RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne with one of the more unlikely stories of a concert pianist in the making.
At the keyboard is 18-year-old Elham Fanoos, playing for us in a practice room at Hunter College in Manhattan. He has the long, delicate fingers of a natural and, as it turns out, a gifted pianist. He sits perfectly erect, his dark eyes lowered. He seems at one with music and an instrument that are a long way from his home in Afghanistan.
ELHAM FANOOS: I was born in 1997. My father was a singer. At that time, under the Taliban, music were banned and my father was singing quite privately. And he was also practicing privately.
MONTAGNE: So you were born into a world where your father, a classical singer...
FANOOS: Yeah, Indian classical singer.
MONTAGNE: ...Indian classical singer had to hide what he did.
FANOOS: Yeah, and that was a really hard time, even though in Afghanistan everyone is not really safe, but especially musicians.
MONTAGNE: By the time Elham was 5, the Taliban had been driven out, and he was playing the small hand drum that's traditional in the region, the tabla.
FANOOS: I really loved tabla, but when I became older and older, my father encouraged me to choose an international instrument like piano.
MONTAGNE: But did you discover immediately that you loved it?
FANOOS: Yeah, of course. Yeah, because I was searching on YouTube and saw a lot of pianists and audiences - they were playing in front of audiences. I really fall in love with piano.
MONTAGNE: Was there one particular pianist?
FANOOS: Yeah, Horowitz - Vladimir Horowitz. But I didn't know that he was Horowitz. Now I know.
MONTAGNE: Specifically, Vladimir Horowitz playing this recording of Chopin. For a pianist like Horowitz performing at the highest level, starting at age 12, as Elham did, is almost unheard-of. As it happened, Elham's ambitions coincided with the opening of his country's only music academy. The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was the vision of musicologist Ahmad Sarmast. His father also was a musician at a time when Kabul had a rich music scene. Starting in the late 1940s, he was a performer, a composer and a conductor.
AHMAD SARMAST: I was always inspired by the story of my father. He was an orphan. And he grew up in an orphanage. And music made him a superstar of Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: Which is why five years ago, when Ahmad Sarmast founded Afghanistan's only music academy, he decided half the students would come from orphanages or the streets - like one boy who had supported his family by selling hard-boiled eggs to passersby.
SARMAST: But now, this young man is a wonderful flute player. I've got a student who used to sell plastic bags on the streets of Kabul. But next year, he will be joining us as a junior faculty to teach piano. That's how music changed their life.
MONTAGNE: Coming in as a more privileged student, Elham Fanoos remembers the school's early days, when the academy could only afford a dilapidated building and not much else.
FANOOS: At that time, actually, there was one piano, 25 piano students and practicing, I think, like 10 minutes.
MONTAGNE: Ten minutes each?
FANOOS: So standing in line practicing like that. Yeah.
MONTAGNE: It's a scarce sight in Kabul - a piano.
FANOOS: Maybe I can say including our school, there will be 30 pianos or 35 in all of Afghanistan. That's why we don't have the pianists in Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: Still, for the Taliban, those pianos were dangerous. As the school's reputation grew, so did the threats from militants. And in 2013, these young musicians got even more attention when the orchestra went to America. It performed at Carnegie Hall and also here at the Kennedy Center.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL PERFORMANCE)
MONTAGNE: But the excitement of these performances was followed by horror just a year later. Back in Kabul, the music students were putting on a performance when a suicide bomber sat down in the audience a few seats away from founder Ahmad Sarmast. In that explosion, Sarmast was seriously wounded. Classes were suspended, and that meant that Elham had to go elsewhere to practice his piano. And he hit on an idea. Kabul's most luxurious hotel had a piano in a lobby that was seldom used. So Elham decided that's where he would play.
FANOOS: I tried to flood the hall with the sound of Chopin, and when I played the security guards came with very heavy weapons.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, and then they run into you and you're playing Chopin.
MONTAGNE: Flooding the room.
FANOOS: Yeah, but after a minute they became relaxed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MONTAGNE: Elham's impromptu performance led to a formal concert for the diplomatic community in Kabul. And soon after, he embarked on a mission to enroll in a music academy in America. The Carnegie Hall concert, and his performances on YouTube, had already put him on the radar of New Yorkers in the music world.
GEOFFREY BURLESON: I was pretty gobsmacked by the level of his playing.
MONTAGNE: That's Geoffrey Burleson, director of piano studies at Hunter College, now Elham's teacher there.
BURLESON: I was immediately taken by the level of maturity in his playing, which is not what you usually find with a young pianist. You usually find more of a purer speed-freak aspect with young pianists who are technically very gifted. And Elham does have a speed-freak aspect about his talent as well. But on top of that, his musical maturity and depth is really very, very strong.
How about the opening of the ballad just little through the first section of it?
FANOOS: Yeah (playing piano).
SARMAST: Elham represents the story of our school. And also Elham is a sign of the positive changes in Afghanistan that no one can turn the wheel of history backwards - neither the Taliban or anyone else.
FANOOS: I see myself as a concert pianist (laughter). Hopefully, I want the world to have more Afghan pianists so I can say that I am the first one so far. I want to show the new face of Afghanistan who really can do something for the world.
MONTAGNE: It is possible to say that Elham Fanoos will not be without a piano again. He has a full scholarship to Hunter College and a future in music, wherever that takes him.
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