When a Country Loses Its Songs
The Story of the Afghan Children’s Songbook Project
- North Africa and the Middle East, Afghanistan
- Personal Essay
When I received notice from the Peace Corps in 1966 that I had been accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was thrilled. However, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that when I saw I had been assigned to Afghanistan, I hadn't a clue where Afghanistan was located. I got out the map and discovered I was going to a small landlocked country bordering on Iran, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, and a tiny bit of China. That's about all I knew.
Afghanistan in the late 60s, I discovered soon upon my arrival, was experiencing a period of peaceful existence. It was a country struggling with poverty and lacking resources, but despite those obstacles, it was a country at peace. Kabul in the late 60s was a contrast of old and new, traditional and modern. By choice, some women continued to wear chadri or burqa, and others, primarily in Kabul, appeared in Western dress, and a large percentage attended the University. Outside the city, however, most women were not seen at all, but rather stayed behind their compound walls, caring for the family.
We Peace Corps volunteers were requested by the Afghan government to teach English, and I was assigned to teach boys at a small middle school near my house in Kabul. I enjoyed working with my students, most of whom were from the outlying provinces. But having just graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in music and education, I was very interested in what was offered in music for elementary children. I was eager to spend some time working with younger children and their teachers.
After a year of teaching English, I got permission to teach music in the elementary schools. I discovered that there weren't any music books available, so, working with three or four Afghan poets and musicians and an elementary teacher, I learned some Afghan traditional children's songs. I wrote the musical notation down as accurately as possible, given that I had no tape recorder. My colleagues wrote out the lyrics in Dari. Then I created a small songbook of sixteen songs. With a harmonium (a small piano-like instrument) in hand, I went from one school to another around Kabul, sharing the songs, to the delight of the children and their teachers. As an extra bonus, I shared my small supply of crayons and had the children help illustrate the songbook with their cheerful drawings. Several songs poetically describe the colorful gardens hiding behind compound walls, which is one of Afghanistan's many surprises and a welcome respite from the dust and dirt of the busy city streets. The children's drawings reflected in the most charming way the cheerful gardens and an array of birds and other animals that can be discovered behind the high, mud-constructed compound walls. I left Afghanistan in 1969 with my small published book in hand, which had been printed by the Kabul Press. The plan was for my Afghan colleagues to distribute copies to local elementary schools in Kabul.
In those days, music, dance, and other forms of artistic expression flourished, particularly in Kabul. Audio cassettes were commonplace in the bazaar. Radio Afghanistan, Afghanistan's only radio station, played an important role in providing Afghans across the country with a rich variety of ethnic and regional folk music. They also allowed a number of women singers to achieve fame. And most importantly, it became one of the few unifying factors in the country by sharing music of many ethnic and linguistic groups—the main groups being Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeki.
When I left Afghanistan in early 1969, it never occurred to me that the country would within ten years be besieged by wars which would continue for at least thirty more years. Neither did I imagine that as a consequence, not only music, but all artistic expression, would completely disappear from the culture. For almost forty years following my Peace Corps experience, I kept up on news stories about Afghanistan. I read about the devastation, about the Communist coup, the defeat of the Soviets, the civil wars, the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and the devastating loss of the ancient Buddha statues. With each new report, my heart sank a bit more. I tried to imagine what was happening to the Afghanistan I had come to know and love. I wondered what happened to the children I taught and the families and friends I'd made. Had they survived? I wondered about the music, particularly the children's music.
Over the course of those years, I had been employed as a classroom teacher, music specialist, and education director for a non-profit organization before ending up as an associate professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in an arts in education masters program. My primary interest, if not passion, has always been in the area of traditional music. I've collected folk songs, particularly children's songs, and my doctoral research was on dispelling the American myth of people thinking they aren't "singers" because they are not talented enough, with an interest in getting more teachers to sing with their students.
Six years ago, while exploring the possibility of teaching some of the old Afghan children's songs I'd collected to my graduate students, I was rummaging around in my bookcase, and came across my old copy of the songbook I created. It was now torn and faded, and as I leafed through the pages, I sadly realized that I no longer could read the Dari, and 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, given the rigid decrees set by the Taliban, that perhaps these songs were in danger of being lost to Afghan culture forever. At that moment, I vowed to return them to the children, somehow, someway.
My thought process was simple. I feared the songs were going to be lost, and I felt an urgency to preserve them and return them to Afghan children. I had always felt that I gained much more from my Peace Corps experience than I had given to the Afghan people, and I had always wanted to find a way to give something back. I never quite knew how that would be possible.
