The barefoot boys sit cross-legged on the stage, tuning their instruments to the droning A of the lutelike rubab. Behind them hangs a poster of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, shaking hands underneath the word “Cooperation.” Before them is an audience of mostly African American boys and girls, listening to Afghan instruments they’ve never before seen up close.
As the visitors play a set of four traditional songs, heads begin to bob in the auditorium at William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, in Northeast Washington, where children of two countries irrevocably affected by the Taliban’s brutality are meeting each other for the first time.
Only 48 hours after touching down at Dulles International Airport, the Afghan Youth Orchestra, visiting the United States this week, had begun its packed diplomatic tour. The young musicians have already played at the Afghan Embassy and the World Bank, institutions that, along with the State Department, are funding the $500,000 tour. Secretary of State John F. Kerry dropped in when they performed Monday at the State Department, calling them “ambassadors of peace.” It wasn’t until Tuesday that they met their American peers and exchanged more than songs and pleasantries.
“Why was music forbidden?’ asked Timon Lawson, 9, during a question-and-answer session after the traditional ensemble’s performance. Samir Zafar, 14, explained through an interpreter that music was banned during the Taliban’s rule because the militant group believed that it went against the dictates of Islam.
“Do you believe in the laws” of the Taliban? another boy in the audience asked.
“No,” Samir answered in his native Dari. “Music is a universal language of the heart.”
The questions may seem tough for a goodwill tour, but the children, many of whom have no memory of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or the Taliban’s regime, asked each other questions that pushed beyond the confines of music. The children seemed to enjoy their encounter, learning about each other’s music schools along the way.
“I’m very glad I made this trip,” said Samim Rafighzadeh, 19, a tabla player in the ensemble. “Our school is new, and we are just getting organized. It is good to visit a school like this and see what the next step is.”
The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010, is the only such school in the country. With 141 students, 35 of whom are girls, it brings music education back to a country that once banned instruments and women’s education. This is the school’s longest and largest tour, with 48 students and 12 teachers traveling to the United States for two weeks. And for many of the students, it’s a tour of firsts: first airplane ride, first visa. Teachers noted that the ensemble has never seen another music school, let alone one with 24 pianos in one room.
“It’s so new to them to see schools where people learn piano, violin and music,” said Allegra Boggess, 28, a piano teacher from Colorado who has been teaching at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music for 18 months. William E. Doar “is the same kind of music school we are trying to create,” she said.
Cultural exchanges between Afghan and American youths are a priority on the tour. At the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Thursday, the Afghan orchestra will perform with the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras. Members of both orchestras met at Strathmore for the first time Tuesday to practice for the Kennedy Center concert. The Afghan ensemble will perform with the Scarsdale High School Orchestra in New York and take classes with students from the New England Conservatory in Boston. The meetings give musicians from both countries a chance to compare instruments and facilities. And although thousands of miles apart, students and teachers at these publicly funded arts schools harbor the same hopes and aspirations. Like the Afghan youths, students at William E. Doar Jr. learn instruments that many picked up for the first time at the school.
“None of the children pay for the instruments,” said Kim Teachout, music coordinator at William E. Doar Jr. “Being in inner-city D.C., it gives them an opportunity to learn an instrument they may not have otherwise had. It brings joy to their lives. ‘Hope’ is a good word for it.”
Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, expresses the same sentiment: Music breeds hope.
Donors hope the tour shows the parents of Afghan students and the most conservative leaders in Afghanistan that learning traditional and Western orchestral music does not contradict the tenets of Islam. Overcoming the taboo of instructing students in music is a struggle for the Afghanistan school’s teachers.
“It’s a constant threat, to the girls especially,” Boggess said. “Some people in Afghanistan are very conservative, and they don’t know whether music is allowed in the context of Islam. They see Shakira on TV or see men and women dancing together and they think that is [Western] music. They don’t know about violin sonatas.”
But, most important, the tour is offering the students new perspectives on America and their American peers. Boggess emphasized that many of the younger students are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds.
“So many of the kids have never seen an elephant,” she said of their visit to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “They asked, ‘Is it alive?’ They would have stayed all day. Some of the older students, though, did become a little depressed. They don’t have museums like this in Afghanistan. Maybe one day they’ll help build one.”