The Zohra Orchestra, named after the Persian goddess of music, was formed in 2014 at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, at the request of a student. Afghanistan’s first all-female ensemble was formed with only 10 players and now includes over 30 young women who play Afghan and Western instruments and music.
The orchestra has counted several firsts in its short existence. Afghanistan’s first female conductor, Negin Khpolwak, debuted with the orchestra in 2015. The group first toured outside of Afghanistan in 2017.
During that first tour, they performed at the World Economic Forum. Speaking at the forum, Zohra member and conductor Zarifa Adiba said:
“The experiences that I have got in this ensemble are unity, love, hope and more than anything never give up.”
Afghanistan’s long musical heritage almost disappeared under the Taliban regime, which banned music outright. Many musicians died or migrated. Even following the removal of Taliban rule, large parts of Afghan society still disapprove of music.
The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, located in Kabul, was founded by Afghan-Australian ethnomusicologist Dr Ahmad Sarmast. The school is co-educational and approximately a third of the students are female. According to their website, the institute “… provides a dynamic, challenging, and safe learning environment for all students regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religious sect, or socio-economic circumstances.” “Through music education, we’re teaching our kids to live in peace and harmony and have respect for each other,” said Dr Sarmast in a speech at the 2017 World Economic Forum.The orchestra’s tour to Australia is part of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Reclamation of Independence and the 50th anniversary of Afghanistan-Australia Diplomatic Relations. Performances will take place at Melbourne’s Monash University on 12 October and the Sydney Opera House on 14 October.
ABC Classic presenter Ed Ayres wrote about the experience of teaching at the school in his 2017 book Danger Music.