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Dr. Ahmad Sarmast on the Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Written by  Kimball Gallagher
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In 2005 Ahmad Naser Sarmast obtained a PhD in music from Monash University, Australia, becoming the first native of Afghanistan ever to receive that degree. 

An expert in the music of Afghanistan, Dr. Sarmast is a Research Fellow of the School of Music-Conservatorium and Monash Asia Institute of Monash University, an Honorary Fellow of the National College of Music, London, and the author of the book: A Survey of the History of Music in Afghanistan.

In 2006, Dr. Sarmast founded the Revival of Afghan Music program (ROAM), and in 2009, with the assistance of Afghanistan's Ministry of Education, founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul.

The ANIM was formally inaugurated on June 20th 2010. During the inauguration ceremony Dr. Sarmast stated:

"Historically, music has been a vibrant and important part of Afghan culture, but war and neglect has left students without teachers, teachers without resources, and professional musicians without a context for their art."

Today, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music provides opportunities for the over one million children currently orphaned or without a home in Kabul. Half of its students' families receive a stipend of around $30 each month so that the children can attend the school instead of working.

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At ANIM, equal time is given to restoring the Afghan musical tradition and teaching Western Music.  Among its goals: establishing music schools throughout Afghanistan, creating a strong curriculum for all twelve grades, and founding the first symphony orchestra in the nation's history.

During my visit to Kabul, I sat down with Dr. Sarmast, to discuss the beginnings and the future of ANIM, and the vital role cultural development can play in fostering greater economic and political stability in Afghanistan.

KG: What inspired you to found the ANIM?

AS: From the very beginning, my intention was to establish a dedicated school of music to rebuild the ruined lives of the most disadvantage class of Afghan kids the street children and orphans through music education and training.  If we can save fifteen lives, it is a great achievement. It is a human achievement, and it is an educational achievement.

Beyond that, there were a number of reasons. Firstly, the music of Afghanistan badly suffered during the last several years of the war. Based on my own experiences and based on my discussions with other Afghan students of music who experienced a musical education outside of Afghanistan, I discovered that the music education was never set up properly in this country, even in better times when music had a lot of support , especially in the '80s.

I also knew that the majority of musicians—traditional musicians' concerns about the current critical state of Afghan traditional music. And I was very well aware that the opinion of these people has never been taken seriously or considered by the authorities. What could be done to improve the state of music and present the musical tradition while also advancing music education in Afghanistan?

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My own social and artistic status in Afghanistan has played a significant role, as the first Afghan with a Ph.D. in music.  I belong to a family of musicians that is highly respected in this country.  My father was a conductor, songwriter and music educator.  He played the trumpet, mandolin and saxophone as well. And as a composer, he wrote the first symphonic tune of Afghanistan and was the first Afghan to conduct a Symphony Orchestra.

Plus, my experience outside of Afghanistan with the music education institutions and the music industry—all of these—convinced me that I could do something for music, especially when I came back in 2006 to Afghanistan to see the impact of years of war and discrimination against music. I wanted to find out what I could do for this country and what should be done to guarantee the musical rights of Afghanistan and to bring music back to the children of Afghanistan.

When I came here, I saw--after discussion with authorities as well as musicians--how important this might be for Afghanistan. Based on what I saw and what I heard with all of my discussions with the authorities, I came up with a report about the current state of music in Afghanistan with recommendations for improvement that included the establishment of a dedicated music school.

I explored what had to be done to improve the state of music organizations and to give access to musical education to the Afghan children, so I began with these kinds of recommendations, which is the foundation of our Afghan music culture. But, being outside of Afghanistan, it was very hard to do. I knew that even if we could not implement all of the changes that I had in mind, we could definitely do a lot to improve the state of music education, which would facilitate the revival of the Afghan musical tradition.

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I also wanted to enable Afghanistan to have musical ensembles and orchestras, which are part of musical life outside of Afghanistan, and also to produce a new generation of Afghan musicians and to educate them in a manner that they are capable of, not only learning other musical traditions, but also maintaining their own and preserving them. So that was the idea that I came up with: the establishment of a dedicated school of music.

KG: What were some of the major challenges you faced in starting the ANIM, and in facilitating its growth?

AS: Practically, establishing a dedicated school of music began from scratch. There were a lot of challenges to meet.

First of all: to get the support of the government of Afghanistan; that was significant and important because to establish a music school here, if you do not have the support of the authorities--if you do not have the support of the Minister of Education or other related organizations--all of the hard work would be a waste. We might come up with a music appreciation class, but not with the proper music educational program and long-term music educational system.

