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Afghan and Iranian musicians join forces at Beethovenfest – DW – 08/22/2023


The world is out of joint in many places, some more than others — like Afghanistan. On August 15, 2021, the lives of Marin, Shabana, Aman and other members of the Afghan National Youth Orchestra changed abruptly.

Taliban troops flooded into Kabul. The young musicians’ alma mater, the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM), became one of the first targets of the new regime: they vandalized classrooms and destroyed musical instruments.

This photo taken on September 14, 2021 shows an armed Taliban fighter sitting in a courtyard at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul.
A Taliban fighter guards the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in KabulImage: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

“My mother said to me, ‘You also have to destroy your instrument, your sitar, or at least hide it well,'” Shabana recalls. “So my brother, who is also a musician, and I wrapped our instruments in blankets and hid them in the laundry.” For the next few months, Shabana was hardly allowed to leave the house: “My mother was afraid I would be picked up by the Taliban and forcibly married off.” Marin also recounts similar experiences, “Life changed abruptly. It was a nightmare.”

Afghan musicians in exile: giving a voice to a silenced country 

Two years and what feels like a lifetime later, young musicians from Kabul sit in the spacious rehearsal rooms of the youth center in Braga, Portugal. For more than a year, the city near Porto has been a new home to some 270 students and faculty members from ANIM — a music conservatory in exile. In a feat of strength led by ANIM founder Naser Ahmad Sarmast, the musicians managed to escape to Europe via Qatar.

Four young women play instruments in a rehearsal room.
Musicians from Iran, Afghanistan and Germany improvise during rehearsals in BragaImage: Philipp Seliger

“Portugal was the first country that was willing to grant us asylum,” says Sarmast. The professional musician hoped to effect lasting change in his country through projects such as ANIM or Zohra, the institute’s all-female orchestra. “And I still have that hope,” he insists. “Because the Taliban won’t last forever, must not last forever.”

“When I arrived in Portugal, I started playing the violin again, Farida Ahmadi tells DW. “That gives me strength, although my friends and family still live in a terrible situation in Afghanistan.”

The young musicians also see themselves as cultural ambassadors for their home country: “It’s about giving our country a voice,” says ANIM director Sarmast. The Taliban’s ban on music has caused Afghanistan to go silent. But, as Sarmast says, music and poetry remain “the soul of the people.”

Photo of Naser Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan man wearing glasses and a suit and tie.
Naser Ahmad Sarmast, Head of the National Institute of Music of AfghanistanImage: DW

The students from ANIM, which is now called “ANIM in Portugal,” share the stage at the youth center with their peers from Germany. Young musicians have come here to Europe’s Atlantic coast to rehearse the program for the Campus Concert with their Afghan colleagues. The group includes musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of Germany (which has partnered with the Campus Project of DW and the Beethovenfest Bonn since 2015) as well as musicians from the Barnboim-Said Akademie in Berlin.

After the final week of rehearsals in Bonn, the international ensemble will present the result of their hard work at the Campus Concert as part of the Beethovenfest on September 14 in the auditorium of Bonn University. “Projects like this help us get through this difficult time,” Sarmast says. “They give young people the feeling of finding a new home in music.”

A group of young orchestra musicians stands on stage holding their instruments.
Finding a common voice: musicians from Afghanistan, Iran and Germany after rehearsals in BragaImage: Madmo Springer

Growing together through improvisation 

Cymin Samavatie, the Berlin-based composer, singer and founder of the transcultural Trickster Orchestra, is the artistic director of the international project. Cymin’s parents are from Iran. She grew up in Germany, but her parents’ experiences of being refugees and then strangers in a new country have left their mark on her as well.

A smiling woman stands at a music stand, in front of musicians, making the shape of a heart with her hands.
A big heart: project director Cymin SamavatieImage: Philipp Seliger/Beethovenfest-Bonn

Her secret to unlocking the young artists and their potential, who are at different stages in their careers, is the freedom of expression offered by improvisation. “Music is a language that has incredible power,” says Samavatie. “And the beauty of it is that, when you speak that language to each other, it doesn’t matter that you don’t know German or Pashto or Dari — you have the music, and you can communicate using that.”

“I’ve noticed that we magically get into a flow of energy together, we really connect into one body of sound,” says Elisabeth Roiter, violist of the National Youth Orchestra of Germany, following the intensive rehearsal days in Braga. “We meet on equal footing. Improvisation is something that arises in the moment. We experience this time in a new way, together. I had goose bumps several times while playing.”

“Freedom is your voice”: A summit meeting of women poets

For more than twenty years, the Beethovenfest Bonn and DW have been jointly mounting the Campus Project, a cultural platform for young musicians from around the world to come together. “Every Campus Project is something special,” says Beethovenfest’s Thomas Schneider. He adds that one of the biggest challenges this year has been accommodating the variety of cultures and languages of Afghanistan. Afghan culture takes place within many languages, but especially in Pashtu and Dari.

A woman wearing a loosely-draped headscarf sits in front of a bookshelf.
Freedom is her voice, too: poet Shafiqa KhapalwakImage: facebook.com/Shafiqa1Khpalwak

One expression of this multiculturalism is in the poetry part of the Campus evening. Women musicians taking part in the project improvise music to poetry by Afghan women poets of various epochs: from Forough Farrokhzaad, an icon of Persian female poetry, to the Pashtu-language Afghan poets Parwin Malal and Shafiqa Khapalwak.

The literary part of the program has been curated by Afghan poet Mariam Meetra. Some of her poems are also on the program, including a work commissioned by DW, a manifesto titled “Freedom is Your Voice”:

…shoulder to shoulder with history 
As large as the high mountains of the Hindukush — 
Freedom is your voice 
that echoes through the city…

This verse could be the motto of the 2023 Campus Project.

The concert on September 14, 2023 will be streamed live at 19:30 UTC on the YouTube channel DW Classical Music.

This article was originally written in German.

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