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Orchestra Comprised of Afghan Street-Children Concludes US Tour

  • Brian Allen

After travelling more than 10,000 kilometers in two weeks, the Afghan Youth Orchestra is heading back to Kabul - following performances in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston. Hailing the group as “ambassadors of peace,” Secretary of State John Kerry said the young people used music to show the positive changes made in Afghanistan over the last 10 years. Now they are going home.

This is Boléro. It is an orchestral piece by Maurice Ravel, first performed at the Paris Opera in 1928. The composition is played here by Afghan students in Boston, Massachusetts. Classical violins and trumpets sound alongside a rubab and a sitar.

The Afghan Youth Orchestra performed this famous piece at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Carnegie Hall in New York City, and here at the New England Conservatory in Boston. This was their last stop on a tour of the United States, funded largely by the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Triumphant youth

The young musicians are mostly former orphans and street-children, born in a country that saw the Taliban forbid the performance of music outright when they took control of Afghanistan in 1996.

Negeen is from Kunar province, a volatile spot in the eastern part of the country. She has had first-hand experience with the Taliban.

“My younger brother-in-law, who is in his 20s, took me back to Kunar province for a few days. The Taliban forced him to get out of the bus and then asked him “why did you shave your beard? What kind of Muslim you are?” Then they whipped him so badly that his back and hands were bleeding. That is one of my worst memories in my life,” she said.

Today, the children are off the street, music is played freely in their country, and the Afghan Youth Orchestra is finishing up a tour of some of the most famous American musical venues. Negeen will have fond memories of the trip.

“When we came to New York City, we saw tall buildings. We were trying to look at them to see their tops, but the floors were endless. They were so tall! New York is beautiful. All three cities we visited are beautiful, but I liked New York the most,” said Negeen.

Championing life, art

Ahmad Sarmast is the man responsible for this musical development. In 2009, he founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, and ultimately the Afghan Youth Orchestra.

“It is a great pleasure for me that a group of Afghan youth, including boys and girls, has accomplished such big achievements in music in so short period of time, and today they are here in the United States as ambassadors of Afghan culture to reflect those positive changes which happened to Afghanistan in the last 10 years with their music," said Sarmast.

Another student, Gulalai, is thankful for the Orchestra's influence on her life.

“Looking at my past and then looking at my current situation, I can say that my life is very changed now. I mean, I have had a great improvement in my life. Music brought many changes to my life,” said Gulalai.

With the tour almost over, the students will return to their school in Kabul. They will return to a life that was not possible just a few short years ago - with memories of a trip they never could have dreamed of under the Taliban.