Afghan Orchestra Flourishes Despite Violence, Social Pressure

The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.

But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.

The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.

​Hope and music

Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.

The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.

Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.

​Advances for women

Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.

“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.

But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.

“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.

​Ethnic groups help each other

Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed. 

“It’s hope for the future,” he said.

Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.

“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.

Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.

“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.

The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.

The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan.

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Afghan Orchestra Flourishes Despite Violence and Social Pressure

The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing the heaviest on the nation’s civilians. But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society. Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.

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Anti-Doping Agency Is Compromised, Group Contends

A leading anti-doping group hinted at changing the structure of the World Anti-Doping Agency, saying the decision to reinstate Russia’s drug-fighting operation was a sign that WADA leaders were saddled with “conflicting priorities.”

The Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations (INADO) said in a statement Friday that members of the WADA executive committee had pressures surrounding the decision that went beyond doping.

The committee voted 9-2 on Thursday to end RUSADA’s suspension after weakening the standards originally agreed upon for reinstatement.

The committee is headed by Craig Reedie, whose status as a member of the International Olympic Committee has long been viewed by people in the anti-doping community as a conflict of interest.

The other spots on the committee are divided among sports and government leaders.

Linda Helleland, the minister of children and equality in Norway, was among those voting “no,” and after the vote said, “Today, we failed the clean athletes of the world.”

The institute said WADA “surrendered to pressure from the IOC and the Russian government to substantially weaken the terms” for reinstatement.

“This is not good governance, nor does it reflect a good governance model,” the statement said. “WADA must be an effective and resolute global anti-doping regulator and governor — exclusively.”

The comments from a body that represents 67 anti-doping agencies around the world largely echoed what U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said in the hours following the decision, when he called for revamping WADA. 

“It starts by removing the inherent conflict of interest that comes about from the IOC fox guarding the WADA henhouse,” Tygart said.

Recommendation on Russians rejected

Before the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, WADA had recommended that the IOC not allow Russian athletes to participate in the wake of the McLaren Report, which documented a state-sponsored doping scheme designed to help win medals at the Winter Games in Russia. 

The IOC ignored that recommendation and allowed in Russian athletes.

After that decision, Reedie issued a statement saying: “The McLaren Report exposed, beyond a reasonable doubt, a state-run doping program in Russia that seriously undermines the principles of clean sport embodied within the World Anti-Doping Code.”

It was a rare rebuke of the IOC by one of its own members, and one that Reedie hasn’t repeated.

Among the conditions WADA originally set for RUSADA’s reinstatement was that Russia accept the findings of the McLaren Report. That was changed to a requirement that Russia accept the IOC’s Schmid Report, which put less emphasis on the Russian government’s role in the cheating.

The other change allows Russia until Dec. 31 to turn over lab samples and data, instead of demanding possession before reinstatement.

While others have suggested WADA caved to pressure from the IOC, Reedie has portrayed WADA’s moves as nothing more than a pragmatic and realistic approach to bringing RUSADA back into the fold.

INADO took exception to that thinking.

“As the global regulator, WADA should have been objectively enforcing the agreed sanctions and requirements, not compromising them,” the group said. 

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Kenya Lifts Ban on Lesbian Love Tale, in Time for Oscar Nominations

A Kenyan court on Friday temporarily lifted a ban on the movie Rafiki. Justice Wilfrida Okwany said that during a seven-day period, the film, a lesbian love story produced in Kenya, can be screened to willing adults. The ruling means that Rafiki will be eligible for Oscar consideration as the best foreign-language film.

Kenya’s Film and Classification Board banned Rafiki in April, just hours before it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France.


Directed by Wanuri Kahiu, it was the first Kenyan film ever chosen to be screened at the festival.


Rafiki, the Swahili word for “friend,” is a film about two girls who fall in love and as a result become outcasts in their community.


The Kenyan film board banned it for its homosexual theme. Board CEO Ezekiel Mutua said the film had “a clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya.”


Kahiu filed a suit against the board on September 10, leading to Friday’s ruling.


Carol Liam, a lesbian activist in Nairobi, was elated over the judgment.


“Today is a victory not just for members of the LGBTI community, but a victory for everyone who upholds human rights. The old colonial laws have caused us a lot of grief, we are glad that the cords are being broken slowly by slowly,” Liam said.


After the ruling, Kahihu tweeted “Our constitution is STRONG! Give thanks to freedom of expression!!!! WE DID IT! We will be posting about Nairobi screening soon.”

Timing issue

Time is of the essence. For the film to be eligible for Oscar consideration as best foreign-language film, it must be screened in its country of origin for seven days before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Mutua, the head of the film board, expressed outrage over the court’s decision in a series of tweets.

One read, “It would be a tragedy and a shame to have homosexual films defining the Kenyan culture.”

In a press release, Mutua said the ruling “was a sad moment and a great insult, not only to the film industry but to all Kenyans who stand for morality.”

He also warned the board is watching to see which theater will show the film without the board’s approval.

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.


On Thursday, a Kenyan court is set to rule on another landmark case that seeks to repeal sections of the penal code that criminalizes gay sex in Kenya.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission argues that sections 162, 163 and 165 of the code are in breach of the constitution and basic rights of Kenyan citizens.


The laws were introduced in Kenya in 1897, when the country was under British rule.


In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she “deeply regretted” Britain’s legacy of anti-gay laws in its former colonies and urged those countries to overhaul what she called “outdated” legislation.

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Questions Raised About US Museum’s Abraham Lincoln Hat

It has been a question plaguing the museum dedicated to one of America’s greatest presidents: Is the hat real?

