‘To show the beauty of Afghanistan’: All-female Afghan orchestra challenges tradition

For nearly three decades, under the Taliban, music was banned in Afghanistan. But now a group of women are at the forefront of bringing music back to their homeland and changing the misconceptions of their country to audiences around the world.

No one claims the influence of the Taliban is gone completely but the decision of the Afghanistan National Institution of Music to create a women's orchestra in 2015 would have previously been unthinkable.

Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra will tour Australia for the first time. 

Zohra Orchestra, which will tour Australia this month, is comprised of about 75 girls between the ages of 14 and 20 and is led by the country's first-ever female conductors: Negin Khpalwak and Zarifa Adiba. Zorha is named after a Persian goddess of music.

The country has a rich tradition of music but between the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Taliban enforced a strict ban on music – leading to the migration of many musicians and the death of the country's musical and cultural life.

For 14-year-old Meena who plays the cello, there is far more than just music going on when the group steps on stage.

"I want to show the beauty of Afghanistan and how music can connect people and how music can connect each country to another country,” Meena said.

The Zohra Orchestra on their tour of the UK.

The group has performed across the world including at a high-profile event at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2017.

"It makes us feel really good when we travel because when we are going to another country they really love our music," Meena said.

The group has a distinctive sound due to their blend of Afghan and Western instruments and has earned substantial praise and attention from music critics around the world.

When asked what her favourite pieces of music to play were, Meena at first said Afghan music but then laughing said she was looking forward to playing Waltzing Matilda.

"To be a female cello player in this orchestra is really important for me and to be able to play different types of music," she said.

Anita who plays the Tamboor, a string instrument, said she sometimes gets nervous performing around the world but feels proud to be representing Afghanistan on stage.

"We are really looking forward to seeing the people of Australia – the country and culture," she said. However, Anita said some of the musicians have encountered resistance in the community to playing music.

"Yes sometimes someone says you can't play music but my father always told me you can do," she said.

The tour will also help mark the 50-year anniversary of Afghanistan-Australian diplomatic relations. Afghanistan's ambassador to Australia Wahidullah Waissi said the young people demonstrate the resilience of young Afghans.

"It is a showcase of the resilience and determination of Afghan youth and women to continue fighting for their rights," Mr Waissi said.

The orchestra will play in Melbourne at Monash University's Robert Blackwood Hall on October 12 before heading to Sydney to play at the Opera House on October 14.

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