Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: The Afghan Children's Songbook Story

Dec 11, 2008

The Songbook Project began in 1966 when I joined the Peace Corps and headed to Kabul, Afghanistan. I first taught English to seventh and eighth grade boys, and by the second year I got permission to teach music in the elementary schools. Alongside Afghan poets and musicians, I created a small songbook of 16 songs, which I taught to children in schools around Kabul. With my supply of crayons I had the children illustrate the songs. I left Afghanistan in 1968 with a published songbook in hand. I never imagined that Afghanistan would become a country besieged by war for the next 40 years and that as a consequence all artistic expression would completely disappear from Afghan culture.

With the Soviet invasion in December 1979 there was a gradual imposition of music censorship, and during the civil wars many musicians were forbidden to perform. Some were briefly imprisoned. Instruments were confiscated and very little music was heard on the radio. By 1994, the Taliban had banned all music in areas under their control. Stereo systems, video cassette players, and TV sets were destroyed in public. Musicians tried to bury their instruments in order to hide them. The innards of cassettes were ripped out and hung in effigy. Musical instruments were burned in public. The only music allowed was religious chant. The list of forbidden things grew: music, dance, theater, film and television, cameras, photography, sculptures, magazines, newspapers, most books, festivities, children's toys, applause, and even... squeaky shoes.

Over many years, I followed the news about Afghanistan. I read about the devastation, the wars, the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and the devastating loss of the ancient Buddha statues. I wondered what had happened to the children I taught. I wondered about the music.

In 2002, while rummaging around my bookcase I came across my old copy of the songbook. I leafed through the faded pages, realizing I could no longer read the Dari. Although I knew the melodies I couldn't remember all the lyrics and had no easy way of translating them. As I stood in my living room, holding in my hands not only the songbook itself but all the memories that went with it, I came to the frightful realization that perhaps these songs were in danger of being lost from Afghan culture forever, given the rigid decrees set by the Taliban. At that moment, I vowed to somehow return them to the children. And the Afghan Children's Songbook Project began.

Initially I thought I could simply copy my old songbook and send it back. But my copy was in terrible shape and I had written the notation to each song solely by ear, so I worried about its accuracy. I knew I needed an Afghan musician to assist me with the project.

Fortunately I met Vaheed Kaacemy, an Afghan-Canadian composer and performer who is keenly interested in the history of Afghan music. He had also been a kindergarten teacher in Kabul. He had the perfect combination of skills for this project. When I spoke to him on the phone he was excited to hear about the project and eagerly awaited the arrival of a copy of my old songbook. When he received it, he burst into tears upon seeing these childhood songs after so long.

Vaheed immediately leapt headfirst into the project, hunting down the original sources for each melody and song lyric (something I had not originally done), and finding Afghan-Canadian children in the Toronto area to work on the recording. After he had recorded the first couple of songs, he sent them to me. I was delighted, and hearing children sing the songs again made it all come to life.

I also shared the project idea with Shamim Jawad, the wife of the Afghan Ambassador to the United States. After telling her my story I had her listen to a song Vaheed had recorded. I had no idea how she'd react. I waited nervously as she put on the earphones and began to listen. Then she gasped. With tears in her eyes she said: "I haven't heard that song since I was a child. I never thought about the power music can have. I thought we needed to send computers to the schools. This is what the children need. They need their music back." She immediately agreed to support the project through her organization, Ayenda.

Vaheed continued to record all the songs and wisely suggested we include not only songs in Dari and Pashto (the two official languages) but songs in Hazaragi and Uzbeki as well. He also offered to write an "Alphabet Song" in Dari based on an old melody from Herat Province.

The project moved forward. I was fortunate to meet Arsalan Lutfi, Creative Director of TriVision Studios in Virginia. He was equally moved by the project and offered to assist with the printing and graphic design of the songbook.

Early in 2007, 3,000 copies of the songbook (Qu Qu Qu Barg-e-Chinaar: Children's Songs from Afghanistan) and a 60-minute CD were printed, sent to Afghanistan, and distributed to schools across the country. Each songbook package also included a cassette tape, since not all schools have CD players.

In March 2007, Mrs. Jawad hosted a release party at the Afghan Embassy to officially launch the songbook—about 200 Afghans attended. To end the evening, we shared a DVD of Afghan children singing Ma Mardume Afghanaim (Afghan People), a familiar folksong that speaks of the beauty of Afghanistan and how Afghans are united as one people in one land.

The DVD began to play and the room became silent. Then suddenly one woman in the crowd shouted out: "We all know this song. We should all be singing!" Suddenly, all 200 Afghans in the room began to sing. I turned to view the crowd, moved by hearing their voices, but what I saw made my heart stop. Every person in that room was singing with tears rolling down their faces. At that moment, I realized I was truly witnessing the power music provides for a culture.

To date, 10,000 songbooks have been distributed across Afghanistan and another 5,000 will be distributed in early 2009. Two years ago, TriVision reopened their printing business in Kabul, and all printing is now done in-country. By 2009, TriVision will have the equipment needed to copy the CDs and cassette tapes and we will no longer need to ship them from the United States.

The songbooks are distributed to children in elementary schools, orphanages, and women's centers across Afghanistan where there are few resources available. The distribution is made possible by the efforts of committed individuals from NGOs such as Save the Children, Youth Educational Services (YES), HOPE International, Afghan Women's Organization, American Friendship Foundation, and others. They report that the songbooks are valued not only as a connection to Afghan musical culture but also as a basic literacy tool.

There is still a great demand for more songbooks in many of the outlying provinces. Vaheed is eager to publish a second songbook and has already collected at least 16 more traditional songs from other ethnic groups across Afghanistan. His commitment to bringing Afghans together through music is admirable. The project is dedicated to filling this need and continuing to preserve and bring music back to Afghan children.

Initially, it was unclear what effects music censorship had had on Afghan culture. In fact, they were deep and wide-ranging. Music is universal and humanizing. To remove it from a culture is dehumanizing and disorienting. These childhood songs connect many Afghans back to a time and place. It provides them with an identity they'd lost and nearly forgotten. It provides young children in Afghanistan today with a sense of community and pride, and an understanding of what it means to be Afghan.

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, said this about the Songbook Project: "This wonderful songbook is a small treasure that connects today's Afghan children with generations past. My own children have already memorized these songs, as I had when I was a child. With all the destruction that Afghan children have witnessed, it is my hope that this collection brings them a sense of joy, belonging, and identity."

Ustad Mash'al, one of Afghanistan's greatest painters, in response to the extreme music censorship that once occurred in Afghanistan, posed a question: "Can you stop the birds singing? Ornithologists will claim, in fact, you can. If young birds do not hear their own music, if their parents are silenced or disappear, the music is lost."

This project strives to keep this music alive, allowing the "birds to sing" for many future generations of Afghan children.

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