Friday, November 20, 2009

The Future of the Songbook Project

My time in Afghanistan is rapidly coming to an end. It feels like centuries ago since I arrived here on Oct. 6th. The seasons have changed dramatically. When I arrived the roses were in full bloom. The Afghan geraniums (geribuns in Dari – love that word!) were happily and profusely decorating the porch outside the dining room. Now, there is snow on the mountain tops, the geraniums have been carefully moved to the windowsill inside the dining room and the roses are resisting the cold with two brave pink buds, determined to bloom despite the early morning frost. Wonderfully juicy "Persian" melons have been replaced by pomengranates and today I spotted piles of oranges in the fruit bazaar.

The nights drop to below freezing, and there is ice in the morning on the hardpacked dirt roads which can make driving a bit treacherous. In the morning I put on layers upon layers to keep warm, but by mid morning the warm sun has begun to heat up the house and I thaw out a bit. Heaters are in short supply so most of us hover around the windows to work where the sun beams in and keeps us toasty warm.

I will have been here just 7 weeks when I head home. Although that seemed like a long time to be here when I planned the trip, I also knew inherently that things in Afghanistan take time. Time here moves at a different rate than in the U.S. It takes time to build relationships, meet people, maneuver the system, the security, and the way of doing business.

I extended my departure four days in order to have the opportunity to meet with CEO, Jolyon Leslie, of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Vaheed Kaacemy (the musician for the songbook). Aga Khan, among many things it focuses on, has a music initiative in Afghanistan which was created to support the effort ”to sustain, further develop and transmit musical traditions that are a vital part of the cultural heritage.“ Aware of Aga Khan’s interest in cultural preservation, I had contacted Jolyon early on in the project. But the timing was not quite right. At that point the songbook project was not well enough established and Aga Khan's music initiative was also not in place.

Happily, the time is now perfect. Jolyon is completely behind the songbook project and our discussion focused on creating a second songbook. Jolyon was pleased I had spent enough time here to assess the project and thus be in a position to make an informed decision about next steps. Vaheed currently is alreaday contracted to research traditional music for Aga Khan and will now add children’s music to his research. (He actually has already gathered some material) By the end of our meeting we had established a plan of action and a tentative timeline. We hope to produce a second book of 18 songs, 4 in Pashto, 4 in Dari, 2 in Uzbeki, 2 in Balochi (from Badakhshan), 2 Hazargi and 4 chants that are also singing games.

Vaheed will spend about 1 -2 months in Kabul where he will hopefully gather the repertoire needed. He will return to Toronto and will work on arranging the songs. He plans to, as with the first songbook, record with Afghan children. He will do some of the recording in Toronto and some in Kabul when he returns next spring. Jolyon has offered to cover Vaheed’s expenses and my job will be to find matching funds to support the graphic design and printing costs. Jolyon, originally from South Africa, speaks fluent Dari and Pashto and has lived in Afghanistan for 20 years! He has a real grasp of Afghan culture and a wonderful longtime relationship with the Afghans across the country.

This is a huge step for the songbook project. I left the meeting feeling I had allies in Afghanistan who truly supported this project and were helping to move it forward. This feels reassuring to me. I will, of course, continue to work on identifying funding sources and will continue to reprint the first songbook since there is clearly a need. Once the second book is printed, hopefully by late spring, early summer, I will work on funding the production of that as well.

The other change I've put into place is to establish a formal relationship with SOLA. One of the students, Rauf Meraj (who escorted me to Kunduz) has agreed to be songbook administrator in Kabul. Instead of my figuring out the distribution from Cambridge (which really made no sense), Rauf will work with NGO’s like Save the Children, Afghan Institute of Learning, etc. and organize the distribution efforts from Kabul. He has also agreed to follow-up with the recipients to see how the songbooks are being used, if more are needed, etc. During the time I was here Rauf went to Kunduz and to the Sweet Heaven Orphanage with me and has a very clear understanding of the impact of the songbook with children. I know I’m leaving the distribution component of the project in very capable hands.

The new relationships with Aga Khan and SOLA move the project in a positive direction. It is now much more Afghan-centered. Jolyon and I spoke about how to get more Afghan businesses supporting this effort. He has offered to work on that. TriVision Kabul (our printing company) has also offered to assist in this effort. I can do some follow up work from the States. If Fulbright finally agrees to allow their awardees to go to Afghanistan, I will happily return to do some teacher training and follow-up work on the songbook project. In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next!

We’re within $3000 of being able to go to press for the next 5000 songbooks. I can smell the ink on the paper! Thank you all who have generously supported the project and for spreading the word. I’ve had people as far as Bainbridge Island, WA writing articles in their local newspaper and talking up the project! Every little bit counts. It is my belief that getting these Afghan children’s songs back into circulation and out into the world is just plain good karma!

Tashakor besyar ziyad (Thank you very much)

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