An Evening for Afghanistan

The women in the Zohra orchestra are literally playing for their lives – and for their freedom. Led by 22-year-old conductor, Negin Khpalwak, the ensemble has become world renowned since their international debut at the 2016 World Economic Forum conference in Davos. Zohra is based at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 in Kabul, and winner of the 2018 Polar Music Prize. No less than a third of ANIM’s students are women, in a country where the Taliban, Islamists and other conservative groups respond with threats and violence towards women who play music. Before the concert, a seminar will be held about the current situation in Afghanistan, in memory of Swedish Radio correspondent Nils Horner, who was murdered five years ago in Kabul.

Many people say that ANIM is the happiest place in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is located next to a verdant park in the bustling chaos that is the capital, Kabul. The ever-present smog creates a beautiful pink haze in the air, and the city itself lies at high altitude, surrounded by majestic, snow-covered, fairytale-like mountains. The mountains, the very soul of Afghanistan.

Some of the most vulnerable children come to the institute of music from the country’s many provinces. The children come from different ethnic groups and speak different languages, many of them are girls. In a country where music was banned during the Taliban rule from 1996–2001, and where women’s access to what we see as human rights is often severely limited, the activities of ANIM are unique.

For those who have been forced to defy relatives and thousand-year-old traditions in order to study, the institute is both a sanctuary and a family. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, boys and girls are taught together and traditional Afghan instruments such as the rubab and the qashkarcha can be heard side by side with western instruments.

Everyone who is there is risking their life – sadly, the institute has been threatened precisely because of the freedom and equality it practices. The suicide bomber who, in December 2014, killed one person and injured the institute’s founder Dr Ahmad Sarmast at a concert with the institute’s youth orchestra, is still fresh in people’s memories.

In 2018, ANIM and its founder Dr Sarmast received the Polar Music Prize for their work on changing young people’s lives through music. The institute’s cultural endeavours are perhaps most evident in Zohra, the country’s first female orchestra. They have already performed at some of Europe’s most important political and music venues, where, on each occasion, they played with young local musicians.

Together with Zohra, Adolf Fredrik’s girls choir and instrumentalists from Lilla Akademin, we will celebrate International Women’s Day with a programme that evokes the sensation of the fairytale-like mountain slopes as well as the scent of Swedish spruce forests.

The concert will be preceded by a seminar where Swedish Radio aims to highlight the situation in Afghanistan, a country that has become increasingly isolated, and where the journalist Nils Horner was murdered in broad daylight on a street in Kabul five years ago. Nils Horner’s last report was about the concerns of Afghan women regarding the upcoming election – what has happened since then? Ginna Lindberg, Head of International News at Swedish Radio, will be the moderator.

“If we are scared and stay at home, we will not make any progress and cannot pave the way for others,” says 22-year-old Negin Khpalwak, the conductor for the evening. She is the first ever woman in the profession in Afghanistan.

The evening’s concert is a collaboration between Berwaldhallen and the Polar Music Prize.

Text: Janna Vettergren