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Afghan Youth Orchestra Gives First UK Tour, “Breaking the Silence,” with Concerts in London, Liverpool, Manchester & Birmingham (March 7–12), Before Return to NY’s Carnegie Hall (Aug 7)

(February 2024) — Early next month, the Afghan Youth Orchestra (AYO) embarks on its first UK tour, “Breaking the Silence.” The premier ensemble of the exiled Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), AYO comprises 45 male and female musicians aged between 14 and 20, whose diverse backgrounds testify to the strength and resilience of the Afghan people. Under the baton of Tiago Moreira da Silva, the orchestra will perform programs of traditional Afghan and Western classical music, played on both Afghan and Western instruments, at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall (March 7) and in Liverpool (March 9), Manchester (March 11) and Birmingham (March 12). Reflecting AYO’s commitment to breaking the silence imposed by the oppressive Taliban regime, advocating for the rights of Afghan women, ending gender apartheid in Afghanistan, and demanding the restoration of musical rights in the country, where music has now been banned, the “Breaking the Silence” tour follows the orchestra’s recent successes in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Tajikistan, while anticipating its return this summer to New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Since its founding in 2010, ANIM has been internationally recognized as “a great success story in the effort to renew cultural life and the arts in Afghanistan” (NPR). However, the Taliban’s return to power in 2021 made it a crime to provide Afghan girls with a secondary education, to teach Afghan boys and girls side by side, and to perform or even listen to music in Afghanistan. As a result, the coeducational school and its students were forced to flee their homeland. They have now relocated to Portugal, where they are once again free to pursue their artistic dreams and help ensure the future of Afghanistan’s rich but beleaguered musical heritage.

After the ANIM students’ traumatic experiences, AYO’s current full international touring schedule represents a key step on the road to recovery. Looking ahead to the UK tour, ANIM founder and director Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast comments:

“The ‘Breaking the Silence’ tour is a call to action, using the universal language of music to amplify the voices of the Afghan people. We strive not only to bring attention to the challenges faced by Afghan women but also to highlight the importance of music as a fundamental right that should be accessible to all.”

Forming part of the Southbank Centre’s inaugural South Asian Sounds festival, the upcoming Queen Elizabeth Hall concert marks AYO’s London debut, following a 2019 performance at the city’s British Museum by ANIM’s all-female Zohra Orchestra. In addition to the orchestra’s public performances, “Breaking the Silence” will feature workshops and other educational activities in all four English cities.

AYO’s UK tour conductor is Tiago Moreira da Silva, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Portugal’s Oporto University Orchestra and a top prize winner at the first International Academy and Orchestral Conducting Competition. It is also with da Silva that AYO returns to the United States this summer, following its sold-out performances at Washington’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2013, when ANIM made its U.S. debut. Now, on August 7, AYO returns to Carnegie Hall to give the closing concert of the first World Orchestra Week (WOW!), a new festival at the Manhattan venue that brings together youth orchestras from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America for a week of music-making and cultural exchange in New York City.

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These engagements follow a string of recent successes for ANIM. Embodying the unwavering spirit of Afghan women, the Zohra Orchestra performed last October in three picturesque cities of the French Basque country. AYO undertook seven concerts and educational programs devoted to “Music from a Silent Land” in Switzerland, where their fall tour culminated with a sold-out performance at the opening ceremony of the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva’s prestigious Victoria Hall. At Germany’s University of Bonn, the city of Beethoven’s birth, AYO gave fall concerts titled “Sound of Freedom,” drawing inspiration from “partly free, partly bound,” the motto with which the composer prefaced his Grosse Fuge. Before performing at Teatro Rossini in Pesaro, Italy, AYO’s young members traveled to Tajikistan for a concert that sent a message of hope and resilience to their motherland’s next-door neighbor.

About the Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Since its founding in 2010 by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been internationally recognized for its vision, progress and impact, with honors including the 2018 Polar Music Prize, an Honourable Mention Award at the 2019 Global Pluralism Award ceremony and the 2015 Educational Innovations UNESCO Wenhui Award.

The war-torn nation’s first and only music school, ANIM gave Afghan boys and girls the rare opportunity to learn side by side, and to study both Western and Afghan music, while also receiving a general education. Under Taliban occupation, however, the school’s original Kabul campus was turned into a command center for the Haqqani Taliban network. The school’s bank accounts were frozen, its offices ransacked and its instruments abandoned behind locked doors. Only by evacuating and relocating its people outside the country could ANIM hope to realize its students’ educational dreams and keep Afghan culture alive.

By reestablishing ANIM in the Portuguese city of Braga, Dr. Sarmast was able to continue the students’ education. The school rebuilt its celebrated ensembles – including the Afghan Youth Orchestra, all-female Zohra Orchestra and the Azada, Taranum and Qawwali ensembles – which resumed their international touring schedules. Furthermore, Dr. Sarmast and the Portuguese government are working to expand upon ANIM’s mission to transform lives through music and education. The Portuguese government shares Dr. Sarmast’s vision of ANIM as the heart of a new Afghan cultural center, where exiled Afghan musicians, writers and visual artists will be able to convene, keep alive the art forms they are no longer free to practice in the land of their birth, and share them with the Portuguese community.

Afghan Youth Orchestra: upcoming engagements

March 7–12: UK tour, “Breaking the Silence”
With Tiago Moreira da Silva, conductor

March 7
Southbank Centre (Queen Elizabeth Hall)
South Asian Sounds festival

March 9
Tung Auditorium

March 11
Stoller Hall

March 12
Town Hall

August 7
New York, NY
Carnegie Hall (Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage)
World Orchestra Week (WOW!)
With Tiago Moreira da Silva, conductor

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© 21C Media Group, February 2024

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