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A Young Afghan Pianist Plays For His Country's Future

Elham Fanoos playing at the Hunter College commencement.
Deb Caponera
Courtesy of Hunter College
Elham Fanoos playing at the Hunter College commencement.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.