Although I personally thought this was a valid idea, I felt it wise to consult with some Afghan-Americans to see what they thought about it. As I began checking out the idea with Afghans, I unearthed responses that went far beyond what I imagined. They not only supported the idea, they were overwhelmed that someone would try to save these songs. They also confirmed my fears. These people felt the songs were slowly disappearing from the cultural memory, so they gave the project their wholehearted support. I began the journey, and at that moment the Afghan Children's Songbook Project became a reality.
I knew two things at that point: I thoroughly believed the project would happen, although I had no idea how or when. I also knew that it would only work if it were primarily driven by Afghans. I wasn't quite sure how that I would manage that since at that point I had not been in close contact with Afghan communities in the Boston area or elsewhere.
My first idea was simply to copy my old songbook and send it back. It soon became apparent that idea was not feasible. My copy, not the original, was in terrible shape, and I had written the notation to each song solely by ear. I was quite sure there were errors. I was also not sure if the song collection was representative of the many ethnic groups that make up the Afghan population. It occurred to me that the best way to return the songs would be to create a new songbook that included a recording of each song, since Afghan children's music is based in an oral tradition. That meant finding an Afghan musician who was interested in working with me on the project.
After much searching I was introduced to Vaheed Kaacemy, an Afghan-Canadian musician living in Toronto. I told him about my project, and he agreed to look over the old songbook. Vaheed is a musician and composer. Before moving to Canada, he was a kindergarten teacher in Kabul. He had the perfect combination of skills and background for this project. When I spoke to him on the phone about the project, he was thrilled and eagerly awaited the arrival of my songbook. He was brought to tears when he first saw the songs that had been long gone from his memory. He immediately saw the urgency of the project and jumped in head first, hunting down the original sources for each melody and poem (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 hearing Afghan children sing the songs again made it all come to life.
After many calls I was also able to get an appointment with Mrs. Shamim Jawad, the Afghan Ambassador's wife in Washington, D.C. and founder of the Ayenda Foundation, which supports sustainable development projects to benefit Afghan children I thought she might be someone who could help me with the project and at least provide good advice, if not funding as well. I headed off to Washington, D.C. to meet with her. As a way to convince her of my credibility, I brought along a photo of me with some Afghan children, taken in Kabul in 1968.
Much to my surprise, the photo itself elicited powerful emotions for her. When I look at the photograph, I find my focus goes to my rather strange haircut and funky outfit! However, for Mrs. Jawad and every other Afghan with whom I share the photo, the reaction is the same. They don't see me. They never even recognize I'm in the photo. What they see are the green trees, the green grass, and the happy children who are well-clothed and in uniform. "Those were the good times," they tell me. I find they cannot stop staring at the photo, dissecting every little detail, even down to the pockets of the children's uniforms.
I shared the photo, my story, and the songbook project idea with Mrs. Jawad, then gave her a pair of earphones and had her listen to the first two songs Vaheed had recorded with the children in Toronto. I had no idea how she'd react. I waited nervously as she put on the earphones and began to listen. Then she gasped—actually, she practically stopped breathing. 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 too enthusiastically agreed to support the project.
Vaheed continued to work diligently on recording all the songs, and he very wisely suggested we include not only songs in Dari and Pashto (Afghanistan's two official languages) but also a song in Hazaragi and one in Uzbeki, which he was able to search out from Toronto's large Afghan population. He also offered to write an alphabet song in Dari, based on an old melody he knew from the Herat Province. Perhaps due to his training as a kindergarten teacher, he felt strongly that Afghan children needed their own alphabet song!
The project moved forward, and since I was dedicated to using Afghans in every part of it, my next task was to find an Afghan-owned printer. I also realized that with the complication of printing the songbook totally in Dari, having an Afghan printer would be essential. I was blessed to find Arsalan Lutfi, creative director of TriVision Studios in Virginia. When I told him about the project, he too was incredibly moved and said he would do whatever he could to help. And that he has.
The next four years were hectic! I was madly doing fundraising so that I could support both the music production and the book design. There were lots of ups and downs, and moments when I wondered what I was doing, but always the incredible support from the Afghan community kept me going.
In March 2007, thanks to many generous individuals and organizations, three thousand copies of Qu Qu Qu Barg-e-Chinaar: Children's Songs from Afghanistan were printed and sent to Afghanistan and distributed to schools across the country. Each copy included a sixty-minute CD and a cassette tape, as I had been advised that not all schools there have CD players.
