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February 05, 2013

Afghan Youth Orchestra Prepares to Play US Venues

by Brian Allen

In embattled Afghanistan, music is making an appearance after having been banned outright under the Taliban in the late 1990s.  The Afghanistan Youth Orchestra was created in 2010, the first orchestra formed in that country in more than 30 years.  Today, its musicians are preparing their debut performances in famous American concert halls. 

The Afghanistan Youth Orchestra performed for the Afghan community in Alexandria, Virginia, where the venue was intimate, the audience small.
 
But within days, these Afghan musicians will play in two famous concert halls: the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and Carnegie Hall in New York.
 
Ahmad Sarmast, who founded the orchestra, says his group is ready to play on the world’s biggest stages.

“Our young kids are getting this opportunity in the very, very first days of their career as musicians," he said. "Everyone is extremely excited, and they are very much looking forward to this performance."

The group travelled from Kabul to the United States on a tour funded largely by the U.S. embassy in Kabul.  

When the Taliban took power in 1996, it banned music entirely.  

But since 2010, Sarmast has kept the small National Institute of Music in Kabul running.  The orchestra grew out of the school.  

“The entire idea of this trip, and the project from the beginning, was to show a different face of Afghanistan; to change the perception of Afghanistan," he said.

The musicians are between the ages of 10 and 22 and most are orphans or street children. The ensemble includes girls, who under the Taliban were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight.

Nazira, a cellist, says she's excited to play in America.

“This year is very good for us because we are going to perform in concerts in the U.S.," she said.  "We are at the music school from 8:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. and studying.”

On Monday, the orchestra was welcomed to Washington by Secretary of State John Kerry.

“So we’re happy to welcome you here as ambassadors of peace,” he said.

Now, the musicians are rehearsing for their big debut at the Kennedy Center.  Then it’s on to New York and Carnegie Hall, before returning to Kabul and a life full of music.