A Young Afghan Pianist Plays For His Country's Future

Jan 26, 2016
Originally published on February 23, 2016 2:54 pm

At the keyboard is 18-year-old Elham Fanoos, playing in a practice room at Hunter College in Manhattan. He has the long delicate fingers of a natural (as it turns out, a gifted) pianist. He sits perfectly erect, his dark eyes lowered. He seems at one with the music and an instrument that are a long way from his home in Afghanistan.

Fanoos was born in 1997, to a father who was a singer.

"At that time, under the Taliban, music was banned," Fanoos says. "My father was singing quite privately and he was practicing quite privately."

Elham Fanoos was born a year after the Taliban had entered Kabul and started running the government. This means that from the time Fanoos was born, he lived in a world where his father — an Indian classical singer — had to hide what he did.

"That was a really hard time," Fanoos says, "even though in Afghanistan everyone is really not safe, but especially musicians."

By the time Elham was five, the Taliban had been driven out and Fanoos was playing the tabla, the small traditional set of two hand drums from his region. He says he really loved playing tabla. As he got older, however, his father encouraged him to play an international instrument, like the piano.

"I was searching on YouTube and saw a lot of pianists and audiences," he says. "They were playing in front of audiences, and I really fell in love with piano."

He fell in love with one pianist in particular: Vladimir Horwitz. He especially loved hearing Horowitz play a very specific recording of Chopin. For a pianist performing at the highest level, starting at age 12 is almost unheard of. But as it happened, Elham's aspirations coincided with the opening of his country's only music academy.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was the vision of musicologist Ahmad Sarmast. His father also was a musician, at a time when Kabul had a rich music scene; starting in the 1940s, he was a performer, a composer and a conductor.

"I was always inspired by the story of my father," Sarmast says. "He was an orphan and he grew up in an orphanage. Music made him a superstar of Afghanistan."

This is why, when Ahmad Sarmast founded his music academy in 2010, he decided half the students would come from orphanages or the streets. One of Sarmast's students had supported his family by selling hard-boiled eggs to passersby; he is now a wonderful flute player. Another student used to sell plastic bags on the streets of Kabul.

"But next year he will be joining us as a junior faculty to teach piano," Sarmast says. "That's how music changed his life."

Coming in as a student, Fanoos remembers the school's early days. Back then, the academy could only afford a dilapidated building. There was one piano for 25 piano students, and students would wait in line to practice for just ten minutes. Though the school helps, pianos are still a scarce sight in Kabul.

"Including our school there will be 30, 35 pianos in all of Afghanistan," Fanoos says. "That's why we don't have pianists in Afghanistan."

Still, for the Taliban, those pianos were dangerous. As the school's reputation grew, so did the threats from militants. And in 2013, these young musicians got even more attention when the orchestra came to America. It performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

But that triumph was followed by horror just a year later. Back in Kabul, the music students were putting on a performance when a suicide bomber took a seat in the audience behind Sarmast. In that explosion he was seriously wounded and forced to close the school briefly. That meant that Fanoos had to go elsewhere to practice. He hit on an idea: Kabul's most luxurious hotel had a piano in a lobby that was seldom used, so Elham decided that was where he would play.

"I tried to flood the hall with the sound of Chopin," he says.

When he did, security guards rushed in with weapons. But after a minute, Fanoos says, they calmed down. His impromptu performance led to a formal concert for the diplomatic community in Kabul. And soon after, he embarked on mission: to enroll in a music academy in America.

The Carnegie Hall concert and his performances on YouTube had already put him on the radar of New Yorkers in the music world.

"I saw him on Youtube, and I was pretty gobsmacked by the level of his playing," says Geoffrey Burleson, director of piano studies at Hunter College. He is now Fanoos' teacher there.

Burleson says he was immediately taken by the amount of maturity in Fanoos' playing, which was far beyond what he would expect from such a young pianist.

"You usually find more of a purer speed freak aspect with younger pianists who are technically very gifted," Burleson says. "And Elham does have a speed freak aspect about his talent as well, but on top of that his musical maturity and depth is really very strong."

Sarmast says that Fanoos represented a success story for his music school.

"Elham is a sign of the positive changes in Afghanistan," Sarmast says, "that no can turn the wheel of history backwards. Neither the Taliban or anyone else."

Elham says he sees himself as a concert pianist. "I wanted the world to have more Afghan pianists, so I can say that I am the first one so far," he says. "I want to show the new face of Afghanistan, the positive face of Afghanistan, who can really do something for the world."

It is possible to say that Elham Fanoos will not be without a piano ever again. He has a full scholarship to Hunter College and a future in music — wherever that takes him.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne with one of the more unlikely stories of a concert pianist in the making.

At the keyboard is 18-year-old Elham Fanoos, playing for us in a practice room at Hunter College in Manhattan. He has the long, delicate fingers of a natural and, as it turns out, a gifted pianist. He sits perfectly erect, his dark eyes lowered. He seems at one with music and an instrument that are a long way from his home in Afghanistan.

