Music and the Dream of Reconciliation in Afghanistan

A film screening and concert of Afghan music at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, City of London, 23th April 2016.

Opening statement from John Baily, Head of the Afghanistan Music Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Good evening, and thank you for coming to to Saint Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. This is a very special place, whose mission is to help people build relationships across divisions of conflict, culture and religion.

Let us remember the bombing that took place in Kabul four days ago, with twenty eight dead and hundreds injured. We send our condolences to those whose family members and friends were killed or injured. We have to counter such actions with the positive power of music, believing that ‘Music is essential for the very survival of man's humanity’, as John Blacking put it. Or as Jean Pierre Guinhut, former French Ambassador in Kabul stated ‘In a country as devastated as Afghanistan, music is a gift in a dull and desperate struggle for survival.... The death of musicians from war should be commemorated in history as one of the worst crimes against humanity’.

Sher Ahmad Khan, an Afghan community leader in Fremont, California, told me in 2000:

Music brings unity to the people, old and young together, and helps us not to lose our identity. We Afghans have some differences, but the concerts are the only times when we forget about everything, all people from different parts [of the country], different sects, different parts, we come and buy our tickets and go to the concerts.

The key words here are unity and identity. There are good reasons to believe that in the mid-twentieth century music played an important role in the emergence of a national identity in Afghanistan, an identity that needs reasserting today.

So to the Dream of Reconciliation in Afghanistan. Tonight’s programme seeks to show you something of the power of confronting extreme fundamentalism and puritanism through music. It consists of a short film, followed by an opportunity for questions. Then, after an interval, a performance of traditional Afghan music by Veronica Doubleday, Sulaiman Haqpana and myself.

So, to the film Return of the Nightingales. It’s the record of a visit to a remarkable co-educational, vocational music school in Kabul, opened in 2010 by the Afghan musicologist, Dr Ahmad Sarmast, with the objective of rebuilding vocational music education in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. As he wrote in 2008:

After almost three decades of war, the musical culture of Afghanistan and its music institutions have been shattered. Music education and the promotion of music are tasks requiring urgent attention. To establish a vocational school of music it is important to identify and assist Afghan children with special musical gifts, regardless of their gender, personal and social circumstances. Such children, especially orphans, can benefit greatly from receiving specialist music training as part of their general education. Such training will enable them to proceed towards careers in music, and in this manner also promote job creation in Afghanistan.

As well as the regular school curriculum Dr Sarmast’s school, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music places a strong emphasis on teaching Afghan music, North Indian music, and western art music. About this Dr Sarmast says: ‘Some people told me why does Afghanistan need Bach or Beethoven or Mozart? You should concentrate on Afghan traditional music. But Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, they don’t belong to Europe, they don’t belong to America, they belong to all the world and I want Afghan kids to have access to the musical heritage of the world.’

In 2011 I paid a visit to the school as SEMPRE’s ‘Special Ambassador to Afghanistan’, one year after its opening, and from video that I happened to shoot during my visit Dr Evangelos Himonides, of the Institute of Education, edited a short film, Return of the Nightingales. The film shows, it does not tell. There are no explanations, there is no commentary, it’s like a visit to the school, wandering from one space to another, observing individual students practising, sitting in on music lessons, rehearsals, end-of-year presentations and ending with part of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero for the visiting Swedish Ambassador.

As for the concert, Veronica and I began our work on Afghan music in the 1970s, and have continued ever since. Amongst other things, we both took to learning to perform as a form of ethnomusicological research. Veronica learned to sing local Herati songs and the play the frame drum from a renowned woman singer, and I learned to play two kinds of Afghan lute, the dutar and the rubab. We have supported Afghan music for 40 years and are recognised as having had a positive impact, reminding exiles of the value of their culture, its power for reconciliation and therapeutic possibilities. We are joined by Sulaiman Haqpana, who is from Herat, the city where we lived and researched in the 1970s. Sulaiman is currently a Masters student at the London School of Economics.