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May 24, 2010

Feel-good stories about music in Iraq, Afghanistan

I came across two AP stories from the heart of war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan that gave me pause. Both stories do not just reconfirm the golden-oldie cliche that music is a universal language; they underline how music is a universal need.

The Afghan report is about a music school in Kabul, where young people are eagerly learning instruments, Western ones and those from the region. Just a decade ago, in the neo-medieval days of the Taliban, instrumental music was banned entirely, and only songs of worship or praise to the Taliban were officially permitted.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been open for a brief while, but is already buzzing with the activity of 150 students, the AP's Jerry Harmer reports. Enrollment is expected to double soon. Among the schools goals: to rekindle knowledge and appreciation of folk music traditions, and to create the country's first symphony orchestra.

Here's a quote from the school's web site (how encouraging it is to see that site): "The institute is committed to providing a dynamic, challenging and safe learning environment for all students regardless of gender, ethnicity or social circumstances. We also have a special focus on supporting the most disadvantaged group in Afghan society – the orphans and street working kids -  to help them attain a vocation that will allow them to reach their full potential, while contributing to their emotional healing."

The new institute was spearheaded by Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan who returned from Australia to his native country for this project. Donors from around the world have helped with the funding. The German Society of Music Merchants, for example, donated five tons of instruments. There's a long way to go to finish and furnish the school, but what an encouraging start.

The AP story quotes American violinist William Harvey, who came to Kabul to teach at the school: "Great talent can come from unexpected places." One of his students, 12-year-old Marjan Fidaye, was

selling chewing gum on the streets before getting a chance to attend the school, which provides her a stipend of $30 a month to make up for the money she had been raising for her family. She is quoted as saying: "I want to be a good student, to learn something here, to make something of my life."

I sure hope she gets her wish.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, a 13-year-old pianist from California, son of an official from a US investment firm working in Baghdad, debuted over the weekend with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

The AP's Barbara Surk reports that Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner, a Juilliard student, won over a mostly Iraqi audience in the concert at a Baghdad hotel. The pianist said "we had a ball up there." (He reached the performance site wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest.)

Werner sounds like a bright guy, and not just musically. As he told the AP: "Several mistakes from my country have been made in terms of invasion and occupation. But me being here today is one way to show the U.S. has a lot of wonderful things to offer." 

The Iraqi orchestra, which has slowly come back to life after the 2003 invasion, is up to 90 players, a remarkable success story itself in a country where life is still a long way from safe and normal.

Music doesn't win wars or quell conflicts, but it sure can help remind us of the bonds we share as human beings, and it just might make a difference in how we treat each other. That, at least, is something worth hoping for in Afghanistan, Iraq and everywhere.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:53 AM | | Comments (1)


Great article,really made me happy!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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