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Banned by the Taliban, Afghan musicians play on in Cambridge

Arson Fahim left Afghanistan to study music in Cambridge just before the fall of Kabul in 2021.Adriana Arguijo Gutierrez

“Not just as a musician, but as a human, I don’t think it should be acceptable for an entire country to be stripped of its right to create art or go to school,” says pianist, conductor, and composer Arson Fahim.

Yet that is what has happened to Fahim’s fellow Afghans. Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in 2021, the regime has outlawed performing music and even possessing instruments. Many musicians have gone into hiding or exile. The campus of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, where Fahim had studied, has been turned into a Taliban command center. Now a student at Longy School of Music of Bard College, Fahim is hoping to call attention to the Taliban’s oppression through Monday night’s “Concert in Solidarity with Afghan Musicians” at First Church in Cambridge.

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Fahim’s interest in using music as a tool for good started before he’d ever seen a piano in real life. As a young Afghan refugee in Pakistan, he watched the film “The Pianist,” the true story of a Polish-Jewish pianist in occupied Warsaw. “I saw this instrument that could save someone’s life, and it made me curious,” Fahim says, seated in a practice space at the Harvard Square house that serves as the Longy campus.

When Fahim was 12, his family moved back to Afghanistan and he started taking lessons at the music institute in Kabul. Even then studying and playing music carried risk. With its all-female orchestra, known as Zohra, the institute was frequently a target of extremists. One day during his years there, Fahim had plans to see his classmates perform music to accompany a play, but feeling ill, he stayed home. The play, which was about suicide bombings, was itself attacked by a suicide bomber.

Fahim was accepted to Longy in 2020, but due to the pandemic he had to wait a year before he could start classes. Kabul fell just a few weeks after Fahim had landed in Boston. He hasn’t seen his family since. “They’re hanging in there, and they’re safe,” he says, but his sister, a student, and his mother, a teacher, have been deeply impacted by the Taliban’s severe restrictions on females to work or study.

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“As a person who believes that music can be a way of raising awareness and a tool for protest and changing society, I wanted to do something. I couldn’t just sit there,” he says. Shortly after US troops were withdrawn and Kabul fell, he composed “Broken Mountains.” At first it was intended to be a solo piece, but when Fahim started to make arrangements for a larger ensemble to perform it, “I saw the interest of people wanting to support Afghan musicians, so I decided to do a whole concert instead of just one original piece.”

Last year 70 Longy community members took part in an online Afghan solidarity concert. Monday’s in-person concert will feature a chamber orchestra as well as musicians playing traditional Afghan instruments: the tabla, harmonium, and the rubâb, the majestic 18-string national instrument of Afghanistan.

“We have invited Afghan musicians who are in exile in the United States to play arrangements of Afghan songs as well as their own compositions,” he says. “Some of the composers will also share their stories. These are people who have had to accept a huge risk to play music, and each of them have inspiring stories to share.”

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Fahim has re-orchestrated “Broken Mountains” for the concert. A composition by fellow Longy student and Afghan Qudrat Wasefi will also be performed.

Among the guests are rubâb master Qais Essar, a musician who works in both traditional and electronic music, and cellist Meena Karimi, an outspoken advocate of women’s rights who, like Fahim, is now studying in the United States.

One of the conductors will be Negin Khpalwak, who led Zohra and was Afghanistan’s first female conductor. Once threatened at home by her own family members, she’s now in exile in Virginia along with her tabla player husband, Hamid Habib Zada, who will also be appearing. So will one of Fahim’s first piano teachers, composer and artist Milad Yousufi.

Besides studying at Longy, Fahim has scored a podcast about the fall of Kabul, had a piece featured by the London Philharmonic, and co-curated a concert of Afghan music for the Oxford Philharmonic with Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, who will also be conducting on Monday.

When Fahim first arrived in Boston, he had a dream of someday returning to Afghanistan to start a music school. The Taliban rule in Afghanistan means he must wait, but “no matter all of the challenges and difficulties, Afghanistan is still my home, it’s still my blood, and I want to take part in rebuilding it eventually. With all their cruel inhumanity, this regime can’t continue forever. People will get tired of it.”

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In the meantime, Fahim says those looking to help can do so through organizations such as the International Campaign for Afghanistan’s Musicians, which supports those in hiding at home or in exile. When the first era of Taliban rule ended in 2001, “music came back right away and it reached new heights,” Fahim says. “Now there are more Afghans studying at conservatories than even before. It’s sad that we have to do so in exile, but it goes to show that you can’t get rid of music.”

CONCERT IN SOLIDARITY WITH AFGHAN MUSICIANS

March 20 at 7 p.m. At First Church, 11 Garden St., Cambridge. Admission is free, reservations recommended at Longy.edu