Reviving Afghan Music

21 February 2013

by Professor John Baily

A new film aims to capture the "spirit" of Afghanistan's only vocational music school

I didn't set out to make a film.  My visit to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in 2011 was simply intended to observe its work.  The idea was that I would report back to the UK's Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research at London University and perhaps see how we in the UK could help support this unique institution.

Having studied Afghan music closely since the 1970s, I knew that ANIM was breaking new ground.  The co-educational school was set up in 2010 by Afghan-Australian musicologist Ahmad Sarmast, who returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.  Its aim is to rebuild Afghan musical culture and institutions, shattered by 30 years of war.  The Institute's remit is to "identify and assist Afghan children with special musical gifts, regardless of their gender, personal and social circumstances".  Puplis at ANIMIt has certainly succeeded in doing so - its 140 pupils include street children as well as youngsters living at an orphanage.

After 12 days of roaming the corridors, classrooms and rehearsal rooms with my camcorder camera, I found I had five hours of footage.  This has been edited into a 30 minute film, The Return of the Nightingales.

It was shot in the "observational" style, designed to show, rather than tell, people what's going on.  It is intended to give viewers a "fly on the wall" perspective - and help them experience for themselves the sheer enthusiasm of ANIM's staff and pupils.

The school teaches Afghan, Indian and Western music.  The film shows pupils learning instruments from all three musical cultures.  But the emphasis is on Western music, both classical and popular. 

People often ask me, “Why does Afghanistan need Western art music?”, seeing it as a kind of cultural imperialism.  I reply that there is a history here, going back to the military music of the late 19th century, imported from British India.  A school of military music was established in the 1920s.  Afghan garrisons in different parts of the county had their own military bands and, in due course, a number of Afghan cities came to have their own  municipal bands.

When Radio Kabul started operating in the 1940s, it had three resident ensembles.  One played Kabuli art music, with strong Indian connections.  Another performed Afghan folk music from Logar, and the third was a Western ensemble with musicians from the military-municipal band background.  In 1970 a new Big Orchestra brought together Afghan, Indian, and Western instruments, led by Ustad Salim Sarmast, father of Dr Ahmad Sarmast.

In 1974, the Afghan Ministry of Education set up a Vocational School of Music, providing tuition in both Western and Afghan music.  The beginning of the civil war led to its closure in 1992.  Four years later, the Taliban took control and the ban on music was complete.

Puplis at ANIMANIM, based in the same buildings as the defunct School of Music, is now starting to rebuild Afghan musical traditions.  The Institute's first tour of the United States, where its young musicians have appeared at the Carnegie Hall, has recently put it firmly in the media spotlight.  However, more work needs to be done.

Each international staff member at the Institute has an Afghan counterpart who will eventually take over his or her teaching.  To prepare for that, a strong programme of staff development will be needed.  The Return of the Nightingales has been shown at various academic institutions in the UK, whose music graduates may be interested in interning at ANIM to assist existing international staff.


John Baily is Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology and Head of the Afghanistan Music Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  He has published extensively on the music of Afghanistan and is one of the world's leading experts in the subject.  Return of the Nightingales will soon be released in DVD format by the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE).

Photos courtest of ANIM and John Baily