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Afghan orphans hope their music will win over 'American hearts' at Carnegie Hall

KABUL, Afghanistan - From the cold basement of an orphanage in Kabul, the beat of a bass drum bounces through the halls.

Hitting the high hat and cymbals was Laila, a 13-year old orphan and the only known female drummer in Afghanistan. 

"I like playing the drums and there are no other girls in Afghanistan playing the drums,” Laila said with a big smile. “I'm the only girl and I want to become well known as an Afghan girl playing drums.”

For now, she plays in a basement, but soon it'll be D.C.'s Kennedy Center and New York's Carnegie Hall. 

Laila and 10 other girls from her orphanage will be joining ensembles from the Afghan National Institute of Music as they make their U.S. debut. 

For many of the performers, it will be their first time out of the country and their first time in America. 

"I hear it is very clean and has big buildings and you have such freedom there,” 10-year old Sapna said. "I forget the name of the president of America, but I have heard of him."

Sapna plays the piano and likes the "fast songs" that allow her to move her little fingers quickly over the keys. 

Music is part of the curriculum at this orphanage run by Andeisha Farid, the executive director of the Afghan Child Education and Caring Organization. 

'Hope for a better future'

In a country where female freedoms are few, Farid said these young girls represent the potential in Afghanistan's future.

"Afghan women, they suffer so badly. They even struggle for their very basic human rights,” Farid said. “We hope for a better future for Afghanistan. If we can properly invest in these children, a long-term investment, they realize that there is hope in Afghanistan.”

The sheer fact that dozens of girls are practicing and learning music is a sign of progress in a country where only an estimated 15 percent of women can even read and write, never mind read music or play an instrument.

The arts and music suffered heavily under the Taliban, and not just for women. 

Since 2001 a small group of Afghans have worked to bring music back to the country. Ahmad Sarmast, who holds a doctorate in music, spearheaded the movement and the effort culminated in the 2010 establishment of the Afghan National Institute of Music. 

Musicians and their mentors from the ANIM will embark on a two-week tour of the U.S. starting February 2. They'll be playing a combination of classical and Afghan pieces.

Music has given these children an opportunity that so few have in Afghanistan and they are eager to share what they've learned.

"People can understand each other's hearts through music. American people can understand Afghan hearts and Afghans can understand American hearts. It's universal," said Sapna.

Yet, hurdles remain. 

Twelve-year-old Fareshta said pressure from her home village prevented her from playing the trumpet.

NBC first met Fareshta when Brian Williams visited her orphanage.

Fareshta said people in her village threatened to make her family outcasts if she kept on attending music school. 

She now only plays when she is in the orphanage. And, while the other girls prepare for their performances in the U.S., she won't be going. 

"I want to go music school and play more music," Fareshta said.

She shrugged when asked if it all seemed unfair. After all, so much that has and is happening in Afghanistan seems unfair.

But after listening to a girl like Laila practicing on the drums, it is easy to understand that the music these young people create is a message of hope in a country awash with disappointments. 


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