Born to Be: the Deutsche Bank youth engagement programme
Traditions influence many aspects of life in the Middle East, South and Central Asia. Traditional views on gender roles are deeply rooted in much of the region. Even though research by the World Bank has shown that the education of girls improves economies, increases stability and reduces extremism, some are still routinely denied the same opportunities to go to school and to pursue careers as boys.
Attitudes are changing and efforts to ensure equality and inclusion are delivering real results, but pockets of inequality still exist. Other traditions are helping to break down the barriers that stand in the way of progress.
Music is ingrained in many of these cultures. With its unique ability to act as a common language, music is helping to bring people together and to change how they see themselves and the world around them. For young people in particular, music is opening up greater possibilities in life.
Deutsche Bank’s sponsorship of the ChoirFest festival of choral music in Dubai continues a long association with music, led by the Bank’s partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Germany which goes back more than 25 years. ChoirFest is one of a number of music education projects supported by the Bank through Born to Be that aim to push boundaries.
Over the five days of the festival, choirs from countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Palestine give public performances and join in educational activities. ChoirFest offers an environment unlike any that the young people who take part will have encountered before: international, diverse and full of fresh sights and sounds.
For the singers and musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music who performed at the 2015 festival, ChoirFest was an unforgettable experience. The Institute educates the country’s most talented young musicians, with a particular focus on the most disadvantaged. Its intake includes orphans, street children and, most controversially in Afghanistan’s highly conservative society, girls. The Institute is one of the country’s few co-educational schools.
The students who travelled to Dubai included Feiruza, aged 16, and Negin, 18. Both moved from remote provinces of Afghanistan to live and study at the National Institute of Music. ChoirFest continued to expand their horizons. “We had heard about Dubai but to see it first hand was amazing,” says Negin.
The Institute’s mission is to preserve, develop and share the music of Afghanistan. It was founded in 2006 to restore the musical heritage silenced by the Taliban, who also banned girls from attending school. ChoirFest presented a rare opportunity for the members of the Choir to perform together in public – and to see other young men and women do the same:
“It was the first time I heard other young people sing,” says Negin.
Choral singing is a recent addition to the curriculum of the Institute, so the choir was thrilled to receive a prize at ChoirFest. “Singing in harmony is new for us. We were excited to take part but we did not expect to win. Some of the choir were crying when they made the announcement,” she recalls.
Mixing with the other choirs, the students from the Institute met very different attitudes to those at home. “Everyone was so friendly. In Afghanistan, people are only friendly to people they know. We do not talk to strangers,” explains Feiruza. The girls took part in the joint performance of a traditional song from the UAE as members of a multinational ‘superchoir’, an event that celebrates the spirit of co-operation and friendship that inspires the ChoirFest project. This brought more insights: “I learnt how to work in a group and be unbiased and flexible,” says Negin.
A new tune
For Feiruza and Negin, the legacy of ChoirFest is a desire to turn the experience of being accepted as equals into an everyday reality. When she looks to the future, Negin’s ambition is to become a renowned orchestra conductor. Feiruza hopes to have parallel careers as a musician and lawyer. Both girls wish to continue their education abroad when they graduate from the Institute.
Jobs like these are inconceivable to most of the female population of Afghanistan today. With their broader vision of what a woman can be and do in society, girls like Feiruza and Negin represent the change that is happening within the region. Projects like ChoirFest are helping to empower the aspirations of a new generation, to imagine different futures for themselves and their countries.