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Afghanistan National Institute of Music

Since 2013, 21C has partnered with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) to protect the future of Afghan music by ensuring political refuge and ongoing artistic opportunities for the its young musicians.

The Task

Promote cultural diplomacy and protect the future of Afghan music by ensuring political refuge and ongoing artistic opportunities for the musicians of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). 

Our Approach

Increase international exposure for ANIM and its director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, to maintain Afghanistan’s rich musical history and guarantee access to music, particularly for the country’s girls and socio-economically disadvantaged citizens.  


ANIM continues to flourish through hardship. In 2021, when the Taliban’s return prohibited music and threatened ANIM’s imminent safety, 21C Media Group organized passage to Praga, Portugal, for all of ANIM’s 272 students, faculty, staff, and family members. Now based semi-permanently in Portugal, ANIM provides a haven for young musicians of Afghanistan to grow as artists and maintain their country’s musical traditions despite constant risk imposed by the Taliban. 

The ANIM Story

After the Taliban’s initial withdrawal in 2010, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, the first and only school of music in the country. ANIM’s mission is to provide co-educational training in Afghan traditional music and Western classical music for talented Afghan children regardless of their gender, social circumstances, and ethnic background, in addition to offering high quality general education. The performing groups at the heart of the institution’s mission include the ANIM National Symphony Orchestra, the Afghan Women’s Orchestra (AWO) “Zohra,” and the Afghan Youth Orchestra (AYO).

Early Success

21C Media Group’s relationship with Dr. Sarmast and ANIM began with the young musicians’ first US tour in 2013, which boasted two sold-out concerts at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, attracting a wave of media attention and cross-cultural support. A few years later, ANIM played at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and Zohra toured Europe. In 2018, ANIM was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize, and continued touring widely across Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. 

Threats at Home

Despite ANIM’s success, the organization and its founder were under threat in their home country. In 2014, Dr. Sarmast, the first Afghan citizen to earn a PhD in musicology, was injured by a suicide bomber. With support from the Afghan president, Dr. Sarmast recovered and ANIM forged ahead. 

In March 2020, Afghanistan created new government rulings that forbade girls from singing in public. ANIM produced a video in support of women’s voices that received widespread notice as the global community followed their plight. ANIM was immediately recognized as an international symbol of freedom, and 21C Media Group managed the resulting media explosion. To ensure ANIM’s protection during this period of growth, 21C helped to establish a nonprofit organization for the school, Friends of ANIM, and assisted in securing funds that provided for structural reinforcement of the school, enhancing security for ANIM’s students, faculty, and staff as danger remained ever-present. 

In August 2021, the Taliban marched into Kabul and began their takeover of Afghanistan. Almost immediately, they seized ANIM’s property, including the brand-new girl’s dormitory, which was repurposed for Taliban occupation. Music was forbidden. Fearing punishment or death, students, faculty, and staff of ANIM raced to hide evidence of their ties to the school. Instruments were buried in yards, all school-related communication was destroyed. 

A New Era in Portugal

With the safety of ANIM in peril, Dr. Sarmast and 21C Media Group, as part of Friends of ANIM, forged a plan to evacuate all those associated with ANIM from the country. 21C undertook a massive campaign to ensure safe passage to Portugal––efforts included funding a SAS chartered flight with volunteer crew and enlisting supporters like Yo-Yo Ma and members of Congress to secure the necessary documents for obtaining political asylum. In December 2021, all of ANIM’s 272 students, faculty, staff, and family members arrived safely in Lisbon, Portugal. 

Visits from artists including Yo-Yo Ma and Midori inspired ANIM to continue its mission in their new home. Since arriving in Portugal, ANIM has resumed touring across Europe and the UK. In January 2024, the Afghan Youth Orchestra embarked on a 15-day tour of Germany and Switzerland, which concluded with a performance at the opening ceremony of the UN Human Rights Council at Victoria Hall in Geneva. 

In March 2024, after public outcry overturned an initial visa denial, the AYO began a UK concert tour entitled “Breaking the Silence” at London’s Southbank Centre. For 21C Media Group, what began as a project of cultural diplomacy has evolved into a rescue operation on a grand scale. We are proud to join ANIM in spreading their profound message of hope and insisting on music’s fundamental role in the pursuit of freedom.         

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