ELHAM FANOOS: I was born in 1997. My father was a singer. At that time, under the Taliban, music were banned and my father was singing quite privately. And he was also practicing privately.

MONTAGNE: So you were born into a world where your father, a classical singer...

FANOOS: Yeah, Indian classical singer.

MONTAGNE: ...Indian classical singer had to hide what he did.

FANOOS: Yeah, and that was a really hard time, even though in Afghanistan everyone is not really safe, but especially musicians.

MONTAGNE: By the time Elham was 5, the Taliban had been driven out, and he was playing the small hand drum that's traditional in the region, the tabla.

FANOOS: I really loved tabla, but when I became older and older, my father encouraged me to choose an international instrument like piano.

MONTAGNE: But did you discover immediately that you loved it?

FANOOS: Yeah, of course. Yeah, because I was searching on YouTube and saw a lot of pianists and audiences - they were playing in front of audiences. I really fall in love with piano.

MONTAGNE: Was there one particular pianist?

FANOOS: Yeah, Horowitz - Vladimir Horowitz. But I didn't know that he was Horowitz. Now I know.

MONTAGNE: Specifically, Vladimir Horowitz playing this recording of Chopin. For a pianist like Horowitz performing at the highest level, starting at age 12, as Elham did, is almost unheard-of. As it happened, Elham's ambitions coincided with the opening of his country's only music academy. The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was the vision of musicologist Ahmad Sarmast. His father also was a musician at a time when Kabul had a rich music scene. Starting in the late 1940s, he was a performer, a composer and a conductor.

AHMAD SARMAST: I was always inspired by the story of my father. He was an orphan. And he grew up in an orphanage. And music made him a superstar of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Which is why five years ago, when Ahmad Sarmast founded Afghanistan's only music academy, he decided half the students would come from orphanages or the streets - like one boy who had supported his family by selling hard-boiled eggs to passersby.

SARMAST: But now, this young man is a wonderful flute player. I've got a student who used to sell plastic bags on the streets of Kabul. But next year, he will be joining us as a junior faculty to teach piano. That's how music changed their life.

MONTAGNE: Coming in as a more privileged student, Elham Fanoos remembers the school's early days, when the academy could only afford a dilapidated building and not much else.

FANOOS: At that time, actually, there was one piano, 25 piano students and practicing, I think, like 10 minutes.

MONTAGNE: Ten minutes each?

FANOOS: So standing in line practicing like that. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: It's a scarce sight in Kabul - a piano.

FANOOS: Maybe I can say including our school, there will be 30 pianos or 35 in all of Afghanistan. That's why we don't have the pianists in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Still, for the Taliban, those pianos were dangerous. As the school's reputation grew, so did the threats from militants. And in 2013, these young musicians got even more attention when the orchestra went to America. It performed at Carnegie Hall and also here at the Kennedy Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL PERFORMANCE)

MONTAGNE: But the excitement of these performances was followed by horror just a year later. Back in Kabul, the music students were putting on a performance when a suicide bomber sat down in the audience a few seats away from founder Ahmad Sarmast. In that explosion, Sarmast was seriously wounded. Classes were suspended, and that meant that Elham had to go elsewhere to practice his piano. And he hit on an idea. Kabul's most luxurious hotel had a piano in a lobby that was seldom used. So Elham decided that's where he would play.

FANOOS: I tried to flood the hall with the sound of Chopin, and when I played the security guards came with very heavy weapons.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, and then they run into you and you're playing Chopin.

FANOOS: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Flooding the room.

FANOOS: Yeah, but after a minute they became relaxed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MONTAGNE: Elham's impromptu performance led to a formal concert for the diplomatic community in Kabul. And soon after, he embarked on a mission to enroll in a music academy in America. The Carnegie Hall concert, and his performances on YouTube, had already put him on the radar of New Yorkers in the music world.

GEOFFREY BURLESON: I was pretty gobsmacked by the level of his playing.

MONTAGNE: That's Geoffrey Burleson, director of piano studies at Hunter College, now Elham's teacher there.

BURLESON: I was immediately taken by the level of maturity in his playing, which is not what you usually find with a young pianist. You usually find more of a purer speed-freak aspect with young pianists who are technically very gifted. And Elham does have a speed-freak aspect about his talent as well. But on top of that, his musical maturity and depth is really very, very strong.

How about the opening of the ballad just little through the first section of it?

FANOOS: Yeah (playing piano).

SARMAST: Elham represents the story of our school. And also Elham is a sign of the positive changes in Afghanistan that no one can turn the wheel of history backwards - neither the Taliban or anyone else.

FANOOS: I see myself as a concert pianist (laughter). Hopefully, I want the world to have more Afghan pianists so I can say that I am the first one so far. I want to show the new face of Afghanistan who really can do something for the world.

MONTAGNE: It is possible to say that Elham Fanoos will not be without a piano again. He has a full scholarship to Hunter College and a future in music, wherever that takes him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.