WHAT kind of world do we live in where making music is an act of defiance? What kind of country is it where it requires huge courage for girls to learn to play instruments?
What kind of god asks its adherents to smash exquisite traditional instruments and bans the making of music or even singing as you work in the fields?
Video film of the smiles and concentration on the faces of Afghan girls playing music with Afghan and American teachers says more about the plight of ordinary people under a regime of brutal fanatics than any Mad Max images of gun-waving fighters on armoured vehicles racing across the desert amid clouds of swirling sand.
The three-part film of Ensemble Zohra was shown as interludes between performances of The Rosegarden of Light (Gulistan-e Nur), to a small but captivated audience at the Silk Mill in Frome, part of an international tour that also visits Shafesbury before heading for Berlin and The Hague.
The Rosegarden of Light is the title of a work by the Shaftesbury-based composer Sadie Harrison. It is also a project that involves Sadie , the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and the American string sextet Cuatro Puntos (Four Corners), a non-profit ensemble dedicated to global cooperation and peace through writing, performing and teaching music.
The girls in the film are students at ANIM, which was founded by Dr Ahmed Sarmast, whose father Ustad Salim Sarmast was one of Afghanistan’s finest and most popular composers. The concert includes Ustad Sarmast’s O Flower Branch (Ay Shakha Gul), a setting of a ghazal by the Iranian poet Mohammad Hoseyn Shariar, with swirling, sentimental melodies that are poignant reminders of a time when music filled the airwaves and the streets of Kabul.
Music, poetry and the creation of gardens flourished in Afghanistan throughout the centuries, as they did in neighbouring Persia/Iran. It was only with the rise of the puritanical Taliban that the enjoyment of beauty in all its forms – as part of a deeply religious culture – was stamped on. Instruments were smashed, music disappeared from radio, television and the streets, even from people’s homes.
The lives of women – always hard and constrained by rigid codes of morality – became almost unendurable, with bans on education, music, colourful clothes and most forms of socialising.
After the removal of the Taliban government, and the return of a fragile freedom, Dr Sarmast founded ANIM in 2009. The organisation works particularly with street children and trains teachers to take their skills and music to other parts of the country. A film made over several years, shown at The Rosegarden of Light evening, features Waheed, a child who scratches a pittance selling plastic carrier bags to shoppers, and has learned to play the piano. Rosegarden composer Sadie Harrison wrote a piece for him called A Gift of Music – his smile as he plays is heart-breaking and uplifting. Waheed also plays the harmonium and the sitar.
On 11th December 2014, Dr Sarmast and a group of young musicians from ANIM were performing at the Istiqlal School at the French Cultural Centre in Kabul. A suicide bomber attacked the venue and Dr Sarmast was seriously injured. Undeterred, he continues with his work, supported by brave Afghan teachers and by visiting musicians, including viola player Kevin Bishop and bassist Holly Bishop of Cuatro Puntos. They are helping to revive Afghanistan’s traditional music and to teach western music. Waheed’s favourite composer is Chopin, and Sadie’s gift is a nod to the Polish master of the piano.
Music students from ANIM have toured to the USA – playing at the Kennedy Centre and the Carnegie Hall – and the UK.
Sadie Harrison worked as an archaeologist before she became a composer and her knowledge and understanding of the past informs much of her music. The Rosegarden programme also includes her solo viola piece, Allah hu (This is God), part of a longer work, Dast be Dast (Hand to Hand in Friendship) which was first performed in Kabul by Kevin Bishop, rubab player Samim Zafar and Madhurijya Barthakur on tabla. The piece was commissioned by Kevin and was Sadie’s first for Cuatro Puntos and ANIM.
Other works in the programme are Nai Concertino, by the Iraqi composer Mohammed Uthman Sidiq, the profoundly moving Calligraphies for string quartet by Iranian-born Reza Vali and Letters Home, a tragic memoir by the Syrian exile Kareen Roustom.
The second half opens with Pesta Farosh (The Pistachio Seller), a popular traditional Afghan song that can be played or sung or arranged for any number of performers or instruments.
The film of Ensemble Zohra was made at a time of terrible violence and random attacks in Kabul. The girls were literally in fear of their lives, Sadie told the Frome audience. Afghanistan is still the worst country in the world for women’s rights, but the existence of ANIM and of the girls in Ensemble Zohra is a tribute to the courage and creativity of these young women and testament to the power of music to transform lives.
The Rosegarden of Light project has already been performed across the USA and at Brighton Festival, and is heading for Berlin and the Netherlands. There is one more West Country date, at St Peter’s Church, Shaftesbury, on Thursday 2nd June. This is an important, fascinating and hugely enjoyable evening, one to make you think but also to relish the richness of music in our culture, whether we come from poverty-stricken Afghanistan or the wealthy west.
The Rosegarden of Light is raising awareness – and funds – for ANIM and Cuatro Puntos’ work in Afghanistan. Proceeds of the Rosegarden CDs will go to the project, and Shaftesbury artist Phyllis Wolff is donating part of any sales of her paintings, some inspired by The Rosegarden of Light, on show at the Silk Mill in Frome for the next two weeks. Phyllis is also opening her studio for Dorset Art Weeks, which continues to 12th June.