What Is the Aga Khan Music Initiative All About?

AKTClogoWhen you think about protecting and preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, it’s easy to focus on physical objects and structures, such as historic mosques or ancient monuments that are in need of repair and restoration. But living elements of cultural heritage, like music, need protection and revitalization just as much as their tangible counterparts. This is precisely why the Aga Khan Development Network and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture created the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI) in 2000. First established in Central Asia (including Afghanistan) and subsequently expanded to include parts of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, AKMI is a unique program designed to help musicians and music educators from Muslim countries preserve, transmit, and further develop their traditional musical heritage. Read on to learn more about this important initiative.


What are the aims of the Aga Khan Music Initiative?

AKMI works to promote the revitalization of musical heritage in order to provide a livelihood for musical artists and to strengthen pluralism and dialogue in nations where those very things face significant social, political, and economic challenges. Among other specific aims, AKMI supports exceptional artistic and educational talent, promotes the revival of historic connections and collaborations among artists from the regions served by the program, and disseminates the results of its efforts all around the globe with the support of educational institutions, arts presenters, and music distributors. Ultimately, the goal of AKMI is to help support vibrant, interconnected artistic communities that create contemporary music rooted in tradition, and to build new audiences for such music through broad-ranging arts education initiatives.


What are the main focus areas of the Aga Khan Music Initiative?

To fulfill its core mission, AKMI concentrates its efforts and investments on a number of key focus areas. These include the following:


  1. Music education and mentoring

In many parts of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, the question of how to grow the next generation of young musicians is an urgent one, as traditional methods of music teaching and learning have been seriously disrupted in past decades by conflict. For this reason, education and mentoring are a central focus of AKMI’s cultural development investments. Specific initiatives in this area include the following:

Music curriculum development centers and schools—AKMI supports a growing network of Central Asian curriculum development centers and music schools that are working to ensure that local musical heritage passes to the next generation and evolves to find its place in the contemporary world. Some of the most successful strategies these organizations are using include the revitalization of the traditional master-apprentice relationship in music pedagogy; the development and dissemination of new curriculum materials; and the organization of teacher training institutes and workshops to provide educators with critical support and resources.

Textbook project: The Music of Central Asia—To help grow a knowledgeable and appreciative international audience for Central Asian music, AKMI has produced a pioneering textbook on Central Asian musical traditions. Published by Indiana University Press in 2016, this textbook is the first in the world to offer a thorough and detailed introduction to the rich and diverse music of Central Asia.




  1. International performance and outreach

In partnership with a global network of arts presenters, academic institutions, and cultural associations, AKMI works to bring musical innovators from Central Asia to the world stage. Specific initiatives in this area include the following:

Concert and festival programs—AKMI strives to bring the musicians on its artist roster to new, diverse audiences all over the world, and to help foster understanding and appreciation in those audiences. To this end, performance venues are selected with the aim of reaching audiences who are varied in profile, age, and background, and the format of the performance is carefully designed to provide important cultural context for the performers and their music. For example, a short documentary might be screened before a concert to introduce the audience not only to the featured musicians, but also to the communities in which they live and work.

Artist-in-residence and workshop programs—These initiatives link the educational mission of AKMI with its curatorial expertise. Often organized alongside a formal concert or performance, workshops and residencies give students the unique chance to interact directly with musicians from AKMI’s artist roster. Featuring small classroom settings and hands-on workshops, these initiatives offer an exceptional opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and the exploration of fundamental questions about musical creativity.


  1. Artistic production and dissemination

AKMI believes that musical traditions in a community are only truly alive when they can evolve in response to the taste and interest of contemporary listeners. To support this evolution, AKMI operates a commissioning and creation program for new works. With this program, AKMI seeks out exceptional innovators from traditional musical backgrounds, and supports them along trajectories of sustained creative development that result in new work that has roots in tradition but that speaks to today’s audiences. An example of a work commissioned and produced under this program was a new composition by Homayun Sakhi, the Afghan rubab virtuoso: Sakhi himself performed his work for rubab, string quartet, frame drum, and tabla alongside the world-renowned Kronos Quartet.

