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Inspiring Artistic Freedom – Afghanistan’s First All-Female Orchestra

Zohra Orchestra performs in Zurich, Switzerland. Image Credit: Rachel Corner/De Beeldunie, courtesy of npr.org
Chris Bowen
| April 11, 2017

After our story on a concerning increase in global attacks on artistic freedom reported by international agency Freemuse, it is pleasing to share an inspirational development – Afghanistan’s’ first all-female orchestra.

Ensemble Zohra, named after a Persian literature goddess of music, are a group of 30 female musicians aged 14 to 20, students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The ensemble was formed by ANIM founder and Director Afghan musicologist Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the first Afghan to obtain a doctorate in music. They are the first women in their families, community and country to learn music in over 30 years.

Playing instruments was banned outright during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and even today, many conservative Muslims frown on most forms of music.

The group rehearse twice a week, playing Afghan folk songs and Western classics on a mix of western classical and traditional instruments including violins, cellos, sitars and tabla drums.

In January, Ensemble Zohra performed at the World Economic Forum at Davos, as part of a European tour. The tour was led by 20 year old Negina Khpalwak. “She is Afghanistan’s first female conductor,” Dr Sarmast told Indian Express. Ensemble Zohra also feature on the album The Rosegarden of Light performing Afghan songs and dances with US string sextet Cuatro Puntos, released by UK label Toccata Classics.

At a time when activist group Freemuse reports attacks on musicians are on the increase, this ensemble provides an encouraging sign of optimism. They were named the winner of the Freemuse Award 2017 in January:

“With exceptional courage and dedication these young women are breaking new ground and have become important role models for any Afghan welcoming the return of music and the rights to exercise and take part in cultural life.”

The Award is given to an individual or an organisation that “has worked for freedom of musical expression in a remarkable way”.

Commenting on the risks involved Dr Sarmast told npr.org “Afghanistan should move on the same path as 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 of Afghanistan.

You can view a video interview on Upworthy here and the orchestra’s Davos performance here.

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