Spotlight on the Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Afghanistan’s rich and complex musical heritage—one of the world’s longest-thriving musical traditions—was nearly silenced by years of civil conflict. But today, the sounds of music are being heard throughout the country once again, due in large part to the efforts of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Read on to learn the story of this amazing institution that is helping to revive Afghanistan’s musical legacy.



ANIM logoAs Afghanistan’s leading institute for music education, ANIM is dedicated to providing a learning environment that is dynamic, challenging, and safe. Welcoming students of all backgrounds—including some of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged children—ANIM aims to assure musical rights, transform the lives of Afghans through music, revive and preserve Afghanistan’s musical heritage, train future music educators and leaders, and promote cultural diplomacy efforts between Afghanistan and the international community.



ANIM’s founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast is a musicologist and the son of one of Afghanistan’s best-known conductors. Having left Afghanistan to escape civil conflict in the early 1990s, he received a master’s degree in musicology from Moscow University in 1993, and then relocated with his family to Australia, where he completed a PhD at Melbourne’s Monash University in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Sarmast returned to Afghanistan to initiate the Revival of Afghan Music (ROAM) project, which focuses on preserving Afghanistan’s primarily oral music tradition by recording it using western music notation. The dream for ANIM emerged out of Dr. Sarmast’s work on the ROAM project. Today, Dr. Sarmast is widely credited with ushering in Afghanistan’s musical revolution.



Upon his return to Afghanistan, alongside the ROAM project, Dr. Sarmast began planning for ANIM with the support of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and the Deputy Ministry for Technical Vocation and Educational Training. In April 2008, after two years of preparation, Dr. Sarmast took the vision for ANIM to the donor community. After garnering support from many donors, including the World Bank, the US Embassy, and the government of Germany, the inauguration of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music took place on June 20, 2010.

Since its establishment, ANIM has become known locally and internationally as a leader not only in music education, but in promoting intercultural dialogue within and beyond Afghanistan. Today, ANIM is home to nearly 250 students.


Programs – General Academics and Music

guitarANIM students, who range in age from grade 4 to grade 14, receive both specialized music training and a comprehensive core academic education in line with the priorities of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education. Students’ lessons include mathematics, science, social sciences, languages (Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English), Quaranic studies, and Islamic studies.

Upon their entry to ANIM in grade 4, students begin learning recorder. In grade 5, they make their choice of specialist instrument from the full range of instruments in both Afghan and Western classical traditions. Music education includes instrumental lessons, music theory from both Western and Hindustani traditions, ear training, ensemble playing, and music history. ANIM’s faculty use traditional teaching methods, such as learning music aurally, to teach students in both group classes and one-on-one lessons. For Western music lessons, ANIM has benefitted from the expertise of hundreds of international guest artists and teachers.

Students graduate at the grade 12 level with a high school certificate and can choose to take further associate degree courses in grades 13 and 14.


The heart of music education at ANIM is ensemble playing, and the institute features a number of ensembles, large and small, that offer students the opportunity to collaborate, share, and contribute. These ensembles include:

Afghan Youth Orchestra—The first orchestra of its kind to be established in Afghanistan in more than 30 years, the AYO showcases the country’s unique and diverse musical landscape by combining Western orchestral instruments with traditional Afghan and North Indian classical instruments. The AYO has performed on numerous national and international tours, including sold-out shows in the United States at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

Young Afghan Traditional Ensemble—Under the direction of renowned rubab teacher Ustad Khial Mohammad, the beloved Young Afghan Traditional Ensemble brings the beautiful sounds of traditional Afghan instruments to life. Particularly in demand for local performances, this ensemble has also toured extensively on the international stage, including performances in the US, the UK, Denmark, Argentina, and South Korea.

Sitar and Sarod Ensemble—This ensemble features students of North India’s traditional instruments—the sitar, the sarod, and the table—performing Afghan and Indian classical music.

Qawwali Group—This vocal-based group features two lead singers, supporting singers, and musicians playing beautiful, religious-themed music using traditional Afghan and Indo-Afghan classical instruments.