What You Need to Know about the Afghanistan Music Unit

Not that long ago, traditional Afghan music was almost non-existent in Afghanistan. Civil conflict and poverty had caused many musicians to flee the country, while those who remained were generally unable to play as music was widely banned. In recent years, however, Afghanistan has rediscovered its rich musical heritage and revived traditional instruments, musical styles, and songs.

While Afghanistan’s musical renaissance has been largely spearheaded by local artists and organizations—including the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, the country’s leading institute for music education founded by the dynamic musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast—a number of institutions outside the country have also played an important role in helping preserve Afghan musical traditions during the last few tumultuous decades. Perhaps the best-known of these is the Afghanistan Music Unit, housed in the music department at Goldsmiths, University of London. This research center was founded by ethnomusicology professor and Afghan music specialist Dr. John Baily.


What is the Afghanistan Music Unit?

Founded in 2002, the Afghanistan Music Unit (AMU) is dedicated to the study of music in contemporary, post-conflict Afghanistan, and to supporting the revival of traditional Afghan music. Under the direction of its founder, Professor John Baily, AMU conducts extensive research into Afghan music and music history, supports musicians returning to Afghanistan after years of exile, and offers concerts, workshops, and other educational resources about Afghan music to diverse audiences in its home city of London and around the world.



About the founder of the Afghanistan Music Unit

One of the world’s leading experts on traditional Afghan music, Dr. John Baily has been researching, promoting, and performing Afghan music for more than 30 years. Baily’s strong commitment to the music of Afghanistan began in 1973, when he and his wife, Veronica Doubleday—an accomplished Dari folk singer and expert on women’s music in Afghanistan—spent two years in the western Afghan city of Herat conducting ethnomusicological research. Since that time, Baily’s research has taken him around the world: he has conducted musical investigations in Afghan communities in countries such as Iran and the United States, worked with Afghan musicians worldwide, and helped establish a traditional music school in Kabul. An accomplished rabab player as well as a dedicated researcher, Baily also gives concerts and workshops on traditional Afghan music, organizes Afghan music festivals, and is a co-founder of Ensemble Bakhtar, a UK-based Afghan music collective. Baily’s contributions to the preservation of Afghanistan’s traditional music have been officially recognized by the Afghan Ministry of Culture, and have earned widespread praise from Afghan citizens.


The history of the Afghanistan Music Unit and its work

2002—The Afghanistan Music Unit was founded by Dr. John Baily to research and document the state of music during a new era for Afghanistan, and to provide assistance in helping the practice of traditional music recover from an extended period of extreme censorship. To launch AMU, Baily made a month-long investigative visit to Kabul; video footage of this research trip was made into the documentary film A Kabul Music Diary.

2003—Through a commission from the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia (AKMICA), Baily helped establish a Culture Bearers’ Programme in support of traditional Kabuli art music. The program saw four master musicians teaching this musical style to 35 students. The initiative proved so successful that a second AKMICA school was later established in Herat; the Kabul school continues to operate under the leadership of director Mirwaiss Sidiqi.

2004—Supported by the British Institute of Persian Studies, Baily and Doubleday made a research trip to eastern Iran, at the time home to many exiled musicians from Herat. In addition, the area supported a strong traditional music culture very similar to that of Herat. Baily and Doubleday also lectured on Herati music at Tehran University as part of their trip.

2006—Baily and AMU began a period of research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Diasporas, Migration & Identities Programme, into the presence of Afghan music in London and the role this music plays in connecting London with Kabul and the Afghan diaspora. Key outputs from this research period include a chapter in the book Understanding Afghans, the documentary feature Scenes of Afghan Music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin, and a concert of Afghan music performed at Goldsmiths.

2008—Baily retired from teaching and administrative duties at Goldsmiths with the goal of focusing full-time on AMU. Funded by a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship, Baily began conducting extensive research on music in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora during the years 1985 to 2009. Afghan music in Australia was a particular focus area for this project.



What’s next for the Afghanistan Music Unit?

