Tuesday, November 27, 2012

new film highlights role of Afghanistan National Institute of Music

ANIM students (picture from ANIM website)

In mid-2001 Dr John Baily, Professor of Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, London University, wrote a report on music censorship in Afghanistan entitled Can You Stop the Birds Singing? The report was commissioned by the Danish NGO Freemuse, which campaigns for freedom of musical expression. The report, Freemuse's first-ever published study, was highly topical as it appeared at a time when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had imposed an extreme form of music censorship. The report  traced the various types of music censorship imposed by different regimes in Afghanistan from 1978. It was accompanied by a CD with 10 examples of music and religious singing.

Now Professor Baily has made a film whose title -  Return of the Nightingales - partially answers the question posed by the title of his Freemuse report. It focuses on a bold initiative to rebuild music culture among the younger generation in Afghanistan - the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). This vocational music school is the brainchild of its Afghan-Australian founder and director, musicologist Dr Ahmed Sarmast. The film was recently premiered at Goldsmiths College in the Music Department's Graduate Forum. At the premiere Baily described Sarmast as "a very gifted educationalist" whose ambition was to make music in Afghanistan part of the school curriculum, which it never had been in the past.

Dr Ahmed Sarmast 

In Return of the Nightingales Afghan boys and girls, singly or in groups, work enthusiastically with tutors from various countries learning how to play western, Afghan and Indian instruments including violin, trumpet, piano, rubab, guitar, cello, sitar, xylophone, tabla, sitar, oud, flute and clarinet. The children also teach each other. When the Swedish ambassador to Afghanistan visits ANIM the children perform Ravel's Bolero for the smiling diplomat, led by their animated conductor. At the end of the performance the ambassador kindly says "this is the best Bolero I have heard for a very long time - I think Ravel would have been surprised." Some of the young musicians, especially those playing with skill traditional Afghan instruments such as rubab, presumably come from families of hereditary musicians such as those found in the Kabul musicians' quarter of Kucheh Kharabat

Dr Sarmast is from Kabul and is the son of the late Ustad Salim Sarmast, a well-known Afghan composer, conductor and musician. He received his basic training in western music in Kabul, and then studied music in Moscow at the time of communist governments in Afghanistan. After migrating to Australia he gained his MMus and PhD at Monash University, Victoria. Baily describes Dr Sarmast's 2004 PhD as "a very important survey of music in Afghanistan, a work I have used extensively in my own writings."

Dr Sarmast founded the Revival of Afghan Music (ROAM) project while a post-doctoral fellow in the Monash Asia Institute. With generous funding from the World Bank and many other donors, particularly in Germany and the USA, Dr Sarmast was able to implement the ROAM project and in 2010 ANIM was official inaugurated.

Baily, who is now Emeritus Professor at Goldsmiths, is a world authority on the music of Afghanistan. He and his wife Veronica Doubleday (who wrote the book Three Women of Herat) began researching and recording music in Afghanistan in 1973 and later extended their research to Afghan communities in exile. They are accomplished performers of Afghan music, and frequently perform in public, often at charity events.

In the 11 years since publication of Can You Stop the Birds Singing?, and the ousting of the Taliban, Baily has endeavoured to document and help re-establish traditional Afghan musical life inside and outside Afghanistan. As part of these efforts he set up the Afghanistan Music Unit at Goldsmiths in 2002. His activities have included making films including A Kabul Music Diary shot during a trip to Afghanistan in 2002, and Scenes of Afghan Music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin (2007).

ANIM students (from ANIM website)

Baily visited ANIM in October 2011 as the "cultural ambassador to Afghanistan" of the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE), based in the Institute of Education, London University. SEMPRE is one of the financial backers of the school, specifically for staff development. Baily did not visit ANIM with the specific intention of making a film but while there  he shot five hours of video which was edited by Evangelos Himonides in the Institute of Education into the 30-minute film Return of the Nightingales. Baily studied ethnographic filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in the 1980s, and at the premiere he explained he was trained in the "observational" style, showing rather than telling and, as far as possible, avoiding voice-over commentary. "The film is intended to give you 'the feeling of being there', to enter into the spirit of visiting ANIM." The film has a structure, "but it was our intention to make this as lyrical an experience as possible, lyrical in the sense of expressing deep personal emotion or observations, highly enthusiastic, rhapsodic."

ANIM offers coeducational education (picture from ANIM website)

ANIM teaches Afghan, Indian and western music, but particularly emphasises western music, both classical and popular. Baily noted in his introductory remarks at the film screening that people often ask "why does Afghanistan need western art music?" and "is this not an example of cultural neo-imperialism?" He explained that the history of the presence of Western music in Afghanistan, goes back to the military music "imported from British India, along with British armaments for the new army of Amir Abdur Rehman" in the 19th century. A school of military music was established in the 1920s. There were Turkish bandmasters and through them connections with Germany.
When Radio Afghanistan was established in the 1940s it had three resident ensembles: Kabuli art music, with strong Indian roots; Afghan folk music from Logar, a mixed Pushtun-Tajik music; and a western ensemble with musicians from the military-municipal background. and "Arkestar Jaz". In 1970 the three ensembles, while continuing to have their own identifies, combined in the Arkestar-e Bozorg Radio Afghanistan (Big Orchestra of Radio Afghanistan) which brought together Afghan, Indian and Western instruments. The leader of the Big Orchestra, as well as its composer and arranger, was Dr Sarmast's father, Ustad Salim Sarmast.

A Vocational School of Music was opened in 1974 by the Ministry for Education, providing tuition in western music theory, and in various instruments, under the tutelage of Ustad Sarmast and others. In 1987 training in Afghan instruments was introduced. Among the Afghan musicians working in the western musical idiom who were trained at the Vocational School of Music was Dr Ahmad Sarmast. But all this was lost after the Islamists came to power in 1992. ANIM is a recreation of the old Vocational School, in the same buildings but vastly refurbished. Sarmast has raised millions of dollars and is now building a concert hall and a dormitory for some of the children.
school photograph (from the ANIM website)

The film is not designed to be shown on TV or publicly distributed, but is primarily intended to be seen by music graduates who might be interested in going to Kabul to work as interns at ANIM where there is already a considerable amount of teaching by western music educators.

ANIM is clearly a ground-breaking project in a number of ways. ANIM is an Afghan initiative, rather than implanted by a Western NGO. And it is coeducational with boys and headscarved girls mixing. In addition, the children are encouraged to have a say in the running of the school through the election of student representatives to the management committee.

ANIM has made a promising start in  helping nurture and develop Afghan musical talent. ROAM's 2008 statement Rebuilding Vocational Music Education in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan said: "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."
report by Susannah Tarbush

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