Having that support, the next challenge was the lack of funding. For any initiative, you need the financial resources to implement it. Once you have the financial resources, then you must have the facilities, accoutrements, and human resources. So, we had to think of all of these challenges and issues. And when I designed the establishment of a dedicated school of music, I took all of these challenges into consideration. When I first came in 2007, I earned the support of the Minister of Education.

KG: How were you able to obtain the support of the Minister of Education?

AS: I presented my concepts about what had to be done for music education and what was essential beyond just having a building and having a number of musical instruments. It's a complex issue, and it was clear to me that we should have every necessary aspect. If one of the prerequisites of music education is missed, it means that we are not going to set up a proper system.

After I came up with a very detailed proposal for building a dedicated school of music, I was very pleased to see that the man who was the Minister of Education at that time shared my ideas, he shared my concepts, and he offered his total support.

In 2008, when I came back to Afghanistan, we began fundraising. Even before 2008, after my second trip when I went to Australia I began paving the way and exploring the possibilities of funding. So when I was sitting in Australia, I began negotiating with the Australian authorities, contacting the music organizations like the International Music Council (IMC), the International Society for Musical Education (ISME), NAMM, and other organizations, but all of my hardships within and outside of Australia proved that if I wanted to get a music program established, I really needed to come to Afghanistan because no one is willing to invest in such a cultural educational program if it is designed outside of Afghanistan. So when I came here, then the hard work of fundraising began. 

KG: Can you share with us the story of how the World Bank became involved with your process?

AS: I was contacting various organizations for support.  The International Society for Music Education responded positively to my idea, and they invited me to discuss my music education program at an international conference. After having a number of successful presentations there and obtaining the support of ISME, I was going to return back to Afghanistan. So I was on my way back to Afghanistan, and at the airport I was waiting to catch up with my connecting flight. I started talking to the man sitting next to me, and we began to exchange information about what I was doing in Afghanistan, and I began telling him the stories and my concept for a music education program and how important music education was for Afghanistan.

I did not know that the man was also an advisor for the Minister of Education as well as being closely linked with the World Bank. So, in this manner he told me, "Can you submit a proposal to us?" and I said, "To Whom?" and he said, "The World Bank." I said, "Yes, we are planning to do so, but I am waiting for the Minister of Education, so we could approach you together." After the discussion, he went his way and I went my way.

After two or three days, I got a phone call from the Minister of Education who said, "The people who you met in the airport are now in my office," and we had a total discussion about the music school project. We agreed and they agreed that they were going to support this program and that they were going to give us two million dollars if we could give them a program outline and a budget.  It began like that.

The second major donor who joined us was the German Foreign Office. One day a man from the German embassy was lost in the Deputy Ministry for technical and vocational education and was late for a meeting. He was after a different office and had come to the wrong place. I began explaining where to go, and it was enough to begin talking. He told me who he was and what he did, and I told him who I was. I told him that I was here working on the establishment of a music school. He told me to consider submitting a proposal to the German embassy, and so I did. So I gained successful support from Germany.

After I came here, the support of the World Bank and the Germans was significantly important for obtaining support from music organizations, the music industry, and other donor organizations.

KG: Aside from altruism, what unites the supporters of ANIM?

AS: I think that today in the world, especially in the international organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, UNESCO, people are getting more and more convinced that you cannot build economic development without cultural development. And also the reports completed by the World Bank and UNESCO about the creative industries—part of which is music—have been supportive to our cause. Today it has been well-proven that music, music education, and music as an art form, is one of the greatest contributors to the economic development of developed countries and also that music can play a significant role in poverty reduction, which is also the role of the World Bank.

So probably all of these issues, all of the potential of music: economic, poverty reduction, education, cultural values of music—were underlined in our project. That is the reason.

notes_on_the_road_afghanistan_national_institute_of_music_three_girlsWithout cultural development, you cannot get economic development. You cannot get political stability. Music can play a significant role in Afghanistan, bringing peace and stability and development here. I can tell you that since the establishment of ANIM, we have already contributed to poverty reduction. Now we have several kids who used to work on the street as street vendors or other jobs, selling plastic bags or boiled eggs on the streets of Kabul, but they are not doing these low-paying jobs anymore. They get to have sponsorship here: they have access to general education and to a vocation that really provides them with a sustainable economic future.

KG: How important is foreign support to the operation of the school? How important is support from within Afghanistan?