As part of their mission to make Afghan music more accessible to a wider audience, Baily and Doubleday have plans to digitize their archive—a remarkable collection of audio recordings, super 8 films, still photos, and comprehensive field notes assembled during their early research years in Herat and their many subsequent travels throughout the Afghan diaspora. Baily also hopes to create an online learning module for the study of his primary instrument, the Afghan rabab.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Miraculous Love Kids

Although the situation has improved in recent years, the sight of kids on the street is still all too common in Afghanistan’s major cities. Some of these street children are orphans, living on the street because they have no other home, while others have taken to the streets to beg or sell food or trinkets in order to help support their families. Unfortunately, living on the street makes these children particularly vulnerable: according to UN figures, 923 Afghan children were killed in attacks in 2016. In addition, when children are working on the street, they are not attending school, which means they will face even greater barriers to a better future.

This is where charities like the Miraculous Love Kids come in. Perhaps the most hopefully-named charity in Afghanistan, the Miraculous Love Kids is one of a growing number of organizations dedicated to helping the nation’s street children. The Miraculous Love Kids is a music school founded by guitarist Lanny Cordola that offers guitar classes to street kids in Kabul, and for many of the young students, the experience has been life-changing. Here are five things you need to know about this special organization:

  1. The school was inspired by a tragic event.

Lanny Cordola, the Miraculous Love Kids’ founder, got his first taste of music’s power to help and heal people in need in 2010, when he was invited by a friend to collaborate with Central Asian musicians as part of a relief campaign for catastrophic flooding that was affecting the area. In his travels to visit various flood camps, Cordola witnessed the joy that these displaced people undergoing tremendous hardship experienced when they had the opportunity to hear and play music.

Cordola returned to California determined to work on making music that would give a voice to people in need, like those he’d met in the camps. And it was in this frame of mind that, in 2012, he heard about two young sisters who had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan as they sold trinkets on the street. Cordola was deeply moved by the story and reached out to contacts from his previous trip to see if he could get in touch with the girls’ family. Upon discovering that their mother and younger sisters were living in poverty with few resources, he was determined to do what he could to help. After repeated visits to Afghanistan, during which he raised enough money to move the family into a better home, Cordola noticed how interested the girls were in his guitar. The realization that music could help heal these young lives provided the initial spark for what is now the Miraculous Love Kids.

  1. Around 60 children attend the school.

Today, Lanny Cordola and other musicians teach roughly 60 children at the Miraculous Love Kids school. As part of the program, the children receive an allowance of between 50 and 100 Afghanis every time they come; this means that the kids (and their families) don’t lose out financially because the youngsters are in class rather than selling or begging on the street. In addition to studying guitar, the school’s students learn English and receive support for additional schooling.

  1. The school is a US-registered nonprofit.

The Miraculous Love Kids is formally registered as a 501(c)(3) organization in the US. Its main sources of financial support are private donations—many of which are made via the organization’s GoFundMe page. However, it also raises money by performing benefit concerts.

  1. Students have collaborated with one of the biggest legends in music.

The young musicians at the Miraculous Love Kids have a dedicated supporter that most Western artists could only dream about: Brian Wilson. The legendary Beach Boys front man is an old friend of Lanny Cordola, and when he learned about Cordola’s work with some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children, he reached out to see how he could help the group. The result is the Miraculous Love Kids’ first-ever professional collaboration: Brian Wilson sent voice and music tracks for his song “Love and Mercy” to the school to be mixed with the students’ own playing and singing. Proceeds from the sales of the song will go to support the school. In addition, Wilson has invited some of the students to visit and work with him in the US.

  1. The school’s founder, Lanny Cordola, is a former arena rock guitarist.

There are few people better equipped than Lanny Cordola to introduce Western rock music to Afghan street children. A guitarist from Southern California, Cordola has played with musicians in some of the most important rock groups in music history, including the Beach Boys and Guns N’ Roses. As a result of his work with the Miraculous Love Kids, Cordola has also been collaborating more and more with Afghan musicians like Wahid Qasimi. Cordola now lives full-time in Kabul.