All-Female Orchestra From Afghanistan Is A Force For Change : Goats and Soda An orchestra composed of 30 Afghan women, ages 14 to 20, is defying stereotypes and reviving the country's musical tradition.
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All-Female Orchestra From Afghanistan Is A Force For Change

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All-Female Orchestra From Afghanistan Is A Force For Change

All-Female Orchestra From Afghanistan Is A Force For Change

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Decades of war and extremism in Afghanistan have ravaged that country's ancient culture including its music. A school in Kabul started by an Afghan musicologist is trying to change that, and this month introduced the first ever all-female Afghan orchestra which played at the World Economic Forum in Davos. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson caught up with them during a recent concert in Berlin and files this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOHRA ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There's a brief hiccup as the young Afghan women in brightly colored headscarves and dresses rehearse before their concert is to begin here at a landmark church in the German capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Dari).

AHMAD SARMAST: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: One performer complains to orchestra founder Ahmad Sarmast that there isn't enough room to play. He waves at the others to scoot over and give her more space.

SARMAST: (Speaking Dari).

NELSON: "From the top, girls," he says, and they oblige.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOHRA ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL)

NELSON: The conductor for this piece is 18-year-old Zarifa Adiba. She moves her arms as gracefully as a ballerina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOHRA ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL)

NELSON: The girls and young women, ages 14 to 20, play traditional Afghan instruments like the rubab, similar to a lute, and the drum-like tabla as well as Western instruments like the piano and oboe. Adiba, for example, is not only a conductor but a violist. She was born in the Taliban-rife Ghazni province where girls are often forced to marry when they are still children, but Adiba had bigger ambitions.

ZARIFA ADIBA: The thing that I loved was music from my childhood. And my mother is a great supporter of me, and she told me that what you love, go ahead and find out. I had a kind of view about pop singing, rock singing, and I wanted to be a pop singer actually.

NELSON: But then she enrolled at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul and discovered girls could play instruments. The school was started by Sarmast, who had moved back to his native Afghanistan from Australia after the Taliban were driven from power. His goal, which almost cost him his life in a suicide attack two years ago, is to create a new generation of Afghan musicians to bring back their country's musical tradition and infuse it with Western ones. On this night, for example, the female orchestra performs Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOHRA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S NINTH SYMPHONY)

NELSON: Sarmast says his quest for diversity is not only musical, but of gender. That isn't always popular in Afghanistan's ultra-conservative society that is strictly segregated by sex.

SARMAST: But that situation cannot continue forever, and Afghanistan should move in the same path that every other nation goes. And the girls and the women of Afghanistan should also enjoy the freedom that other girls and women are enjoying outside Afghanistan.

NELSON: All of which appeals to Adiba, who managed to get into the school even though she was a ninth-grader and the cut-off is usually fourth grade. She says she loved playing in Europe this month, but is eager to go home, especially after learning that an uncle who disapproved of her playing recently told her mother how proud he is of his niece.

ADIBA: I'm happy that at least I changed my family, and these all girls who are in the orchestra, they are going to change their family. And their family - when their family is going to change, you can have a society which is changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOHRA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE)

NELSON: The group's last European and performance is tonight in the eastern German city of Weimar. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOHRA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE)

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