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Latest News: Press Release

New Book by GS Student Preserves Afghan Songs

Wednesday, September 30, 2009  
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George School senior Noorjahan Akbar of Afghanistan has completed a new book that documents approximately forty-five songs from her native country, including many created by women. Entitled Melodies of Badakhshan and Takhar, the book contains music that Noorjahan collected this past summer in the two northern Afghan provinces named in the title. Spending two weeks in each region, she visited households and invited people to share their folkloric songs with her. Groups of ten to fifteen women would gather to sing for her, clapping as they combined ancient songs with improvised pairs of rhyming lines, or couplets. Two accompanying CDs contain recordings of the music printed in the book, with a total length of five hours.

“Most of the songs have never been recorded or documented, definitely not the women’s,” said Noorjahan. “I know that we are losing bits of our culture, bits of our identity, as we lose these beautiful, diverse couplets that women use to express themselves.” She describes her project as “an effort to encourage professional musicologists to pay attention to this huge historical and humane treasure.” The book is scheduled to be published in the coming months by the nongovernmental organization German Technical Corporation, Basic Education Program for Afghanistan (GTZ-BEPA), from which Noorjahan received a grant to fund the project.

This past May, as the academic year at George School concluded, Noorjahan was working on more than her final exams in the school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. She was also tackling an assignment she had given to herself—writing a fifteen-page proposal and budget estimate for Melodies of Badakhshan and Takhar, and researching nongovernmental organizations that might be interested in funding the project. Three organizations expressed a strong interest in Noorjahan’s proposal, and she obtained a grant from GTZ-BEPA, which had funded a separate project that she completed the year before—a translation of six children’s stories from English to Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan.

Noorjahan said that Melodies of Badakhshan and Takhar was inspired by her desire to remember the folkloric songs she learned as a child in Afghanistan. When she moved to Pakistan with her family, where they lived during the reign of the Taliban, the songs faded from her memory. “If everyone forgets those things, we’re not going to have much left for the next generations,” she commented.

To collect the music in her book and CDs, Noorjahan traveled to three villages in each of the two provinces. “Even though these areas of Afghanistan are the holders of lots of original and folkloric songs, not much attention has been paid to the study of the culture there,” she noted. At the households she visited, she often talked with the women and young girls about topics such as family life, children, love, and marriage, in order to establish trust. The women in Badakshan sang in Dari, while those in Takhaar sang in Uzbek. When Noorjahan returned to Kabul, she transcribed the songs and spent a lot of time studying musicology. She estimates that there are more than three hundred different couplets in her book and CDs. “I learned a lot from the women I met during these two trips,” Noorjahan reflected.

A vocal performer herself, Noorjahan studies classical Afghan singing. At George School, she is enrolled in Chorale (an auditioned singing group) and the IB Music Seminar—a rigorous course in music theory, composition, and performance that is geared for students who already have a good musical foundation. George School vocal music teacher Jackie Coren, who teaches both courses, said she was “amazed and impressed” by Noorjahan’s independent project. “It’s a remarkable and imaginative thing for someone her age to undertake and complete with such depth and maturity,” said Jackie. She described Noorjahan as a very strong vocal performer and a wonderful student who strives to immerse herself in music as much as possible.

Incredibly, Melodies of Badakhshan and Takhar was not Noorjahan’s only summer project. She also volunteered for Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani’s campaign, organizing fifty volunteers in six provinces, an endeavor that earned her an interview in Newsweek. As she looks to the future, Noorjahan wants to support efforts to increase Afghan women’s access to education and jobs. She hopes to continue her education in the United States and earn a master’s degree before returning to her native country. In addition to music, she intends to study international relations and educational leadership. “I think we can bring great changes in the way people think and live through education,” she said.