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william harvey conducts the afghan youth orchestra William Harvey conducts the Afghan Youth Orchestra during a performance on February 7, 2012. (Photo: James Herzog/Afghanistan National Institute of Music)

Peace in Music

Afghan Youth Orchestra celebrate life and survival with Carnegie Hall performance

By Grace McManus | January 20 , 2013

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? "Practice, practice, practice," is the well-known answer.

But for some inspiring young musicians from the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul, the road to the famous concert hall was more difficult.

The kids who make up the Afghan Youth Orchestra had to overcome war and life in orphanages before they took the New York stage last Tuesday. Their amazing performance was a celebration not just of music, but of life and survival.

The Afghan Youth Orchestra (AYO) is made up of young people who study at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The school teaches music, English, and religious studies. The Institute founded the AYO two years ago, and it was the first orchestra created in Afghanistan in 30 years.

afghan youth orchestra carnegie hall interview
Kid Reporter Grace McManus interviews Gulalai Norestani, a sitar player in the Afghan Youth Orchestra, backstage before the orchestra's Carnegie Hall performance on February 12. (Photo courtesy Grace McManus)
Gulalai Norestani, 14, plays a traditional string instrument called the sitar. Like many students at the National Institute, Gulalai became an orphan when her parents were killed during the ongoing war. Music is her salvation.

"Music for me is a language of peace," Gulalai said. "It connects people."

Music was banned for years in Afghanistan by the ruling Taliban, which destroyed instruments and jailed musicians. At the same time, girls were not allowed to attend school. This is still true today in the conservative rural area Gulalai is from.

"At first, I couldn't even think of attending the music institute," she told the Kids Press Corps backstage at Carnegie Hall. "I was afraid what people would think of me. I had some classes in the orphanage, but now that I'm a music student, my life has changed. I'm happy."

Milad Yousufi, 18, is a piano student at the Institute. "Music is my life," he said during a rehearsal break before the evening's concert. What was his life like without music? "A body without a soul," he answered.

Milad also lost many of his family members during the war. When music was banned, he couldn't even touch a piano. So as a 12-year-old, he started painting and drawing. "I used to draw a piano," he said.

Finally, after drawing endless pictures of pianos on paper, the music ban ended, and Milad was free to play a real piano.

"Our dream came true," he said. "It is everyone's dream to play in Carnegie Hall."

And he has more dreams.

"I have a dream to continue my education in America," he explained. "I am working hard to make that happen. Then I have a dream to come back to Afghanistan and serve people and to teach."

Because of continuing restrictions in Afghanistan, Gulalai and Milad listen mostly to the kind of classical music they played at Carnegie Hall. But Gulalai said she's heard a bit of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira and likes them. Milad says he has heard of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but hasn't yet had a chance to listen to them.

Before Milad went onstage that night with the ensemble of Afghan kids who had survived a war, I asked him if he had ever experienced true peace.

"No, no yet," he answered, adding, "I hope I will be able to."

Later during the performance, as he played one of Carnegie Hall's famous grand pianos, the look of pure joy on his face convinced me that he found peace in music.

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