Afghan female orchestra strikes closing note at Davos

Ensemble of 35 young musicians aged 13 to 20, some orphans or from poor families, performed before an elite audience

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Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra brought the curtain down on this year’s World Economic Forum on Friday with a culture-crossing performance that overcame tradition and death threats in their homeland.

Zohra, an ensemble of 35 young musicians aged 13 to 20, some orphans or from poor families, performed before a Davos audience more in tune with talk of deal-making than the strains of Afghan classical music.

Some sat on the floor, barefoot and cross-legged, some on chairs, all in traditional dress with head-scarves, as they performed a mix of Western and South Asian instruments: stringed, wind and percussion.

The programitself fused the two musical traditions, and included a moving rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the anthem of European unity.

Behind them was a photo backdrop showing a snow-capped mountain range that could have passed for the Swiss Alps or the Hindu Kush.

Conducted by Negina Khpalwak, who will be celebrating her 20th birthday on the return flight from Europe, the girls have overcome death threats and discrimination in the deeply conservative war-torn country to play together.

Ahmad Sarmast, the musicologist who founded Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music and the Zohra orchestra, expressed his profound pride as his charges took the Davos stage.

Beacon of hope

He told the audience that they represented a “beacon of hope”, and embodied “the positive changes that have accumulated in the last 13 years” since a US-led invasion drove the Taliban from power.

Music was banned during the Taliban’s repressive 1996-2001 rule and is still frowned upon in much of Afghan society, which is tightly segregated by gender.

At 18, Zohra violinist Zarifa Adiba has already performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and before coming to Europe, expressed hope that she might get to meet her heroine Michelle Obama in Davos.

The outgoing US first lady was in fact attending the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump as the concert concluded a week of corporate networking, strategizing and partying in the Swiss ski resort.

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