Choir—ANIM’s choir is a powerful ensemble that performs regularly at important political and social events around Kabul, including official ceremonies for Afghanistan’s president. The choir also performed at Choir Fest Middle East in Dubai in March 2015, when they took home the award for Best Regional Choir.

A Look at Afghanistan’s Rich Tradition of Dance

It is easy to forget that, after decades of war and conflict that have battered Afghanistan’s landscape, part of the country’s rebuilding efforts is a return to normalcy. The people of Afghanistan are not only struggling to rebuild their physical infrastructure, housing, and farms, they are also attempting to rebuild culturally as well. An entire generation of Afghans has had little opportunity to discover and explore their rich heritage and ancient customs. To preserve a sense of national identity, parents are again teaching their children the importance of culture. One aspect of Afghan heritage that has been obscured during the long conflict is dance.

Dance has been an integral part of Afghan life for centuries—it is an art form practiced by all of the ethnic groups in the country. The largest of these groups include the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Traditional dances can vary in style, music, and costume across different ethnic groups and geographic regions.

Traditional Attitudes Toward Dance

Traditionally, women do not participate in dances, unless the dance is being conducted within a private home or as part of a family celebration with other women. In traditional Afghan culture, it is considered unacceptable for a woman to perform as a dancer in public, so professional dancers were traditionally men until recently. Influences from nearby India have begun to change the perception of women as dancers, and within the Kabul region, it is becoming more acceptable for women to perform.

The Atan

Considered by many to be the national dance of Afghanistan, the Atan is a circle dance that includes ten or more people. Accompanied by drums, the dancers form a circle and begin a slow turn around the dance floor. As the drum beat builds, the dancers move more quickly, snapping, singing, and clapping as they whirl around the circle. This dance can last for hours, and is characterized by the quick spinning and movements of the body. Men may carry handkerchiefs, scarves, swords, or guns to use during the dance. On rare occasions, the dance may be performed by a mixed group of men and women, during which the dance is accompanied by singing. The men sing love songs, which are answered by the women. The actions of the dancers help to define the dialogue, making this a fun, energetic dance for all.

Herati Atan

Another form of the Atan dance is known as the Herati Atan. Performed by groups of men, this processional style dance is performed with a leader, who guides the dancers through the motions while being accompanied by several musical instruments. The men line up and face each other, performing mimicking actions to the beat of the music. Dancers make small, concentric circles, while clapping their hands over their heads and waving scarves. The leaders instruct the dancers in the number of claps, the direction to turn, or the speed of the dance. The dance is fascinating to watch, as the dancers move in and out, resembling the opening and closing of a flower.


The shalangi dance is primarily a dance of two women, although on some occasions, two men may perform it. The dancers start in opposite corners of the room, facing each other. As the music begins to play, they begin to move toward each other, clapping in a rhythmic beat over their heads. They approach each other, using a shuffling step, “squaring off” in the center of the dance floor. During the dance, the two women may mimic each other’s movements, but may also make alternate movements in an attempt to confuse the other dancer. Other dance techniques, such as facial movements, the use of scarves, or the accompaniment of lyrics make this a fun dance to observe.


The traditional dance of Logar, a province south of Kabul, is generally performed by skilled performers. The musicians try to “trick” the performers by suddenly stopping during the dance, forcing the dancers to freeze in position until the music starts again. The pause may last as long as a minute in a good-natured attempt to defeat the dancers. This “stop dance” can be exciting and noisy, as the musicians play quickly and loudly, and the dancers call out to each other and the musicians as they banter back and forth.


Ozbaki dance styles are predominantly performed by people in the northern regions of Afghanistan. With a focus on footwork, the dancers move in a series of motions that mimic running, stepping, and hopping. As the music shifts in tempo, from fast to slow, the dancers move in time, shifting their bodies left and right. Dancers generally keep their hands at their sides, to call the audience’s attention to their quick steps and footwork instead. Musicians playing along with these dances are talented and inventive, often changing the style of music quickly to keep the dance interesting.