That same month, the Afghan Embassy in D.C. hosted a release party to officially launch the songbook. About two hundred Afghans attended the event. I told the story of the project, and at the end of my talk, I shared a DVD Vaheed had made of the children who had been part of the recording. They are singing the last song from the songbook, "Mardume Afghanaim," which translates to "Afghan People." It's a familiar, old folksong, similar in a way to "This Land is Your Land," and it speaks of the wonderful beauty of Afghanistan and how Afghans are united as one people in one land. It had been the first song in my old songbook. (Listen to "Mardume Afghanaim")
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 that room began to sing. I turned to look at the crowd, moved by hearing their voices in song, but what I saw made my heart stop. Every person in that room was not only singing but had tears rolling down their cheeks. The musical memories had been restored, and the impact was powerful.
In January 2008, thanks to generous funding, five thousand more songbooks were printed. This time, most fortunately, TriVision had reopened their printing business in Kabul, so all the printing could be done in Afghanistan. This meant that the project could employ Afghan workers. Also, the songbook now had much more exposure to the Afghan community.
The distribution effort for the second printing went even more smoothly than the first. Word was out about this new resource, and schools, orphanages, and women's centers were all eager to obtain copies. The songbooks are valued not only as a vehicle for strengthening Afghan musical culture but also as a vehicle for improving literacy. It is always somewhat of a miracle, that despite all the difficulty of completing projects in Afghanistan, despite the war, the terrorism, and the lack of resources, there are hundreds of people working hard to make positive things happen.
Another project milestone was the U.S. premiere of an exhibition on Afghanistan in May 2008 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. This exhibit, which will travel during 2008 and 2009 to San Francisco and Houston before ending at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, highlights extraordinary artifacts which were thought to have been stolen or destroyed during Afghanistan's years of conflict. They were uncovered in 2003, right after I "uncovered," my songs. These artifacts had been hidden in vaults in the Presidential Palace since 1988. They represent a rich mosaic of Afghanistan cultural heritage, some dating back to 2200 BC.
In 2007, when I first released the Afghan version of the songbook to the Afghan-American community in D.C., I made a promise to publish an English version of the songbook to be available not only to Afghans living outside of Afghanistan but to educators and music specialists in the United States. Many westerners, when they hear about Afghanistan, conjure up images of war, destruction, terrorism, opium dealers. I made a commitment to help change those perceptions and give people here a chance to hear the beautiful music and poetry that makes up these children's songs.
In May 2008 the English version of the songbook, published by National Geographic, was released and highlighted as part of the Hidden Treasures exhibit. It is a resource, I hope, that music specialists, classroom teachers, and Afghan-Americans enjoy.
At the beginning of this project, I had the simple idea of returning sixteen songs to the children of Afghanistan. I also imagined that at some point the project might actually end. But I realize now that this probably isn't so. Vaheed dreams of publishing a second songbook and has already collected at least sixteen more traditional songs from other ethnic groups across Afghanistan. His commitment to bringing Afghans together through music is admirable. And although we now have distributed close to 14,000 songbooks across Afghanistan, more books are needed, so we continue to elicit funding for another printing.
When I began this journey, I had no idea what the impact of returning these children songs would be. The effects have been deep and wide-ranging. Music is humanizing. To remove it from a culture is dehumanizing and disorienting. I often feel embarrassed when Afghans thank me for saving their songs. I feel that I simply dropped the pebble in the water, and the ripple effect has been extraordinary. The songs, I now see, are a way to connect Afghans to a time and a place. It provides an identity they'd almost forgotten about.
"Can you stop the birds singing?" Ustad Mash'al, one of Afghanistan's greatest painters, posed that question in 1994 in response to the extreme music censorship that was occurring in the country. I recently asked my daughter, an ornithologist, that very question: Can the birds stop singing? She replied, "Yes. Actually, they can. If young birds do not hear their own music, if their parents are silenced or disappear, the music is lost." This helped me to see that the timing of this project was fortunate. The songs were returned to Afghanistan during a time when there was still a generation who holds a memory of this music. They are now committed to passing those memories on.
There is a lesson to be had from this project about the value music holds in a culture. It should be held dear and treasured. Despite the fact the music is often considered frivolous in this country, it's not. It's not only 'not frivolous'; it's serious business.