AS: I think that the two supports are really complementary to one another, because without the political support of the Afghan government, ANIM would not stand where it stands now with all the financial support we have received from the international community. Establishing a music school with all the prerequisites and necessities of a music education is not a cheap exercise. You need millions of dollars, and there are also other priorities in Afghanistan. The Afghan government right now is very much dependent on the support of the international community and international donor organizations. While the political support of the Afghan government is significantly important, the financial, academic, and professional support of the international community is also significantly important for the time being to develop that music education program, to set up a proper system given the lack of professional music educators in Afghanistan, given the lack of financial resources here and given the lack of accoutrements. I consider the two complementary of one another; without one, the other could not do anything.

KG: How does the international military presence affect the school?

AS: I am not sure if you mean in political terms or in terms of stability in particular, but in general I believe that ANIM has greatly benefited from the support of the military forces. While we have the support of the World Bank, the German foreign office, the government of India—there is a long list of our sponsors—but the support of the international military forces is also significantly important for obtaining the necessary resources that we have.

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For example, when the Society of Music Merchants of Germany agreed to assist us by donating five tons of musical instruments. There were violins, cellos, violas, percussion instruments, woodwind instruments, equipment for the recording studio, equipment for the IT lab, equipment for the music and multimedia room. All of this came in three containers. And of course we got the support of the German Air Force for shipping these instruments from Germany to Afghanistan.

We also had the support of the Australian forces for shipping the music books and other teaching and learning resources, which were purchased in Australia and obtained internationally from Australia to Afghanistan. We also had the support of the British Air Force for shipping fifteen violins from Great Britain to ANIM. But at the same time, we are hoping that in the future if we get a big donation of musical instruments—right now we are working to get a number of pianos—we are hoping that we might be able to get the help of the American Air Force and Army for shipping these pianos to Afghanistan.

KG: Who are some of the faculty members at ANIM? Are they primarily Afghan musicians or did you recruit teachers from other parts of the world?

AS: When I came to Afghanistan, one thing was very obvious: to develop a proper music education program, we had to have the support of the international music educators given the lack of professional music educators in Afghanistan. Right now in ANIM we have about seven local faculty members who are capable of teaching Western music and instruments, but none of them are professionally trained to be music teachers. Their level of education and knowledge of music is very limited. They are not capable of teaching all Western . For example, one of the goals of ANIM is to enable Afghanistan to have, in five to ten years, its own national symphony orchestra. But to achieve that, we have to have teachers from outside. We have to have piano instructors from outside. We have to have percussion instructors from outside; we have to have a music teacher who will teach woodwind instruments from outside, a brass instructor from outside.

That doesn't mean that we want to have these musical instructors forever. One of the jobs of these international people will be to train our students, but at the same time train and contribute to the professional development of our local teachers. We know the limitations of our local teachers. For us to make ANIM sustainable in Afghanistan, we also plan to include a teacher training program for our adult students, who would very soon be working for ANIM. They could take the torch from their instructors. For example, if the head of the string department will be here for four or five years, based on the discussion I've had with him and based on the development and progress of the student I can see on a daily basis, I am confident that there are a number of violin students who can replace him within four or five years. The same can be said of the piano. The same can be said of our percussion department. So for some time we have to have among our faculty our international Western music educators, international faculty. At the same time, we are looking ahead to replacing these faculty members with local artists.

KG: Can you tell us a little about the student body at ANIM?  How did you manage to recruit students during the early stages of the school's development?

notes_on_the_road_afghanistan_national_institute_of_musicAS: At the moment we have roughly 130 students. The majority of these students have been inherited from the school of fine arts, a very small music department with no real facilities, with no music programs; it jut existed on the name. When I came to Afghanistan, we agreed with the Minister of Education that we should begin somewhere. To begin somewhere we identified the music department of the school of fine arts as a foundation for this program. Also, we had the building that belonged to the school of fine arts, to be refurbished and renovated in a manner to meet the needs of musical education.  Since last year we also recruited our first batch of our new students who are in the primary levels right now. Amongst these people, fifty percent are street-working kids.

This is based on our vision to rebuild ruined lives, through music education. At the very beginning, the idea was to establish a music school only for orphans and street-working kids. But then, we decided to compromise with the Minister of Education, not shutting the gates of ANIM to other talented kids of Afghanistan. So we agreed that fifty percent would be reserved for the street-working kids and children from orphanages, while the other fifty percent will be available to other talented students. So now we have these two groups of students, but that group—the most disadvantaged students who are with us—also receives financial support thanks to the support of individuals from all over the world.

KG: How do you communicate with the families of the students? Do you speak with students' parents about encouraging their children to practice?

