When Louise Pascale, an American music teacher, pulled a three-decade-old Afghan children’s songbook from her bookcase, she realised she was likely holding a treasure lost to Afghan children following a music ban imposed by the Taliban.
Playing instruments was banned during the period of Taliban rule in late-1990s Afghanistan, and even today, many conservative Muslims frown on most forms of music.
“Musicians were practically losing their minds trying to hide their instruments under wood piles, thinking they were going to go crazy without any music and trying to practise in their heads at night,” Pascale told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When I was back (in Afghanistan) in 2009 there were girls who said they grew up without even understanding what music was. It’s hard to grasp for us because we don’t go without music for five minutes.”
The green book, now worn and tattered, that Pascale compiled while working as a teacher in Afghanistan in the 1960s, contained 16 children’s songs, which she believes were lost to the next generation.
“People were saying to me ‘come on, the mothers could have hummed to their children, who would know?’, Pascale said in a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts.
“But when you’re terrified and terrorised you don’t do it. You hum this little song to your child and then who knows when they would go out on the street and start humming … and then the repercussions of that are dreadful.”
Looking at lyrics in the old songbook she could no longer read and melodies she wasn’t sure she could remember, Pascale realised that the songbook did not belong in her bookcase and decided to return the songs to the children of Afghanistan.
“I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of Afghans and the response was absolutely the same with every Afghan: they were moved to tears and then said ‘we have to get these songs back’,” she said.
With a help of an Afghan musician, Pascale put together a new version of the songbook, 5,000 copies of which were ready to be sent to schools and orphanages in Afghanistan in 2007, together with a CD and cassette tape.
The buzz about the book of long-lost children’s songs reached the wife of the Afghan ambassador to the United States, who decided to launch the book at the embassy in Washington.
Some 200 Afghans gathered for the launch, many moved to tears when they heard a recording of children singing songs from their childhood, Pascale said.
Pascale saw a potential the book had to connect children with their heritage and boost their literacy skills.
“What I was noticing was that the children were reading the text,” she said about her trip to Afghanistan in 2009 to see for herself the impact of the book and to determine the next steps.
A second version published in 2013 was accompanied by a guide to help teachers use the songs to improve literacy.
The songbook also came with a with a notebook and two pencils – precious for children who had nothing.
Although 50,000 copies of the book have been distributed so far across Afghanistan with a help of local education groups, Pascale said she realised her efforts were “a drop in a bucket”.
She is now hoping to raise funds for a third edition of the songbook and teachers’ guide, possibly with a collection of Afghan folktales, which she said were also disappearing from the culture.
“One of the things I had read in my research really pointed out that when you take away culture, when you take away music and art, you take away identity and humanity,” Pascale said.
“I can’t claim that this (songbook) is turning Afghanistan around but in a tiny way … maybe we’re making some impact.”