Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kabul: ANIM Chamber Orchestra Concert

The Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was inaugurated in 2010 with the goal of developing young Afghan musicians.  The institute admits students regardless of gender, ethnicity, and social standing, and they even have outreach for the most vulnerable kids - orphans and street children.  The school hosts students from fourth to 14th grade (for children roughly nine to 20 years old).  Those who complete grade 12 get a high school diploma, and those who complete grade 14 leave with an associate's degree.

The U.S. government has supported ANIM with grants and other assistance, and in 2013, just three years after it opened, ANIM's chamber orchestra went on a U.S. tour and performed to sold-out audiences at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

Today, the talented bunch performed for the Embassy community.

Before the music started, there were remarks, about half an hour's worth, and they were tedious.  The remarks themselves were fine, but after every string of words, a Dari translation would follow.  It would seem that presenting a speech with translation would double the time it takes, but it actually more than doubles it.  There are a lot of pauses as the speaker trades time with the translator, and sometimes they end up tripping over each other, wasting even more time.

When the speeches were finally over, the musical portion kicked off with "an afternoon rag," as the violist presented it, that featured two young ladies on sitars and a young man on tablas.

Their performance was nice, but it was marred by the Embassy's sound system.  The speakers were humming loudly and occasionally the feedback would fare up and cause a buzzing noise.  It was distracting and unfortunate.

The second piece was also traditional.  This time, a young man presented a composition of his own making on a rubab - a small lute-like instrument.  He was accompanied by the young man on the tablas and another young man who was laying down beats on a wooden box.

The piece started out at a good clip, but as it progressed, it kept getting faster.  By the end of it, the kid on the rubab was surely on the verge of igniting his fingertips.  It was almost like Afghanistan's answer to "Flight of the Bumblebee" as this kid kept hitting the gas.

As amazing as the performance was in its own right, however, something else made it even more special.  The rubab player was toward the front of the stage, and the rest of the children was sitting behind him in layered crescents, orchestra-style.  As the pace kept increasing, the rubab player's fellow musicians were clearly digging it.  They lapped up the funky rhythms, and they loved the frantic pace.  The faster it got, the bigger the smiles got.  This type of performance changes every time, and the kids were on the edge of their seats waiting to see what their friend could do.

When he finally ended in a flourish, all of the kids were beaming, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.  It didn't feel forced as they sometimes can.

With the small-ensemble performances finished now, the entire orchestra was put into service for the remainder of the show.

They went through a few more Afghan melodies, and while they weren't familiar to me, they were enjoyable.  The last one, "Laili Laili Jaan," was introduced as "the unofficial national anthem of Afghanistan," and my Afghan colleague sitting near me bristled at this.

"No one calls it like this," he muttered. "It's just a pop song."

The violist invited the audience to participate, and I wondered what this might entail.  I thought people might sing along, but clapping seemed to be the crowd's preference.  Hitting every downbeat, the people held steady throughout the entire song, even during lighter segments when boisterous clapping was a bit annoying.

After "Laili Laili Jaan," the violist told us there were a few surprises coming up, and she made a joke about the orchestra showing us their "range" (wink, wink).  The surprise was that the rest of the concert featured American music, and the joke alluded to the first song up, "Home on the Range."

"Home on the Range," while well rendered, was unfortunately a bit dull.

When the next song started, I had it pegged in the first two notes.  It was "What a Wonderful World," and it was pretty wonderful.  The arrangement was interesting with different instruments leading the melody.  I especially liked the exotic sound of the sitar solo.

The show ended with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it was also well done.

The organizers had really picked some low-hanging fruit when they selected the last two songs, but I'm not ashamed to admit that they worked on me, hook, line, and sinker.  Seeing these youngsters playing these two songs - the first about harmony, optimism, and the beauty of life, the second about longing, hope, and escape - packed an emotional punch.

There are some bright spots in the peace and security situation in Afghanistan today, but it's still a very tough place to thrive, especially for a child.  Violence is high and opportunity, low, and to see this group of bright-eyed, talented children playing their hearts out made we wonder how many would manage to beat the odds.

"If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow why, oh why, can't I?"


I think I've got something in my eye.


Rena said...

Thanks - as always - for sharing your stories Chris! We hope that you have as Merry of a Christmas as possible considering where you are located, and if I don't have the opportunity to speak with you beforehand, a blessed New Year! Stay safe!! <3

Don said...

Thank you for another chapter about life in the U.S. Compound in Kabul. All interesting as usual. Merry Christmas to you, Chris, and to Eitan. May you have a great New Year and more wonderful adventures.
Cheers, Don

Dil said...

Cool! Thank you for sharing your story. Hey Chris are you taking any language classes there? Mary Christmas and Happy New Year!