Doctor Sarmast receiving the Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, July 2, 2016

Quiet Determination to Revive Music in Afghanistan

Doctor Sarmast receiving the Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, July 2, 2016

The Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize, awarded by UNESCO, recognizes individuals who work to protect cultural heritage in challenging circumstances. The 2016 prize was awarded on July 2. Bonnie Burnham, Senior Advisor to WMF, served on the jury.

The Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize recognizes people who are making a difference in the field, particularly with regard to the attacks on heritage inflicted by sectarian conflict in recent years.  The prize was created by the Italian organization Priorità Cultura in 2014. The first honoree was Doctor Maamoud Abdulkarim, the courageous director of antiquities in Syria.

Most recently, the prize went to Doctor Ahmad Sarmast, a musicologist from Afghanistan.

As a juror for the prize, one of my tasks is to identify potential recipients; there was no doubt in my mind that Dr. Sarmast should be the 2016 honoree.

I had first heard him speak a few months ago, when I attended a conference in Hong Kong. The conference, organized by the Asia Society, centered on issues in heritage preservation in the twenty-first century. Without exception, conference participants were most concerned with the alarming loss of intangible culture they were observing. As galloping development consumes architectural heritage; as exploding tourism causes new problems for poor communities; and as both natural and manmade catastrophes leave devastating effects throughout the region, the intangible culture that lies at the foundation of identity in Asia (and elsewhere)—and which cannot survive without the physical framework that is being so rapidly eradicated—is disappearing. Too often, this happens without much public recognition, without a coordinated effort to protect traditions, and without even having been recorded. In other words, without a trace.

A broad spectrum of professionals in the arts and culture, including Dr. Sarmast, participated in the conference. He spoke inspiringly, focusing on his efforts to revive music in his home country of Afghanistan. A world renowned musician and conductor, Sarmast graduated from an Afghan music school in 1981. He then received degrees from Moscow State Conservatory and Monash University in Australia, where he was given political asylum. In 2008, Sarmast returned to Afghanistan with a plan to restore the country’s music traditions that had been brutally suppressed under Taliban rule. 

Sarmast went on to establish the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), which opened in Kabul in June of 2010. The school, which now has approximately 250 students, offers music education to talented budding musicians as well as to underprivileged children, many of them orphans; underprivileged children receive a stipend of $30 per month to allow them to focus on their studies. The school makes it a point to accept girls; female students make up roughly a quarter of its student body. The ANIM youth orchestra toured the world in 2013 and again in 2015, when Afghanistan’s first female conductor led a concert at Kennedy Center. 

Dr. Sarmast’s climb to celebrity and success has not been simple. In December of 2014, a concert at the French Cultural Institute in Kabul was interrupted by a Taliban suicide bombing attack on Sarmast, who survived but lost hearing in both ears. Later, in Australia, surgeons removed eleven pieces of shrapnel from the back of his head, restoring partial hearing to one of his ears; he stills suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the attack. 

These challenges have only reinforced Sarmast’s commitment to stem the tragic loss of the music that is so original, unique, and fundamental to his country’s identity. He spends time annotating Afghan music in Western notation to help record a mostly oral tradition.

The ANIM continues to thrive in spite of the dangers that Dr. Sarmast, his students, and their families undergo every day as they attend. Studies at ANIM unify students with a world beyond Afghanistan, and with the world of their past. Music is the ultimate expression of the desire to celebrate life. In Afghanistan, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast is music’s spokesman and—through his own brave actions—its hero.

Image top: Doctor Sarmast receiving the Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, July 2, 2016