The hat in question is of the stovepipe variety that adorned the head of Abraham Lincoln — recognized for his fashion sense and lauded for ending slavery.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois had displayed the chocolate brown, beaver fur hat as one that had in fact been on the 16th U.S. president’s head.

It is a prized possession, a big visitor draw, and valued at $6.5 million — one of only three such Lincoln hats displayed at an American museum.

But it may not be Lincoln’s hat after all.

FBI analysts and curators at the national Smithsonian Institution have analyzed the hat at the unpublicized request of the Illinois museum’s foundation, an independent organization responsible for fundraising and acquiring objects.

Even DNA testing was done — comparing samples taken from the hat to Lincoln’s blood recovered from the night of his assassination in 1865.

The result: inconclusive.

Historians wrote a report telling the museum it “might want to soften its claim about the hat” given the fact that its origins cannot be definitively authenticated.

The results were not shared with the public until Chicago radio station WBEZ uncovered them this week.

Museum chief Alan Lowe expressed frustration over the foundation’s secrecy, but downplayed the DNA test results, saying it would be hard to get a perfect match from a 180-year-old item handled by many people.

“It is important to understand that neither of these initiatives produced new evidence about the hat’s origins,” Lowe said in a statement.

Thanks to the publicity, the museum will begin a new search for evidence about the hat’s past, he added.

“What we learn, no matter what it says about the hat’s origins, will be shared with the public.”

For now, the hat is stowed away.

The museum will decide how to present it to visitors once the additional research is completed.

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Prince Vaults Open Up with Jazzy ‘Piano & A Microphone’

A nine-track album from Prince’s vast vault of unreleased material goes on sale Friday, along with a new video highlighting gun violence.

“Piano & A Microphone” is compiled from a 1983 home studio cassette of the late musician playing jazz piano versions of some of his own songs and those of others, record company Warner Bros. said Thursday.

Prince, 57, died of an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl in 2016, leaving behind thousands of recordings and videos in the vaults of his home studio in suburban Minneapolis.

The new video, shot recently in New York City, accompanies the album track “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a 19th century spiritual.

It is intended to pay tribute to the hundreds of people who are killed or wounded by gun violence in the United States, the record company and the singer’s estate said in a statement.

Prince in 2015 performed at a Rally 4 Peace concert in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody. The “Mary Don’t You Weep” video begins with a quote the musician made at that rally, “The system is broke. It’s going to take young people to fix it.”

“Piano & A Microphone” hears Prince working through his songs “Purple Rain” and “17 Days,” as well as a version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”

It is one of a handful of recordings released posthumously by Prince’s estate, including an expanded edition of his “Purple Rain” album and “Anthology: 1995-2010,” a selection of 37 of his biggest hits.

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Suge Knight Pleads to Manslaughter Over Fatal Confrontation

Former rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight pleaded no contest Thursday to voluntary manslaughter for running over and killing a Compton businessman nearly four years ago and agreed to serve nearly 30 years in prison.

The Death Row Records co-founder entered the plea in Los Angeles Superior Court and has agreed to serve 28 years in prison. The plea came days before jury selection was scheduled to begin in the long-delayed case.

Knight was charged with murder, attempted murder and hit-and-run after fleeing the scene of an altercation in January 2015 outside a Compton burger stand. Knight and Cle “Bone” Sloan, a consultant on the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, were involved in a fistfight that ended with Knight clipping the man with his pickup truck and running over businessman Terry Carter, who died from his injuries.

Knight’s attorneys have said he was acting in self-defense and was fleeing armed attackers when he ran over Carter and Sloan. Sloan has denied he was carrying a gun during the confrontation.

During Thursday’s hearing, Knight answered Judge Ronald Coen’s questions, loudly and quickly saying “no contest” when the judge asked for his plea. He will be formally sentenced Oct. 4.

The plea deal calls for Knight to serve 22 years in prison on the voluntary manslaughter count, and another six years because it is a third strike violation.

Carter’s daughter, Crystal, sat in the front row of the courtroom and displayed no visible reaction to the proceedings. “I’m surprised he pleaded out,” Crystal Carter said outside court. “Normally he likes the cameras to be on him 24-7.”

Courtroom drama

Delays, detours and drama marked the runup to Knight’s trial, which was expected to begin Oct. 1 under tight security and secrecy. Court officials had said that no witness list would be released ahead of the trial, and that some witnesses might not be identified by name during the case.

Knight collapsed during one court hearing, two of his former attorneys were indicted on witness-tampering charges, and his fiancee pleaded no contest to selling video of Knight hitting the two men with his truck.

His attorney Albert DeBlanc Jr., appointed by the court five months ago, was his 16th, and Knight tried to fire him and get yet another lawyer just a day before the deal was reached. DeBlanc declined comment Thursday.

While awaiting trial, Knight was also accused of threatening Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray.

Knight would frequently, against the advice of Coen and his attorneys, speak extensively during hearings, complaining about jail conditions, his attorneys and his health issues.

While Coen read legal language about the plea and told Knight he was subject to deportation if he was not a citizen, Knight said “ICE is coming to get me?” to a smattering of laughs.

Prior convictions

The 53-year-old was a key player in the gangster rap scene that flourished in the 1990s, and his label once listed Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg among its artists. Knight lost control of the company after it was forced into bankruptcy. He has prior felony convictions for armed robbery and assault with a gun. He pleaded no contest in 1995 and was sentenced to five years’ probation for assaulting two rap entertainers at a Hollywood recording studio in 1992.

He was sentenced in February 1997 to prison for violating terms of that probation by taking part in a fight at a Las Vegas hotel hours before Shakur was fatally wounded in a drive-by attack as he rode in Knight’s car just east of the Las Vegas Strip. Shakur’s slaying remains unsolved.

Knight had faced life in prison if convicted of murder for killing Carter.

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