The Afghan people’s celebration of their cultural roots is an important part of the rebuilding process, as well as a way to strengthen their heritage. As people celebrate holidays and mark the seasons and events with dance, communities share these rituals with younger generations.

Featured Image by Presidio of Monterey | Flickr

Music Returns to Afghanistan: A Look at the Future of Music

As Afghanistan continues to rebuild after decades of war, cultural institutions and traditions are making a comeback. Particularly important to the continued resurgence of Afghan culture is the re-introduction of music into everyday life. Music has a long history in Afghanistan, and many instruments used in traditional songs and melodies are unique to the country.

As the Afghan people rediscover their love of music, a new generation is being introduced to the instruments and styles of music that have been a part of the nation’s rich heritage for centuries. At the same time, people outside Afghanistan are beginning to appreciate the country’s musical history.

Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan


The national instrument of Afghanistan, the rubab can be traced back to the 7th century. This carved, wooden double lute has a body made of a single piece of wood and a hollow, bowl-shaped chamber covered by a membrane. Traditionally made from the trunk of a mulberry tree or out of rosewood, with a covering of goat skin, these beautiful instruments are featured in many classical and traditional songs. With 21 strings, the rubab is known as “the lion of instruments” and is a favored instrument among classical Afghan musicians.


Another stringed instrument, the tamboor consists of a hollow wooden shell with metal strings. Large tamboors have 18 strings, with corresponding pegs and nuts made of ivory.


A percussion instrument, the tabla is a pair of drums that are tunable and played by hand. Made of wood with a thin skin covering, the tabla may be tuned to a precision pitch.


Another percussion instrument, the bayan is similar to the tabla, but is made of metal. Musicians can change the pitch of the bayan by altering the pressure of their hand on the skin of the drum.


Originally from India, this traditional instrument is played by blowing into a mouthpiece. Using a series of fingerholes and keys, the musician can alter the pitch of the sound.


A wooden flute-like instrument, the tula has six fingerholes on the front of the instrument and one thumbhole on the back. Using different air pressure and covering different holes with their fingers, the musician can play a variety of melodies.


A single-headed drum, the body of the zirbaghali is made of wood or pottery. Shaped similar to an hourglass, the drum has a wide head with a smaller base. The drum head is made of goat skin and is often painted with a black circle. The body of the drum may be covered with silver, gold and or bright strips of cloth. Often, craftsmen or the musician will add an “eye” to the base of the drum.


The doyra is a percussion instrument that originated in Turkic cultures in Central Asia.

One of the oldest forms of instruments, the doyra is unique in that it was originally played predominantly by women, although men now play it too. Evidence suggests that musicians originally played the instrument with special sticks, but today the doyra is usually played by hand. Often, special dances or other ritual performances accompany the playing of the doyra.

Music in Afghanistan’s Future

The future of traditional music in Afghanistan is in question. In many areas, there are few musicians remaining who know how to play the traditional instruments described above. Those who remain tend to be older, less mobile, and living in more isolated areas. In addition, it’s difficult to attract new students to learn a style of music few people know, and mastering these instruments can take decades. However, maintaining the cultural knowledge of the performance of these instruments is a vital part of preserving Afghanistan’s heritage.

Another challenge for Afghanistan’s musical revival is the economy. Many schools lack the funds to provide music lessons to students, and many craftsmen cannot afford the cost of materials to make instruments. Little government funding is available to rebuild performance halls or to provide grants for traditional musicians. However, as Afghans rebuild their economy, support for traditional music is growing.

For instance, in 2010, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which is dedicated to providing top quality musical education to promising young Afghans—particularly orphaned children, girls, children who work on the streets, and other vulnerable groups. Some of the Institute’s other goals include reviving and preserving Afghanistan’s musical heritage, and leading cultural diplomacy efforts between the country and other nations. According to its website, the Institute now has more than 100 young students who are learning to play the rubab, tamboor, tabla, zirbaghali, tula, and other traditional instruments.