Ahmad Masood / Reuters Members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, attend a rehearsal at Afghanistan's National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan April 4, 2016.
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Ahmad Masood / Reuters <span>Negin Khpalwak, the young conductor of Zohra.</span>
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Ahmad Masood / Reuters Ahmad Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Ahmad Masood / Reuters

Dangerous Tunes in Kabul

In 1998, four years after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, an official notice appeared in the papers warning, "Those who listen to music and songs in this world, on the Day of Judgment molten lead will be poured into their ears." Under Taliban rule, shopkeepers faced imprisonment if cassette tapes were found in their stores and musicians caught performing or playing an instrument were beaten and jailed. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001, the ban on music was lifted. But the stigma still lingers on.

In 2014, Ahmad Sarmast, an Aghan musician who established the country's first national music institute, nearly died when a suicide bomber blew himself up at one of Sarmast's concerts in Kabul. The blast put eleven shards of shrapnel into Sarmast's head, leaving him, not deaf, but with the sound of "a large symphony orchestra...playing out of tune in both ears." Demoralized but undeterred, Sarmast formed an all-female ensemble called Zohra ("Venus") at the behest of a young girl named Meena who is now the group's tumpeter. The orchestra has elicited mixed reactions, moving audiences while on tour in Germany and Geneva but maddening Afghans back home.

"Apart from my father, everybody in the family is against it," Negin Khpalwak, the group's conductor, told Reuters. At 19, she is young, but not naïve. "I do not feel safe," she admitted, but continued on, "Even if they do want to kill me, I will continue my work...How much longer do the Afghan people want to keep their daughters locked up?"

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