ZOHRA – Afghan Women's Orchestra AF
Pohoda 2019 will also host Afghanistan’s firstall-female orchestra – Zohra. The ensemble closed the 2017 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. It was not only their first performance outside their native country, but also the first time stage fright was the only fear they had to brave. Back home, they often have to deal with various threats, from personal invectives to bomb attack threats (which has already occurred, for example, against the founder of the school under which the ensemble falls). The members of the ensemble are one of the first women in their families and throughout the country to study music in the past 30 years. In a very short time, these brave musicians earned the recognition of the media as BBC, NPR, CNBC, The New Your Times, Le Figaro, La Repubblica and many others. Young orchestra members dressed in colourful embroidered costumes are ready to share their culture and their message of hope with the world.
"The Afghan Women Orchestra – Ensemble Zohra was brought to my attention by my colleague Alžbeta, and I immediately knew that we had artists for a Saturday celebratory concert. It is a real celebration of music and freedom, all musicians and their team deserve admiration and respect. It’s one of the most logistically difficult realization in the history of Pohoda, but it’s worth it. We are also preparing several concerts outside the festival for Zohra, and we want to introduce these great brave musicians to other cities in Slovakia, too,”said Michal Kaščák about the booking.
The Zohra story is closely linked to the Afghan National Music Institute. Its founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast is the son of the first Afghan conductor and the first Afghan to earn a PhD in music education. He studied music in Russia and then in Australia. After returning to his home country, he founded the National Institute of Music (ANIM) in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. However, we’re not talking about a private school for prominent people. Up to half of the Institute's students are girls, orphans and children from the streets. His intention does not only meet support and recognition in his native country. Dr. Ahmad Sarmast is constantly confronted with threats. Unfortunately, it went beyond them. In 2014 he was enjoying the performance of his students in the Kabul Cultural Centre, when a suicide bomber detonated a few rows behind him. Ahmad, who was the primary target of the attack, survived only miraculously, as at that time he reached down for his mobile phone to read a text message he’d just received. He lost hearing in one of the ears, but after several operations in Australia (where he had shrapnels removed from his head), he returned home after three months to continue in his work.
In the same year, a young female trumpet player named Meena came to him with an unusual request. Together with her friends, they wanted to create a purely female independent ensemble. They wanted to play music in their own way, to create a specific style and repertoire. As one of the ANIM's primary goals is to educate girls, the boss was thrilled with the idea. The very first purely female music group in Afghanistan's history was born and it was named after the Persian goddess of music – Zohra. Ahmad admits that he was expecting for the project to have a few girls, but today it has over 30 members who rehearse twice a week (or more intensely before the shows). Girls play in the ensemble since the sixth form, while older students help with the development of younger musicians. The repertoire consists of works by Afghan and Western authors. In addition to the "European instruments", the instrumentation is richly represented by instruments typical of South Asia such as sitar, rubab or tabla. The existence of the ensemble (associated with memebers’ joy from playing) is a demonstration of how many things have changed thanks to the brave people in Afghanistan. And it’s also a demonstration of what young girls can do when they’re not afraid to follow their dreams and get the chance to make use of their skills.
The ensemble is conducted by Negin Khpalwak (born in 1997, she’s the first female conductor in Afghanistan's history) and Zarifa Adib. When Negin told her father and other family members about her passion for music, her uncles threatened her and her father with death. Fortunately, this didn’t discourage her father, who moved to Kabul with his family and enrolled her daughter in ANIM. Besides conducting, she plays the piano, percussions and sings in the school choir (Nahid Ensemble). Zafira, who plays violin and viola in addition to conducting, has a similar story. She confided to her mum and stepfather that she desired to study music. However, other family members didn’t share the enthusiasm for her passion (to put it mildly). Luckily, some family members changed their minds after the first European tour. At young age, except being a musician, she’s an internationally recognized activist in terms of women's rights and the support of young people's education, who participated in study programs in Turkey or Yale University.
The orchestra recorded part of the album "The Rosegarden of Light," which was released by the British Toccata Classics and distributed by Naxos. Their records were played by the BBC, the London Symphony Orchestra's official station, US radio stations and special podcasts across the whole Europe. In addition to their concert in Davos, they also performed in other Swiss and German cities. The Berlin concert took place only a month after the terrorist attack at the local Christmas market, and the girls dedicated it to the victims. Beethoven's Ode to Joy was also part of the repertoire. "Afghanistan should move on the same path as every other nation does, and our girls should also enjoy the freedom that other girls are enjoying outside Afghanistan," said Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the school and the ensemble, in an interview for NPR, adding: “We can't build a democratic society in Afghanistan if we are neglecting half of the population of this nation.” Today, in addition to transforming the lives of many of her friends, the inspiring idea of a young woman also positively affects the international perception of her native country and improves awareness of women's rights. We are proud that on the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the young courageous women from Zohra will introduce a varied mixture of Afghan and Western classical music in the Slovak premiere at Pohoda 2019.
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