Can You Stop the Birds From Singing?

Kindergarten children in Kunduz performing one of the songs, 2009

This is an excerpt from our twice-yearly publication, Pass It On! It is a wonderful collection of long form articles and songs. Some articles are open to the public here. Others are only for members – one more reason to join!

The Afghan Children’s Songbook & the Power of Music by Louise M. Pascale

This story begins in 1966; the setting is Afghanistan. I realize many of you have not had the opportunity to travel across the globe to a place now commonly thought of only as a desolate, poor country plagued by years of war and terrorism. I offer this story as a way to perhaps shift your perspective about Afghanistan and Afghans, and, if nothing else, to deepen your thinking about the role music plays for us personally and for the larger community. The experience I’m about to share with you brought me to a new depth of understanding about the essentialness of music for each and every one of us. Perhaps it will for you, too.

I spent from 1966 to 1968 in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan, teaching music to young children. I returned to the States with a small music book in hand, one that I had created with the help of an Afghan poet and musician. The book contained sixteen traditional Afghan children’s songs. Close to the end of my Peace Corps term, the Kabul Press kindly agreed to print several hundred copies of the book that they distributed to elementary schools in and around Kabul. I received one copy, which I brought home and stored away for safekeeping.

Cover: Original Songbook
Cover of original songbook

In 2002, thirty-four years later, disturbing news began to filter back to the United States that turned my world upside down. Stories emerged about the enforcement of severe music censorship in Afghanistan under the Taliban (Solomon 2002).

I viewed photos of instruments being destroyed, cassette tapes hung in effigy in city squares, and Afghans being beaten for making any kind of musical sound. The censorship was so extreme that mothers were not allowed to hum to their young children. This imposed decree was in place for over a decade. My mind raced back to those children I sang with. I wondered how anyone could possibly exist without music, no less an entire country. The idea seemed impossible to fathom. What long-term impact would this have on the entire Afghan culture? My heart sank at the thought of it all.

Upon hearing this news I went immediately in search of my one old copy of the songbook I’d stored away long ago. Memories rushed back as I leafed through the pages, recalling my visits to local schools, sharing songs with children. Like children everywhere, they delighted in singing together and making their own illustrations with my limited supply of crayons. I couldn’t comprehend those children being forced into silence.

Photo: Singing Ali Baba
Louise singing “Ali Baba” with children, Kabul, 1968

As I held my now very torn and faded songbook in my hands, I had a sinking feeling that these sixteen traditional children’s songs could possibly be close to complete eradication from the cultural memory. Given the severity of the censorship, perhaps this small collection was all that remained. At that moment, I determined that somehow I would return the songs to the children of Afghanistan. That’s where they belonged.

Having committed myself to this task, I was then faced with its implementation. The next four years were hectic. Simply copying my old songbook was not feasible. I madly engaged in fundraising to support the music production and a new book design. There were many moments when I questioned whether this project would ever really happen, but the incredible support from the Afghan community kept my spirits up. I consulted with Afghans I knew who lived in the United States and in Canada, continuously asking their advice. After all, the songs were theirs—not mine. I sent them copies of my old songbook and in every instance their reaction was the same: they not only supported the project unanimously and encouraged me to go forward, but were often moved to tears simply by seeing childhood songs they hadn’t thought about in years.

Cover: Current Songbook

By March 2007, thanks to many generous individuals and organizations, the first three thousand copies of Qu Qu Qu Barg-e-Chinaar: Children’s Songs from Afghanistan, based on my original songbook, were printed and distributed to schools across Afghanistan. Each songbook included some of the children’s original illustrations as well as a CD and a cassette tape.

The Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC, hosted a release party to officially launch the new songbook. Two hundred Afghans attended the event. After I shared the story of the project, the evening concluded with a video of Afghan children singing the last song from the songbook, “Mardume Afghanaim,” which translates to “Afghan People.” It’s a familiar, old folk song, uplifting and similar to “This Land Is Your Land” in that it speaks of the extraordinary beauty of Afghanistan and the ways in which Afghans are united as one people in one land.

The video began to play, and the room became silent. Suddenly one woman in the crowd shouted out, “We all know this song. We should all be singing.” Instantly, all 200 Afghans raised their voices in song. I turned to face the crowd, moved by hearing their voices. What I witnessed made my heart stop. Every person in that room was not only joyfully singing but each and every one had tears rolling down their cheeks. Musical memories had been restored, voices unleashed, the silence broken. The 200 Afghans in that room, while singing a simple childhood song, had made connections to their homeland and to memories far beyond what I could imagine. I had never experienced this kind of musical phenomenon, and it made a profound difference in my understanding of the transformative power that music has in all our lives. I, too, was moved to tears.

Photo: Girls
Girls from Kunduz performing “Salaam, Salaam” – a Hazaragi song

Read the rest of the article, and see and hear video samples, in PIO! 

3 comments

  1. This is such an amazing and inspiring story! I am grateful to Louise Pascal for sharing her experiences and her work, and reminding us all that in a time where voices may seem silenced, there is always that small song in our hearts to carry us through until we all may sing together again.

  2. Such an inspiration that shows the power and passion of what one person can dream and do!

  3. thank you for sharing this wonderful story— and photos!

Comments are closed.