Afghanistan is not the first place you think of as a musical hub. However, until a few decades ago, it had a long and rich history of being gathering place for musicians from all over the world. Since the late 1970s, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, to the early 2000s which ended Taliban rule, the sound of music was silenced in this lovely country. Even after the ban on music was lifted, many conservatives are still against music being played, especially by women.
But history is full of tales of real passion and creativity growing, even under the cruellest rulers. The story of Negin Khpalwak is one of them. Born in 1997 in Kunar, Afghanistan, Negin was always a musical little girl. Living in a strict Pashtun family, she realised at a young age that music was frowned upon by those around her. She had one strong champion for her musical talent though, her father. Angered that her son would encourage his daughter’s musical studies, Negin’s grandmother disowned her father. Her uncle said she brought shame to the family and threatened to kill her. Fearing their lives, the family moved to Kabul.
To encourage her talent and also for her safety, Negin’s father sent her to the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO) in Kabul, one of the only co-educational schools in the country. She did general studies and also learnt the piano and drums.
At thirteen, she was chosen to attend the Afghanistan National Institute for Music that was founded by the famous musician Ahmad Naser Sarmast. It was here that she began her journey to become Afghanistan’s first conductor of the all-female orchestra, Zohra. Zohra, named after the Persian goddess of music was founded in 2014 when another young girl at the Institute, Meena, asked Mr Sarmast if they could put together a girls-only music group. Mr Sarmast was very enthusiastic about the idea. However, when she was in the 7th grade, Meena left the Institute to attend a family wedding for a few days. Sadly, no one has seen her or heard from her since.
The taboo against music clearly continues, as does the threat. At a concert in 2014, there was a bombing in which Mr Sarmast himself lost hearing in both ears, though it was partially restored later in one ear. However, Negin and Mr Sarmast were determined to continue, no matter what opposition they had to face. Negin has said that she had to stay and not give up so that she could be a role model for others and open doors to opportunity for a younger generation of women.
Today, a few years later, Negin has become a hero in her country. Just before her 20th birthday, Negin stood proud and tall as she took her place on the stage to conduct the young women of Zohra in front of global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017. It was their first ever international performance, and the first ever trip out of the country for most of the girls. They were greeted with thunderous applause not just for the delightful music that they played, but also for their brave hearts that didn’t quit in the face of danger. That was truly music to Negin’s ears.
Here is a short clip of Zohra performing at a music concert:
Video taken from YouTube, posted by the ANIMStudents.
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant . She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.