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The Orchestras & Orchestral Music of Afghanistan

The Orchestras of Afghanistan is a Leverhulme-funded research project at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) led by Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey. Dr Ponchione-Bailey works with a Research Stakeholders' Group (RSG) of music scholars and practitioners from Afghanistan now living in exile. The RSG has been identifying research priorities and devising and leading on individual and collaborative research strands. The group is currently working collectively to write and edit a book about the historic and contemporary practices of Afghanistan's orchestras.  Members of the Research Stakeholders' Group include:


  • Professor Islamuddin Feroz (former Head of the Kabul University Music Department)

  • Mirwaiss Sidiqi (former Director of the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Afghanistan)

  • Ghafar Maliknezhad (former Lecturer at the Kabul University Music Department)

  • Mohsen Saifi (former Lecturer at the Kabul University Music Department)

  • Fazila Zameer (rubab player and masters student at Weimar University)

  • Qambar Nawshad (composer, percussionist and former conductor of the Afghanistan National Youth Orchestra)

  • Arson Fahim (composer, pianist, former conductor of the Afghanistan National Youth Orchestra and student at the Longy School of Music in Boston)

  • Qudrat Wasefi (composer, trumpet player, student at the Longy School of Music in Boston, and founder of the Afghanistan Freeharmonic)

  • Negin Khpalwak (former conductor of the Zohra Orchestra)

The Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward is a commissioning and performance project co-curated by Dr Ponchione-Bailey and Arson Fahim to celebrate Afghanistan’s history of orchestral music-making while providing a platform for the flourishing creativity of Afghan composers and musicians who are now in exile or hiding, unable to make music in their own country. On 5 July 2022, as part of the Spitalfields Music Festival in London, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and guest master musicians premiered eight newly commissioned works by Afghan composers representing some of the most exciting new compositional talent to come out of Afghanistan in the last decade, including the original compositions and orchestral arrangements of traditional Afghan songs. This concert was repeated by the Oxford Philharmonic in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 15 June 2023. You can read about the pieces on the blog and listen to excerpts from the concerts on this YouTube Playlist.


The orchestras of Afghanistan are unique in that they usually encompass a fusion of traditional Afghan instruments with those of European heritage—the combination of which define the essentially Afghan timbral and rhythmic qualities of these ensembles. This commissioning project sought to expand the timbral palette available to composers while building on the orchestral instrumentation established at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music over the past decade. For this commissioning project, composers have been given the opportunity to write for an orchestra comprising of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, rubab (often considered the national instrument of Afghanistan), herati dutar, harmonium, sitar or tanbur, tabla, 7 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. One of the visions is that other orchestras across the globe will be able to programme these new compositions, engaging the Afghan musicians in their own communities to join the orchestras for their performances.


A word from Co-Curator, Arson Fahim…

Despite music having an important role in Afghanistan's culture and history, over four decades of war and extremism have had a devastating impact on it. In the late 90's music was completely banned by the Taliban and taking power in August of 2021, they are once again silencing music by breaking instruments and persecuting musicians. This concert is about sharing the beauty of Afghanistan and its music but also raising awareness about the sad realities the country is facing. The concert is a way of keeping the sound of Afghan music loud and alive – a symbol of resistance and a message of hope.”  

If you would like to programme any of these works on your own concert please email Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey who can connect you with the relevant composers.

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Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, Co-Curator

Originally from Alaska and now based in the UK, Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey is an orchestral conductor and scholar of the social psychology of orchestral music-making. Working to advance social justice and environmental sustainability within music both on and off the podium, her bold orchestral initiatives fuse the local with the global, amplify leading environmental research, and engage with the pressing issues of our time. Her work has been funded by Arts Council England, British Council, Leverhulme Trust, Oxfordshire Community Foundation, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and many others.

Dr Ponchione-Bailey is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield where she holds a three-year grant to research the Orchestras of Afghanistan. She is also the Conducting Fellow for the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Director of Performance at St Catherine's College, University of Oxford and Director of Research for the Oxford Conducting Institute.

In 2019, Cayenna brought the Afghan Women’s Orchestra to Oxford for a ten-day residency in collaboration with the Orchestra of St John’s, Somerville College (University of Oxford), and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The residency included side-by-side rehearsals with professional musicians, educational concerts, a conducting masterclass, and a number of concerts at the Harrow Arts Centre, British Museum, Sheldonian Theatre and Lancaster House. From 2018-2021, Cayenna served as conducting tutor and mentor to the young conductors at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. In the wake of the Taliban takeover of the country, she has helped coordinate the International Campaign for Afghanistan’s Musicians


Arson Fahim, Co-Curator

Featured by the BBC World Service and Lyse Doucet, composer and pianist Arson Fahim’s music is infused with his compassion and a fierce commitment to social justice within his homeland of Afghanistan. Having graduated from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in 2020, he is now enrolled in a composition degree at Longy School of Music in Boston. Fahim’s music has been performed in the USA, UK and Italy, and his original score for the play In the Sea There Are Crocodiles was performed at the Wales Millennium Centre in November 2021.

This project has been made possible through

the generous support of...

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra

Henfrey Charitable Trust

Leverhulme Trust

New Music Commission Fund

University of Sheffield

Sir Howard and Lady Stringer

Jon & Julia Aisbitt

Sir Winfried Bischoff

David and Elizabeth Ure

and individual donors

Special gratitude goes to Sadie Harrison, Mirwaiss Sidiqi,

Marios and Anthi Papadopoulos, Sarah Gee and Rachel Jackson

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