Somerville staff and students were inspired last week by a visit from Ensemble Zohra, Afghanistan’s only all-female orchestra.

During the residency, the group lived and rehearsed in the College. They performed side by side with members of the local community and Somerville students in two concerts for Oxfordshire school children in the week. They also gave a lecture-recital of Afghan traditional music in the Hollywell Music Room, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Europe.

Undergraduates welcomed the orchestra’s members to the College with a special tour, including a chance to try out the College Chapel’s 1937 Harrison & Harrison pipe organ – an instrument seldom seen in their home country.

Ensemble Zohra with their founder Dr Ahmad Sarmast and the College organ

Their week in Oxford ended with a gala concert at the Sheldonian, including a performance alongside the Somerville Chorus, a specially created choir of staff, students and alumni. Many of the alumni on stage were amongst those who donated over £10,000 to the trip through a crowdfunder.

*picture of the concert when available on monday*

The 25-piece orchestra’s members are students of the pioneering Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Like Somerville, the co-educational school was founded to break down barriers to education thrown up by gender, religious belief and background.

The college’s connection to the Institute began long before last week’s residency. Junior Research Fellow Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, one of the artistic directors of the project and the Associate Conductor of the Orchestra of St John’s, has travelled to the country and taught conducting to Ms Khpolwak. Somerville students have also given piano, trumpet and violin lessons to ANIM pupils over skype.

Somerville research fellow Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey teaching Negin Khpolwak, the first female conductor in the history of Afghanistan, at the ANIM

Educating women in music is still seen as a radical act by many in the country, resulting in opposition to the school tragically including a Taliban suicide bombing in 2014. But in the year following this terrible event, Ensemble Zohra was established. Its members continue to assert their right defiantly to express themselves and to study and perform music.

“We will never accept their words; we will never give up”, wrote Shogofa Safia, a percussionist and pianist in the group.

“We will continue to play music because we want to do good things for Afghanistan… Our passion is to revive and present our music traditions for the world to see.”

“It was deeply inspiring to meet and play alongside members of Ensemble Zohra, who are so positive despite the great hardships they face in even beginning to play music” said Nadia Buckingham, a 2nd year music student and president of the Somerville College Music Society.

“Above all, they are skilled, dedicated and focused musicians who are driven to perfect their craft despite any difficulties. They inspire us to do the same.”

Somerville undergraduates welcomed the members of Ensemble Zohra to the College

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