Performance by Zohra – The First All-Female Orchestra of Afghanistan was an absolute magic

By Aradhana Bhatt

Zohra is the name of the Persian Goddess of music. Zohra is also the name of Afghanistan’s first all- female orchestra. The orchestra performed to a near full house at the iconic Opera House in Sydney on Monday, 14th October. The debut, landmark Australia tour coincides with 100 years of Afghanistan’s Reclamation of Independence and 50 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and Afghanistan. The orchestra is an ensemble based at Kabul’s  ”˜Afghanistan National Institute of Music’ and was formed in 2014. It boasts 30 young female musicians who play both traditional Afghan and western musical instruments, their repertoire ranging from ancient, traditional and modern Afghan music to world music.  ”˜Afghanistan National Institute of Music’ has close ties with Australia in the sense that it was established by Dr Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan-Australian musicologist.

Like India, Afghanistan too has a long and rich musical heritage, which was practically destroyed during the Taliban regime. For the large part of the Afghan society, even today, music is a path best avoided. The courageous young women of Zohra, defied many odds to follow this path, the path of love, hope, harmony and peace through music

The two hour concert opened with introductory speeches by the Governor of NSW Hon Margaret Beazley AO QC, His Excellency Wahidullah Wasi, Ambassador of Afghanistan to Australia and Dr Sarmast. His Excellency Wahidullah Wasi spoke passionately about the fundamental human rights of females in modern Afghanistan.

What followed was absolute magic. In the first segment of the concert, the musicians, all dressed in the traditional dress including head-scarves, presented some toe-tapping traditional tunes, to which the audience could not help but break out in simultaneous rhythmic clapping. The sole male member of the orchestra-the young Table player, the Sitarists, the Dilruba, the Rubab, and the Harmonium players- all seated on the floor, played perfectly in unison. The second half of the concert comprised of an amalgamation of music and musicians from the Conservatorium of Music and included some modern Afghan pieces rendered with a full range of Western and Eastern musical instruments. The finale was exceptional – a rendition of our unofficial anthem ”˜Waltzing Matilda’ has never been so captivating. It brought goose bumps listening to our popular bush-ballad played on Eastern instruments along with the full range of Western orchestral instruments. It was a touching and befitting finale, a tribute to Australia-the land that, in a way, has been at the grass-roots of the revival of music in Afghanistan through Dr Sarmast.   The audience regaled and rose to give the young musicians a standing ovation and encore after encore followed.

”˜Zohra’ embodies the healing power of music. We hope that the soft transformative power of music becomes instrumental in bringing about peace and harmony in Afghanistan, a nation that has been torn apart by civil war for almost four decades and we hope that music becomes a place of refuge for those individuals and families affected by aggression, repression and violence.

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