AS: One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that ANIM and what it stands for is very new to Afghanistan. The students who we inherited from the school of fine arts were not used to this system. We introduced a new practice policy through ANIM. For the first time, we are getting in touch with the families, but for the first time we are also constantly encouraging these students and making sure that they understand that for you to become a musician, you have to shut the doors, shut the windows, lock yourself in and follow the instruction that you receive from your teachers. The teacher is just another guide, another role model for you. It is your responsibility to become a musician. At the same time, it has been a priority for us to make sure that the families are aware of what their students are doing, of what the kids are doing. Constantly when we are having trouble with a student, we are inviting their parents to the school, communicating via mail; we are sending letters; we are inviting them for some talks. That's a new phenomenon also here, so we are now trying to establish that culture and way of operating here.

KG: What is your vision for expanding the school?  Are there plans to establish ANIM schools in other places in Afghanistan?

AS: First of all, I am very glad to announce that ANIM will be serving as a model music institute for the rest of the country. Right now we have plans for three more music schools in major cities of Afghanistan.

One will be in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the second will be in the city of Jalalabad, and the third will be in the city of Herat. A music school in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif seems very realistic right now because in addition to the support of the Minister of Education, there are also a number of international donors who have come forward to offer us their assistance with establishing a musical school in the north. I can say that the Germans will definitely be part of this initiative.

Right now we are making plans for a new building, but there are also some projects for developing the infrastructure there because for a music school it is significantly important to have a place for the students to demonstrate their achievements and to work on the quality of their music. Also, given ANIM's vision, we would like to construct this building and develop ANIM as a premiere venue for music, not just for our students but also for facilitating and organizing international festivals, bringing in international musicians, facilitating the performance of our local organizations.

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We are also building a concert hall. The blueprints are complete. We have the necessary funding for this building, and the construction is going to begin next year. We are about eight months behind schedule because of the difficulties and challenges that exist here within the bureaucracy—this season we cannot begin construction—but next year when the construction begins, we will begin the building of a concert hall. And also we are planning to build a cafeteria and dining facility for our students. At the moment we are cooking and serving the food for our students in an open space.

Also, we are planning to develop a separate rehearsal building with small rooms for each student because the other resources we have right now are very limited in spite of us having the wonderful musical instruments—in spite of having the wonderful meeting rooms and music and multimedia IT lab, library, recording studio—but still we are facing a lot of difficulties in this regard. We cannot have all of our students practicing together all of the time when there is so much individual work that must be done. The target is, by 2015, to increase the number three hundred students, so to double the number of students.

KG: Are there opportunities for individual giving? What are the current needs of the school as far as donations?

AS: Right now we are facing two major challenges. One is the configuration of the sponsorship for our working kids, but I am sure that we are going to raise funding for this. For thirty-dollar payments per month, a child can have access to one year of education.

Three hundred sixty dollars covers the full tuition for one child for one year. So we don't have any problem with this funding.

For our current students we have funding for almost three years, but next year I am planning to get fifteen more orphans to our school, so I will be approaching our sponsors and definitely people can come forward to sponsor these fifteen children; that would be great. Right now, our biggest challenge is the lack of funding for maintaining an international faculty beyond 2011 because the success of ANIM and the sustainability of our music program depends on the presence of the international faculty for some time so that they can have time to train their replacements. So that's the biggest challenge that we face. In terms of equipment, we have more musical instruments than we need, but given the fact that we are moving to increase the number of our students, it would be great if we could get some more cellos and pianos and also some accessories of musical instruments, which are costly and scarcely available in Afghanistan. But of course teaching and learning resources would also be very useful.

KG: How can an individual make a donation to this school directly?

AS: There are two ways. One is that he/she can approach me directly, and then I will give him our bank details so that he/she can have the information necessary to transfer money into our bank account, but of course then we will be responsible to tell him what we are doing and for what purposes the money will be used. Part of this money will be used for our sponsorship program and some daily activities along with emergency needs. But the majority of the money will go for the sponsorship program of ANIM.

The other option is if the people of America would like to sponsor and donate to ANIM, they can get in touch with Music Unites, which is receiving donations on behalf of Afghanistan National Institute of Music. They produce a tax-deductible invoice for the donors.

With the support of Fred Patella and Sing for Hope, a number of pianos from Pop Up Pianos (a project placing 88 pianos in public spaces throughout New York City beginning June 21, 2011): will be sent to ANIM and placed in practice rooms and in their new concert hall.


A short conversation with Music Unites Founder and Executive Director, Michelle Edgar:

KG: What is Music Unites and what inspired you to start this organization?

