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.