Highlights from Kabul

After almost a week in Kabul, Afghanistan, I’m having the time of my life. I thought of starting with “It’s been a quiet week in Kabul” in a nod to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, but thought better of it: after all, the last thing one could say about this city is that it’s quiet. 3.7 million people living in a low-rise metropolis sprawling over a broad valley surrounded by mountains—some very high ones (think the Utah Valley)—in which there are too many cars and too few good roads, plenty of roosters and dogs, and native birds and loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer from every direction starting at 3:30 a.m., and Chinese ice cream carts that play (I kid you not) “Happy Birthday” incessantly: not a recipe for “quiet”!

As an obvious American here, I can’t go out and walk (or run, as would be my habit at home or elsewhere abroad) in the streets—there is enough evidence that there is a high risk of kidnappings at this point. The expats I’ve met have various solutions to this beyond the obvious use of a driver in a non-descript car (taxi or Toyota). The most common is to take up riding a motorcycle. So, from my car-window vantage point what I see is a city that functions in its own chaotic way (not atypical for this part of the world) in spite of the omnipresent fortifications (security for private homes, police installations, and any other number of places including universities and the music school itself) and men in uniforms of all kinds casually carrying machine guns at guard posts and in front of higher-end businesses. On the other hand, the streets themselves are teeming with people carrying out their daily lives, from street food to amazing looking produce stalls (lots of these)—the piles of watermelons are especially impressive (and delicious). The men are dressed in all manner of traditional ways, mostly the shalwar style (tunic-like long-sleeved shirt to 13094232_10103974463709763_7516889789180643773_nmid-thigh, loose trousers in the same light fabric, and a vest to decorate the generally subdued color of the uniform), but also in more western clothes (trousers and long-sleeved button-down with a jacket over). I see relatively few women in the blue burka of the most conservative families—most are dressed stylishly and colorfully, with head scarves artfully draped. Dare I say that this is actually very alluring? For a style of dress that we see in the west as repressive (and I won’t deny that experience for those who have had it), the creativity of the women is wonderful: there seems to be a great deal of joy expressed in the colors and style of dress, in spite of the requirement for covering up. 

ANIM, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, is the inspired creation of Ahmed Sarmast, a bundle of energy, a man with a mission, someone who manages to navigate the politics of running a school and the politics of existing as part of a government system that is full of corruption, wild ideas, religious pressures, capricious edicts, you name it. He is a tiger in defense of his mission to educate everyone and to do it with boys and girls together and to preach the message that music is a civilizer and peacemaker. Within the walls of ANIM he largely succeeds; it’s what’s outside the walls that is beyond the control of anyone, with family pressures on the students in many flavors, especially for the girls, many of whom are refugees from more conservative parts of the country. The school tries to be a safe and equal-opportunity environment, where children of all economic and social strata can don their school uniform and function together.

Personal highlights of the week:

  1. Conducting the girls’ orchestra on Saturday
    My former student Allegra Boggess, who arranged for my visit, had asked me to work with them and to help the student conductors. So, it turns out that the students have the opportunity to lead their peers in rehearsals, and to learn the musical and leadership skills of conducting. Most of the music is arrangements (many by Allegra, whose talents amaze me) of Afghan music, with some Western classical music thrown in. The arrangements are skillfully conceived for the forces at hand, and the varying levels of the different players. My first meeting with the girls’ orchestra was the most fun I’ve had in years. We worked on two pieces, both traditional Afghan tunes, with two different student conductors. In each case, the orchestra read the piece with the student leading, and I then worked with both, doing a mix of conducting and showing the conducting student ways in which she could improve her conducting. The energy in the room, the eagerness of everyone to learn, the good spirits in spite of the heat and closeness of the air and the length of the rehearsal in the middle of the school day, and the audible improvement in the performances by the end of the session were evidence of the passion that makes this place run.
  2. 13112769_10208460576607856_2447477373076726243_oArson Fahim
    I expected to be spending most of my time here teaching piano students, mostly at an elementary to intermediate level, and that is, in fact, what much of my schedule consists of. The standout piano student is Arson Fahim, who is also learning to conduct and to arrange. And, he is a lovely guy—warm, generous, gentle. I want to help him in any way I can. What a pleasure to teach someone who is passionate about the piano, passionate about learning, smart, and genuinely musical.
  3. Discovering my skills as a marimba teacher
    No, this isn’t a joke. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a couple of the mallet percussion students, who are currently without a regular teacher. It turns out that I can talk about reading music, feeling the swing of a rhythm, phrasing, and even some technical issues (like which hand is supposed to play what in a four-mallet etude). And, I can talk about making the marimba sing, and get a positive response for it, and a dramatic improvement in the musical result. It is inspiring to work with more students hungry to learn and passionate about music.
  4. Playing the flute in the chamber orchestra
    So, I let slip that I played flute through high school, and Allegra asked me to help out by sitting in the chamber orchestra and offering support and help to the players as needed. Today we went to the U.S. Embassy to participate in a joint project with the Bagram Brass—a brass quintet that is part of the large 10th Mountain Division Band, currently stationed at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. Being able to sit in the chamber orchestra with all of the students, while working with two student conductors and seeing them improve has been an enormous pleasure. And, having sat next to the flutist Jamshid, I will give him some flute lessons before I leave. So glad I have another week here!