ME: Music Unites is a New York based non-profit organization dedicated to funding sustainable music education programs in public schools in underserved communities.  To date we’ve worked with artists including Sting, Mark Ronson, Daniel Merriweather, John Forte, Peter Bjorn & John and Melanie Fiona. Our organization has many initiatives, we successfully funded the Music Unites Youth Choir in conjunction with Young Audiences New York, which supports and encourages inner city high school students in New York City and we are working on our first pilot program in Chicago at the Benito Juarez Community Academy, a public high-school in the Pilsen district.

We are successfully in our second year of the program and are building the infrastructure to support many more programs including a nationwide instrument drive, women's empowerment initiative. Our future goal is to launch a Music Unites all-scholarship based music camp. I wanted to create an organization that helped create music programs and provide resources  to public schools so that every child could experience music and discover their own voice.

It's about empowering and inspiring the next generation of artists -- educating them about the different resources and tools there are out there while bringing artists of all walks of life across all different genres of music coming together together to help raise awareness for the importance of music education, especially at a time when music education is always the first thing to go. We do this by getting a community of emerging and established artists across all genres  behind our mission.

How did your collaboration with ANIM come about?

Misha was looking for a charity partner to take this initiative under their wing and I felt extremely passionate and strongly about the importance of this cause. Last June Music Unites held a benefit fundraiser for Misha at City Winery to raise funds and awareness for the cause. This was the first initiative and we raised enough to then send Misha to ANIM for their winter festival earlier this year to teach the kids and do masterclasses.

How can people make donations to ANIM directly if I they would like to sponsor a child?

Right now we are taking donations through our website by pressing DONATE NOW. What we will do is ask those donating for the cause to email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it in addition to donating now,  and indicate their donation so that we can direct it to this particular initiative.

What can people expect from Music Unites in the next 3 years? 

Our plan is to have Music Unites fund top music programs not only here in the U.S. but internationally. We are excited to have this be our first international program. We hope to break down traditional barriers across cultures and transform the lives of children through the power of music. We are looking to also fund the Music Unites Youth Choir across NYC's five boroughs, building an after school choir program in five public high schools.

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7 comments

  • Comment Link nasza klasa Saturday, 18 May 2013 05:32 posted by nasza klasa

    It's enormous that you are getting thoughts from this paragraph as well as from our dialogue made at this place.

  • Comment Link malalai Friday, 12 April 2013 11:51 posted by malalai

    Hi I'm Malalai former neighbor in jamalmeena. I am proud of you to keep your father's passion alive. I'm sure all afghans are proud of you too.

  • Comment Link janet navarro Friday, 15 February 2013 19:34 posted by janet navarro

    Bless you for sharing your love of music with the world. My love for the sitar started in the 60's and continues with all ethnic music today. I'd actually like a recording of the Carnegie concert with the Bolero song. Please feel free to contact me. Respectively J. N.

  • Comment Link janet navarro Friday, 15 February 2013 19:33 posted by janet navarro

    Bless you for sharing your love of music with the world. My love for the sitar started in the 60's and continues with all ethnic music today. I'd actually like a recording of the Carnegie concert with the Bolero song. Please feel free to contact me. Respectively J. N.

  • Comment Link reza motabar Thursday, 17 January 2013 02:05 posted by reza motabar

    Dear Dr. Sarmast,
    When I saw a 30 minute commentary about Afghanestan's first music institute, established by yourself, I felt so much happiness by just looking at those afghan kids learning something that cures many wounds of the soul and creates unending peace of mind in a a war torn country. many many thanks to you; what you are doing today, will affect the whole society of afghanestan in so many ways for ever. about eighty years ago, Reza Shah also initiated a movement here in Iran that changed the lives of all women in this country since then and for ever we are thankful to him, his great soul may rest in peace. one other thing he did which was of endless value and that was the establishment of justice system, which before that did not exist at all.
    what you are doing today can be compared to what he did at that time. this will specially and surely change the lives of many afghan women, the lives of those who participate in your institute and those who just become in contact with these ladies.I am so happy for you and my afghan sisters and brothers. I thank you and solute you.
    with best regards.

    truly yours

    reza motabar

  • Comment Link popuptent.org.uk Wednesday, 02 January 2013 00:18 posted by popuptent.org.uk

    A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I think that you should publish
    more about this topic, it might not be a taboo matter but typically people do
    not talk about such issues. To the next! All the best!
    !

  • Comment Link Deborah Khoshaba Wednesday, 07 September 2011 23:04 posted by Deborah Khoshaba

    Thank you for sharing Dr. Sarmast's story. I get a better sense of what's happening in Afghanistan, through stories like this. thank you

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