For years, the Taliban banned music in Afghanistan. Now the country has its first all-female orchestra — and Allegra Boggess to thank.
Afghan music sounded from the orchestra in Davos, Switzerland. From the concert hall’s front row, Allegra Boggess (Mus’07) listened with pride, and cried. The 30 young women on stage were making history.
Zohra, Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, kicked off its debut European tour at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January. Boggess, their mentor, flew from Colorado to help supervise the student musicians, the youngest of whom was 12. For her, the performance culminated five years’ work at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), the country’s only music school.
“I don't think I've ever felt so proud or so grateful in my entire life,” said Boggess, a pianist who moved from Denver to Afghanistan in 2011. “I was proud of each one of those girls, especially remembering how hard they worked over the many rehearsals we had and how many battles they fought at home, in their community and in society in general to get where they are now.”
Named after a Persian music goddess, Zohra was formed at ANIM in 2014. Boggess, 33, was a teacher in the school and helped encourage the young women to form the ensemble after they requested special Afghan arrangements to play on their own.
Their enthusiasm reflected dedication and bravery. Making music in Afghanistan was risky until recently: The Taliban outlawed it as un-Islamic.
“When the Taliban banned music in the 1990s, all the musicians either had to leave or had to hide their instruments and take up menial jobs,” said Boggess. “You could be beaten for even listening to music.”
Despite the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, musicians are still sometimes targeted by religious conservatives. It remains rare to see instruments in the streets, Boggess said. But in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, ANIM provides safety for aspiring musicians.
Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan musicologist who fled the country’s civil wars for asylum in Australia in the 1990s, returned to his home country in 2006 to develop Afghanistan’s first dedicated music school, established in 2010.
With support from donors, including the World Bank, the U.S. Embassy and the German government, ANIM enrolled dozens of children, focusing primarily on providing opportunities for the country’s most vulnerable populations: street vendors, orphans and girls.
“I believe that all kids, regardless of their gender, should have access to music education,” Sarmast said in a 2013 documentary from Al Jazeera’s Witness series. “I will do my utmost to provide more opportunity to the girls, given the challenges they are facing in this country.”
You could be beaten for listening to music."
Today, there are more than 65 girls among the school’s 250 students, who range in age from 10 to 21.
“I wish her to study and become somebody,” one student’s mother, clothed in a burka, said in Witness. “I want her to be free and bare-faced.”
ANIM was Boggess’ reason for living in a war zone.
After graduating from CU, she felt called to teach music to children outside the U.S. While teaching in India at a school for impoverished children, she visited Afghanistan and ANIM. Her brief experience in Kabul left her wanting more. She joined the faculty full time in August 2011, despite the AK-47s in the streets and suicide bombings.
“I was pretty scared,” she said. “But not enough not to go.”
Boggess, the youngest of three sisters, arrived in August 2011 and saw there was plenty to do.
“When you ban music, a country’s cultural heritage is at stake,” she said. “The school is working to bring that back.”
Most of the school’s incoming students could not name traditional Afghan instruments such as the rubab, related to the lute, or the sitar, a plucked stringed instrument.
Boggess, an experienced pianist and oboist, learned traditional Afghan music from her colleagues and began arranging folk songs for her students to play on the piano. In time, she provided music and instruction to the Zohra Orchestra.
With Afghan and other international colleagues, she worked six days a week, often spending free time practicing with students who wouldn’t bring their instruments home for fear of public rebuke. At times, other CU alumni served as guest teachers alongside Boggess, including cellist Kimberly Patterson (DMus’12), her husband, guitarist Patrick Sutton (DMus’14), and conductor Joel Schut (MMus’12).
“I was pretty scared...But not enough not to go.”
“Even with the unstable political environment, ANIM has become a beacon of hope in war-torn Afghanistan,” said Patterson, now a professor at the University of Memphis.
Boggess also invited David Korevaar, her former CU professor. He went to Kabul for two weeks in May 2016 to work with pianists and flutists behind the school’s thick walls and manned steel gate.
“We’re just validating the mission by being there,” he said. “The fact that I can do this and share music with students who are really hungry for it — there’s nothing better in the world.”
But Korevaar, who still teaches at CU, fears for the school’s future amid continuing turmoil in Afghanistan. He follows the news daily, with a frightening event involving Boggess in mind.
On Dec. 11, 2014, Boggess helped organize eight students for an evening performance at a Kabul high school. She went home with a headache, leaving the students with Sarmast. As the children performed on stage, a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up in the auditorium. One man was killed and 16 wounded, including Sarmast, who had shrapnel in his head and damaged eardrums.
The experience changed Boggess, who did her best to fill in for Sarmast as he healed.
“To think I could have died — that was the first time I realized, as passionate as I was about teaching music, I wasn’t ready to die for it,” she said. “It was the first time I was really afraid. I would leave the house and wonder, ‘What is going to happen to me?’”
Boggess battled with her decision about whether to stay.
“I was still excited and happy to be there, because I felt like part of a family,” she said. “But it was a really tough time. It was hard to come to the realization that I needed to leave.”
Last August, after more than four years, she returned to Denver, where she took a job at Starbucks — “the opposite of my job in Afghanistan” — and taught piano.
But she kept in touch with members of Zohra as they prepared for their concerts in Europe. And when they made their debut on the world stage, she was with them — with the 18- and 19-year-old female conductors and with freshman Aziza, who, though tiny in stature, learned to play double bass.
“I remember when and how each of those girls joined the ensemble,” said Boggess. “To think back to that time and then to fast-forward to watching them perform in Europe — it was incredibly emotional for all of us.”
In August, Boggess begins a new job as director of orchestra at Rabun Gap, a Georgia boarding school.
“I’m already talking about how I can get girls from Afghanistan to that school to study,” she said.
Photos courtesy Allegra Boggess