One Year Later, the living memories of Zohra Orchestra's Debut Tour of Australia
The 14th of October 2020 marks the 1-year anniversary of the fantastically received and unique performance of the Zohra Orchestra in front of a packed Sydney Opera House audience. The heartfelt performance of Zohra, Afghanistan’s first entirely female musical Orchestra, in one of the world’s most distinctive and prestigious music venues, represented a new era of friendship between the Afghan and Australian peoples, and displayed the everlasting hope, resilience, and progress of Afghan culture, women and youth. The performance was part of the Embassy of Afghanistan’s celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Afghanistan-Australia relations and centenary of the reclamation of Afghan independence. We invite you to commemorate this occasion, to reflect on this brilliant display of Afghan culture and inauguration of new progress in people-to-people ties with Australia and to enjoy this performance of classical Afghan and Western music played by the emerging pioneers of the promotion of Afghan culture worldwide.
The Zohra Orchestra was created in 2015 by the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), Dr Ahmad Sarmast, and is made up of Afghanistan’s young female musical talent playing traditional Afghan and Western instruments. ANIM was itself created in 2008 in Kabul with the goal of reigniting the enduring flame that is Afghanistan’s music, which had found itself extinguished during the cultural dark age of Taliban control. The orchestra, under Dr Sarmast’s tutelage, won in 2017 the Queen Soraya Award and Freemuse Award, and in 2018 the Montluc Résistance et Liberté Prize. The Orchestra has notably performed at the World Economic Forum, the British Museum and the University of Oxford. Its performance in the Sydney Opera House, undoubtedly the Southern Hemisphere’s most iconic musical venue, marked the first time it has hosted a performance of any Afghan group or musician.
The concert at the Sydney Opera House was a powerful event during a remarkable year for both Afghanistan-Australia relations and all Afghans worldwide. In 1919, a century before the concert, Afghanistan reclaimed its sovereignty and established itself among the global community of free and independent nations. In 1969, Afghanistan and Australia formally established diplomatic relations. However, this was not the beginning of the two countries’ long and fruitful friendship. In 1860, the first of the Afghan cameleers arrived in Australia, marking the beginning of an era of cultural exchange and exploration, as the cameleers pioneered new paths through the harsh Australian outback, linking together remote communities, charting new routes and providing the backbone of the gold rush. The Cameleers, Australia’s first Muslims lived, prayed, married and died in the outback, with their descendants carrying on their legacy even today. The performance of the Zohra Orchestra marks the present extent of Afghan-Australian cross-cultural and people-to-people ties, which have flourished and growin since 1860.
It was also an opportunity for the Australian public to experience the seldom-mentioned art of Afghan music. Afghanistan, inhabited by great civilisations spanning back thousands of years, maintains a rich and diverse tradition of music, tying together communities and cultures across the country’s mountain ranges, passes, fields, forests and deserts. From Attan in Afghanistan’s south and east, the Falak tradition among the jagged peaks of Badakhshan province to the tea-house music of the North, the diversity, uniqueness, living tradition and beauty of Afghan culture is resounding. Poetic traditions tie together the instrumental and vocal elements of the music, expressing the rich and ancient stories that music tells. The transformative and emotional power of music was also on display, one year ago, as the young female performers used music to express their identities as young Afghan women, living during hopeful, yet uncertain times.
The Zohra Orchestra’s impactful and emotive performance was testament to the vast progress that Afghan women, youth and culture has made in the past two decades. It also illustrated the absolute necessity of keeping Afghanistan’s rich culture alive and empowering the roles and voices of women in society. During the dark ages of Taliban rule, women were systematically repressed, not being allowed to develop, learn and live as basic human rights express. Music and entertainment were also banned. It is now imperative that, leading into uncertain times for Afghanistan and its people, with peace talks between the government and the Taliban underway, that the fundamental rights of women and girls are upheld. Without that, the rich cultural heritage, resolute bravery and soulful hope displayed one year ago by the members of the Zohra Orchestra may be lost forever. Their message of resilience and identity brings together the wishes of the entire Afghan people, for peace, fairness, progress and prosperity for all.