Zohra is the first-ever Afghan Women's Orchestra. Founded in 2014, within the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, the ensemble features thirty women, ages fourteen to twenty, who aim to restore their country's rich musical heritage.
The orchestra’s founding is attributed to a young trumpeter named Meena. She approached ANMI’s director, Dr. Sarmast, asking if she could start something she had never seen before, an all-female ensemble. “They wanted to play music on their own, and develop their own style of playing and repertoire. Since one of ANIM’s great focuses is girls’ education, Dr. Sarmast was thrilled by the idea,” the ANIM website says.
Dr. Sarmast thought there might be only a few girls interested, but the response was huge; and Zohra was born. The girls rehearse together twice per week, but more often before concerts.
Their webpage says, “The older students help out the younger ones, and they also choose their own repertoire. They play Afghan and Western music and are conducted by specialist teachers and students.”
This was true on their recent tour. Last month, Zohra and the Swiss youth ensemble Orchestre du Collège de Genève performed the closing concert of the World Economic Forum 47th Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, before traveling and performing together in Zurich and Geneva.
The World Economic Forum reported, “In Geneva, reflecting its spirit of fostering cultural exchange, the Centre for the Arts of the International School of Geneva will open its doors to produce fully six concerts, including four for school-children, reaching more than 1,600 public and private school children.”
Afterwards, Zohra (the Persian name for the goddess of music) travelled to Berlin and Weimar in Germany to perform with students of the Musikgymnasium Schloss Belvedere. The Zohra members performing in Germany were dressed in traditional embroidered costumes and brightly colored headscarves — many of them in the green, red and black of the Afghan flag. The women played traditional South Asian instruments like the sitar and its ancestor, the Afghan rubab and the bongo-like tabla, as well as European inventions like the piano, violin and oboe. Traditional Afghani music was mixed with Western classical, by Beethoven, for example.
Zohra also recently put out an album. Titled ""The Rosegarden of Light", the album was released via the UK label Toccata Classics and distributed internationally by the well-known Naxos label.
The recordings of Zohra’s music have been played across England on BBC Radio as well as the official radio station of the London Symphony, across the United States on National Public Radio as well as many local stations, and across all of Europe via special podcasts.
All proceeds from the ticket sales on the tour and from the recording go to support the music school.
According to the ANIM web site, Afghan children wanting to come to the school audition after they finish third grade and are tested on their musical aptitude. Half the spaces are dedicated to female students and homeless or orphaned children.
Sample their melodious sounds through this YouTube video: