Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

Video link – ‘Dr Sarmast’s Music School’

If you haven’t heard of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music before, then you might be interested to watch the 2012 documentary by Polly Watkins about the first two years of the school. It illustrates what an extraordinary undertaking the school was at the time, particularly in a climate that remained suspicious and often condemning of music and musicians.

Here is a trailer for the full-length documentary (which is available via iTunes):

But you can also follow this link to see a shorter version of the film screened by AL Jazeera.

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2013/01/201311412401920574.html

It’s a truly wonderful film, very moving at times, and a testament to the persistence and courage that some people must sustain in order to follow their musical desires and dreams. I recommend it to you.

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With students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Dubai

In my last blog post I left you with a cliff-hanger – did the Afghanistan National Institute of Music students make it to Dubai for ChoirFest Middle East or not? Were their visas issued in time?

A very quiet aeroplane for my flight to Dubai

A very quiet aeroplane for my flight to Dubai

I arrived in Dubai to an email that said the group was still waiting on half the visas, and that if the remainder were not issued, then the group was unlikely to travel. I went to sleep feeling disappointed, and more than a little foolish to have travelled all that way and have the group not show.

I awoke in the morning to a new email – half the group had travelled to Dubai! Eleven students was enough for me to gather the data I hoped to gather, and so I was elated! No sign of jetlag – I was energised and ready to get started.

What followed was an intense three-day period of sticking closely to this group of bright and hard-working young people and their delightful teachers, chatting informally, and grabbing opportunities for interviews whenever I could. The group consisted of five instrumentalists in a traditional Afghan ensemble, and 6 singers. The group included two girls.

Lunchtime concert at the Spanish Steps, Dubai International Finance Centre, 12 March 2015 (G. Howell)

Lunchtime concert at the Spanish Steps, Dubai International Finance Centre, 12 March 2015 (G. Howell)

On Thursday the group performed in a lunchtime/early afternoon concert, and this was when we also got to meet and hear some of the other choirs participating in ChoirFest ME – the Tehran Choir, the Ensemble Vivace from Beirut, and Cadence, an a capella quartet from Toronto, who were the headline artists for the festival. Then we travelled by bus to the rehearsal/workshop venue to take part in two rehearsals and workshops.

Vocal workshop with local choirs

Vocal workshop with local choirs

At 6pm, the ANIM group went to Dubai Mall, where we saw the sights and ate some dinner. The ANIM students liked doing the same things that teenagers everywhere like to do – they wanted to check out phone accessories shops, and take photos of themselves in various groupings, in front of various backdrops. Not camera-shy at all!

The great highlight of Thursday was when Dr Sarmast, the school’s director, received a phone call saying that the remaining visas had been issued, and the second group of students – mostly girls from the orphanage with whom ANIM works in close partnership – would be travelling to Dubai the next day, arriving in time for the ChoirFest Gala concert. The group in the restaurant burst into joyous whoops, cheers, clapping, and dancing at this point. Witnessing their delight at the news was quite something. There are obviously very strong bonds between the students, and it must have been very stressful and upsetting for all of them to have half the group sent back home from the airport the previous day. They had prepared for this tour together – now they would get to perform together as planned.

Friday was taken up with more workshops and rehearsals, and an evening Gala concert. The second group of students arrived in the evening, to the delight and warm welcome of the rest of the group. Following the hugs and excited conversations, everyone assembled for a group photograph – the first of many for the whole group.

ANIM students Friday nightOn Saturday morning there was some free time, so we visited Jumeirah beach. None of the group swam, but they paddled up to their knees (some up to their thighs – who cares about wet clothes? They will dry!), played chasing games, wrote names in the sand, built sand castles that Dr Sarmast immediately trampled through, and generally hung out doing beachy things. And took photos.

The rest of the day was spent at the Kempinsky Palm Hotel, where the Choir of the Year competition was held. Rehearsal, sound-checking, hanging around, hanging out… and then performing. I will write a separate post about the whole ChoirFest ME experience.

The second great highlight of the trip was when the ANIM choir won the Best Regional Choir award! The whole group returned to the stage to receive the award. It was a wonderful recognition of all their work, and given the uncertainty of their travel, a particularly sweet success for them and everyone who had worked so hard to get them to Dubai.

Winners of 'Best Regional Choir' Award, ChoirFest ME 2015For my part, I felt privileged to be able to observe the group at work and play. Short of going to Afghanistan (which my university won’t let me do – which means that I wouldn’t be able to use any data I gathered there for my PhD dissertation), this was the best way for me to get to do this. I was also able to interview students about their experiences of being a music student in the midst of a war-affected and volatile environment, and many cultural barriers and obstacles. I chatted with them in English (with those that knew English), in Italian (some of the girls knew Italian), in Russian (one faculty member spoke Russian – mine was very rusty indeed, as I last spoke Russian about 20 years ago), and in Dari with the help of interpreters.

This fieldwork travel was supported by SEMPRE (the Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research), who awarded me a Gerry Farrell Travelling Scholarship in 2014. I thank them most sincerely for making this travel possible and supporting my research in this way.

Fieldwork in Dubai

This morning I got on a plane to Dubai. I only booked the flight last night. I’m on a fieldwork trip but have no idea if the people I hope to interview and observe will actually be in Dubai or not. It’s nerve-wracking, this not-knowing, but also kind of thrilling to cross your fingers, jump on a plane, and take a punt that everything will work out fine.

My PhD research investigates people’s experiences of music learning in the aftermath of war and violent conflict. I embarked on it in 2013 and have loved every minute so far. I am focusing on music schools and other ‘organised’ or structured initiatives in conflict-affected settings, and I have three case studies – the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Hadahur Music School in Timor-Leste, and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music [ANIM]. The first two sites have been easy enough to visit in order to interview students and other participants and observers; however, organising fieldwork in Afghanistan has been challenging. The conflict has intensified and come closer to Kabul in the time since I started my research and my university hasn’t allowed me to travel there.

So why am I going to Dubai? The ANIM Choir has been invited to participate in a 5-day choir festival, called ChoirFest Middle East. Their participation has been on the cards for a while (I first learned of it at the end of January), but the bureaucratic hurdles that must be navigated to get the necessary Afghan government clearances for student travel are considerable, even when every department responds positively and efficiently. The first hurdle was getting government approval for the travel, which then enabled the process for getting their passports released to start. The passports were released mid last week, and that triggered the process of applying for visas to enter the United Arab Emirates. The students are scheduled to fly today (Wednesday) and the school expects the passports to be ready just a few hours before their flight would depart.

I had a choice – wait and find out if they get the visas or not (and risk missing their performance and other data-gathering opportunities, as well as risking flight availability), or fly without knowing for sure that they would travel.

Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. On this occasion, I felt like I’d been waiting on tenterhooks to confirm the travel for so many days, it was a relief just to go. But also, I figure that if I go, I will find something interesting, even if the ANIM group doesn’t arrive. The event itself sounds interesting. There will be choirs from other parts of the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, and maybe even Iraq), and the organisers have been very welcoming of an outside researcher observing the events. I will be staying in the same hotel as all the visiting choirs, so there will be good opportunities for informal conversations and socialising. And I have a good feeling about the ANIM visas, indeed, I am optimistic! This is not their first international travel, nor their first visa application. My gut feeling is that all will be fine.

PS. I wrote this post while I was on the plane. It is now Thursday morning and I am enjoying my buffet breakfast at the hotel in Dubai. I now know whether the ANIM students made it to Dubai or not – but I like the idea of a cliff-hanger, so will keep you waiting until the next post!