society in Afghanistan.”

Half of the school’s 141 students are orphans or former street hawkers. Children from every ethnic group and social class attend the school, where tuition is free, and 35 girls are enrolled. For the poorest students, the school is the jolt out of poverty; some families are given monthly stipends for their children’s lost wages. And orphans audition to learn music and other subjects alongside promising students from middle-class backgrounds. Milad Yousufi, 18, won third place at an international piano competition in Frankfurt, Germany, last year and will audition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston next week.

The Afghan Youth Orchestra is more than a development project. For Sarmast and the school’s many international donors, it serves as a powerful symbol of successful reconstruction in Afghanistan. And by performing in Washington and New York, the seats of U.S. political and financial power, the orchestra hopes to showcase what a decade of investment has achieved.

“All these countries, especially the people of Afghanistan, are tired of always seeing the reporting on Afghanistan in negative colors,” Sarmast said. “The donors see that the outcome of this tour can change the perception of Afghanistan.”

The U.S. State Department, the World Bank, the Carnegie Corporation and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education have invested heavily in the tour. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul awarded nearly $350,000 footing most of the estimated $500,000 cost. For international donors, the tour symbolizes progress in a country crippled by war.

“The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is an example of how far education, culture and youth have advanced since the fall of the Taliban,” said Eileen O’Connor, director of communications and public diplomacy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. “We wanted Americans to understand the difference their tax dollars have made in building a better future for young people, which translates into reduced threats from extremists in the region.”

The World Bank has invested $1.8 million in the school as part of a $20 million vocational training project in Afghanistan. Isabel Guerrero, World Bank vice president for the South Asia region, sees the school as not only a development project but also an example of international cooperation.

“A network of goodwill is being created through culture,” Guerrero said. “Coming to the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall is a huge deal for the students and their parents, and it creates a cycle of recognition of the value of this.”

The tour signals the growing potency of cultural diplomacy in Afghanistan amid ongoing negotiations over the United States’ post-2014 role in the country. And if the tour is as successful as Sarmast hopes it will be, violins could become the most powerful weapons of counterinsurgency.

One School, Many Functions

William Harvey often speaks of one of his first students. Shortly after the American violinist from Indianapolis arrived in Afghanistan, he met Marjan, an orphan who wanted to learn violin.

“She pressed her face up against the window and watched as I played,” said Harvey, who conducts the Afghan Youth Orchestra and has taught violin at the school since 2010. He later learned that Marjan’s father was paralyzed after members of the Taliban beat him with an electrical cable.

“Thanks to the sponsorship program, she makes slightly more money per month than she used to selling chewing gum on the streets,” Harvey said.

Most of the students have compelling stories, repeated dozens of times by international media outlets, in English as well as Dari and Pashto. And Harvey and Sarmast have their own riveting narratives. Sarmast, the son of well-known Afghan conductor Ustad Salim Sarmast, had to leave Afghanistan to obtain his doctorate in music. Harvey had wanted to move to Afghanistan since his first year at Juilliard in 2002, when he read an article about how the youth of the country hadn’t heard music in years. They both subscribe to the belief that the school offers hope to the Afghan people, and serves as a model for international cooperation.

“There’s a lot of weariness in the U.S. and cynicism about Afghanistan,” Harvey said. “What are we doing there? What can be achieved? These concerts answer those questions in the strongest way possible: Cooperation between Afghanistan and the international community has made it safe for young girls and boys to learn music.”

While the school was born of Sarmast’s hope to bring music to his homeland, it has become an invaluable lesson in cultural diplomacy. Sometimes called soft power, public diplomacy helped the U.S. government engage foreign populations through American music and culture during the Cold War. Jazz was the medium of choice in 1956, when the State Department funded Dizzy Gillespie’s musical tour of the Middle East, often seen as a landmark experiment in cultural diplomacy. The tour was so successful that the Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and the Duke Ellington Orchestra went on tours in Africa, the Soviet Union and Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Cull, director of the public diplomacy masters program at the University of Southern California, said the United States decreased its public diplomacy efforts during the 1990s, preferring to let private international companies such as Disney or Coca-Cola represent the cultural face of the nation. He sees the tour by the Afghan Youth Orchestra as a sign that the United States is investing in public diplomacy once again.

“What’s most significant is that the U.S. has a history of sending culture out,” Cull said. “This tour enables Afghans to share their culture and stories with the U.S. It’s great that Afghanistan is getting a chance to speak, to be more than the passive recipient of the world’s largess.”

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan and now a senior fellow at Yale University, says the tour is a point of pride for Afghan people:

“Culture counts, but in the Afghan context, culture assumes particular importance in developing a national spirit in the post-Taliban generation.”

For those who doubt music’s impact on foreign relations, Crocker highlights that public diplomacy is part of a broader security effort in the region.

“I think I can speak for all donors that support the institute, that helping indigent children is worthy in and of itself, but [the school] also creates a human bulwark that is effectively saying, ‘Never again. Those people will never rule us again.’ ”

The State Department is investing heavily in this message and, in turn, funding music, art and museums in Afghanistan. It invested in the renovation of the Padshah-seh-Ughur Mausoleum in Kabul, the Herat Citadel, an ancient site that dates to 330 B.C., and in Afghanistan’s vibrant tradition of film through the Afghan Film Project. “Buzkashi Boys,” a film co-produced by Afghanistan and the United States, was nominated for an Academy Award last month.

But investment raises delicate questions of how the international community can help Afghanistan rebuild its lost culture without imposing its will.

Harvey and Sarmast see the school as the answer to this sensitive question. Foreign and Afghan teachers work side by side to instruct students in Western and traditional music. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education sanctions and supports the school financially, but welcomes donations from foreign governments and private sponsors. Even the music selection showcases the fusion of Western and Afghan forces: On the U.S. tour, the orchestra will play a version of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” scored by Harvey for Western and Afghan instruments.

With all the talk of symbolism, one could easily forget that the institute teaches music, not foreign relations. Harvey is quick to remind his students that they are musicians and ambassadors.

“It’s a balance between the big and small pictures,” Harvey said. “I tell my students, ‘You are the ones who are saving music for Afghanistan. You are the ones who are taking the leadership role.’ It’s important to talk about it, but it’s also important to tell a violinist if his wrist is in the wrong position.”

And while the students are aware of the significance of an American tour, they’re still young people visiting a new country for the first time.

“The most common question I’m getting is how often we’re going to eat pizza,” Harvey said. “Lucky for them it’s my favorite food, too.”

Ensembles of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Thursday at 6 p.m., Concert Hall, Kennedy Center. Tickets are required and will be distributed at 5 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations.

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