Wielding a Violin for Change in Afghanistan

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William HarveyThe violin is one object that transcends cultures and ages like no other. Here is a heartwarming story that appeared in the AOL news today. It was written by Bina Shah

William Harvey is a slight young man with a shock of brown hair, glasses and a gentle, unassuming air. But when this Juilliard-trained violinist takes the stage, he's the biggest man in the room. And that's a good thing, given the monumental task he's taken on: using music to bridge cultural divides, both as founder of a unique musical outreach program and as a violin teacher at the newly inaugurated Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul.

Harvey has been giving a series of concerts in Pakistan this month to raise funds for girls wanting to learn music at the institute -- a double impossibility under the Taliban, which rigidly enforced bans on both female education and music. But his commitment to expanding the social impact of music hardly started there.

Harvey arrived in New York City from Indiana to begin his studies at Juilliard just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and he soon found himself playing his violin for soldiers who had been working at ground zero and who were "seeing things that nobody should have to see," he says. That concert's evident impact on those soldiers changed Harvey's life, he says, making him realize that music belongs not just in the concert hall, but as a central part of life, uniting people across cultures and countries.

With this principle in mind, Harvey called up the U.S. State Department, innocently asking if it would be interested in sending him on a tour to Afghanistan to play music there. The reply he got was less than charitable, in his own words: "We don't send musicians on tour, you'd have to pay for yourself, and by the way, there's a war on. Goodbye!" But Harvey didn't give up, and in 2005, he set up Cultures in Harmony, a nonprofit organization that aims to promoting cultural understanding through music. Harvey and his team have conducted 11 projects in 19 countries, sending what he calls "musical diplomats" to countries such as Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Cameroon and Egypt.

The organization has received funding from the State Department, the Samuels Foundation, the Copland Fund and private individuals. Harvey and his musical diplomats have held master classes for aspiring musicians in many countries, at the same time availing themselves of opportunities to learn about other countries' musical traditions. Collaborating with sarangi players in Pakistan, mvet players in Cameroon and kundu drummers in Papua New Guinea has taught them about the musical styles from these diverse cultures, while demonstrating to their audiences that Americans are eager to learn from others rather than just stay arrogant and aloof, as a common stereotype goes.

His work for Cultures in Harmony, however, "didn't pay the rent," Harvey says, so he began looking for gainful employment. He saw an ad for musicians to teach in Afghanistan's newly established National Institute of Music. Under the leadership of Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, a dedicated Afghan musician and educator, the school is a project of Afghanistan's Ministry of Education, with funding from the World Bank, the Goethe Institute and other organizations.

Harvey applied and was accepted, and set off for Kabul in March unsure of what to expect. He was pleasantly surprised on his first day in Afghanistan. "I get there on March 21 and the entire countries throws a party for me ... well, OK, it wasn't connected," he says, conceding with a wry smile that his arrival coincided with the celebrations of Navroze, the Persian new year, when Afghans flocked to the streets to picnic with their families.

In just a few short months, Harvey is convinced his work has already made an impact on the students at the institute, which encourages orphans and street children to learn music for free. One of his students, a young girl, used to subsist by selling chewing gum on the streets.

The institute accepted her as a student and began to pay the girl slightly more money than she made selling gum; she's now one of 20 students who learn violin from Harvey in a beautiful wood-floored soundproof studio. A well-stocked library and "5 tons of musical instruments" donated by the Germans greet students, who are most eager to learn guitar, percussion, piano and violin. "But we're really encouraging them to learn the classical instruments of Afghanistan as well: rubab, sitar, sarod, tabla."

The program is still in its infancy and faces financial challenges along with the other daily uncertainties of life in Kabul. But Harvey is confident about its future, especially under the guidance of Sarmast, who Harvey says has done a "wonderful job" marshaling resources to promote music in Afghanistan. "I'm very optimistic about the future of the institute," he says. "And it's a lot of fun being in Afghanistan." And the picture of joy and harmony he got a glimpse of back in March remains a beacon for the future, he suggests. "The day that I got there, I really did see the country at its best."

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