The 2018 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and Dr Ahmad Sarmast, its visionary founder and director, in recognition of how this  inspirational organization has used the power of music to transform young people’s lives. In the  1990’s, Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage, which thrived for centuries, was abruptly halted by the civil war and from 1996 until 2001, music was forbidden and silenced throughout the country.  In 2008, Dr. Sarmast, the son of a famous conductor, returned to Kabul, at great personal risk, to establish ANIM. ANIM, a decade on, flourishes and is committed to preserving Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage and to providing a safe learning environment to hundreds of boys and girls.

Credits: footage from Kabul from documentary “When Kabul Sings” by Sahra Mosawi.

I see in our orchestra tomorrow’s Afghanistan. An Afghanistan which embraces diversity and creates equal opportunity for everyone. A most beautiful mosaic of Afghan ethnicity.

Dr Ahmad Sarmast in The Guardian , 2015
Chapter: Introduction

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) is a music education institution based in Kabul. It was established in 2010 by Dr Ahmad Sarmast with a wish to resurrect the thousand years of Afghan musical traditions after the civil war and the Taliban regime had banned and outlawed music in the whole country. The institution offers music education both within traditional Afghan music and western classic music to boys and girls regardless of ethnicity and social backgrounds.

Chapter: Music in Afghanistan

Afghanistan, situated at the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a vast and thriving musical culture for centuries. Its geographical situation has given birth to an eclectic music culture, with a wide spectrum of influences from ancient poetry, the different the various regional folk songs and the neighbouring countries.

In the more contemporary history of music in Afghanistan, major musical styles could be roughly divided into four major categories: Indian classical, regional folk music, western music and Afghan music, a style unique to Afghanistan itself (however, mainly adopted by Farsi musicians).

Music and learning traditions

The traditional learning of music goes back to the tradition of birthright, when born into a family of hereditary musicians. The alternative way to learn was for an amateur musician finds an ”ustad” (master), a professional musician willing to teach or share the deep knowledge of music in the apprenticeship known as ustad-shagird, Persian for ”master-apprentice”.

Regional music

In Southern Afghanistan, the music culture is dominated by the music culture of the Pashtuns, often based on poetry and patriotic songs and a form of folksongs called the landay. The Rubab, one of the most popular Afghan instruments originates from the Pashtun culture. In Western Afghanistan the folk music is closely linked to folk traditions in Iran. Here, the Dutar is one of the commonly used instruments,

The Hindustani influence is considered as the main influence on the so called classical music tradition. The classical music of Kabul for example implies close links to the raga tradition of North India, which is present also in music from the 20th century with for example the performances and recordings of Polar Music Prize Laureate Ravi Shankar. The indian classic music is deeply rooted in a system of training, learning and patronage, often within an urban environment and performed in majority within elite artists circuits.

The art of the Afghan Rubab
Three Ragas by Ravi Shankar
Chapter: Music in the 20th century
Students in Kabul in the 1950s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

The Golden age of music

Radio Kabul was founded in 1941 and was a main center for music, spreading Afghan folklore and public education in dari and pashto. It would pave the way to a flourishing music life in Afghanistan until the 1980s.

In the 1950s and 60s, a new popular Afghan music emerged within groups of students, influenced by Western music and often including more “western” instruments such as accordion, piano and drums. Ahmad Zahir was, among others, one of its stellar artists and would come to represent the new generation of Afghan popular music until his death in Kabul in 1979.

Radio station in Afghanistan in the 1950s-1960s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)
Record Store in Afghanistan (city unknown), 1950s-1960s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)
Radio Afghanistan's studio (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Radio Afghanistan

Radio Afghanistan launched in 1964. Radio Afghanistan mixed Afghan and Western musical traditions with their own national orchestra and became a unifying voice of the nation, providing programming in both dari and pashto. This founded a beginning of a united cultural identity, that sadly would be silenced during the Taliban regime in the 1990s.

Music flourished during this period, and had a major importance within the development of culture and education, the Ministry of higher and Special Education establishes a school in the mid 60s and the radio also has a special focus on raising the status of women in the entertainment world. Famous singer Ferida Mahwash for example received the title of Ustad, master musician, from the government.

Ferida Mahwash, Ghazals afghans
Chapter: The dark age and music banning

The Dark age and music banning

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and occupied the country for a decade until the fall of the USSR. Censorship begins already here, several intellectuals, artists and musicians emigrated to mostly Pakistan, Europe or the USA.

The Soviet occupation was followed by some year’s of political instability and oppositions between different national groups. The Taliban took control over the country in 1996 and established a strict and brutal regime banning all kinds of music: recordings, performing, learning and even private performing, until 2001.

In the 20th century, the rise and thrive followed by the sudden and harsh silencing of the music in the country led to the final establishment of ANIM in 2010.

Chapter: ANIM

The afghanistan National Institute of Music







ANIM provides a dynamic, challenging, and safe learning environment for all students regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religious sect, or socio-economic circumstances. We focus especially on supporting the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan – orphans, street-working vendors and girls.

Mission Statement, ANIM

Dr Ahmad Sarmast, the son of a musical director,  was forced into exile in 1990 due to the political situation in Afghanistan, and was granted asylum in Australia. He studied musicology and as the first Afghan ever, earned a PhD in Musicology and worked at the University of  as a ethnomusicologist in Sydney until 2008 when he moved back to Afghanistan to found ANIM, via the initiation of the ROAM project in 2006: the Revival of Afghan Music.

His vision was to reintroduce Afghan music in all its forms into the country again, after the banning of music by the Taliban regime, that completely silenced the country. No musical exercise of any kind was permitted by the severe and reprimanding legislation.

The aim is to make a clear statement in the legal system of Afghanistan now and to reintroduce music to its important place within culture and heritage.

Thanks do a close collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the Deputy Ministry for Technical Vocation and Educational Training, as well as donors such as the World Bank and foreign governments, the institute opened in 2010.

Dr Ahmed Sarmast (Photo: © ANIM)
ANIM students (Photo: © ANIM)
Dr Ahmed Sarmast and students (Photo: © ANIM)
Chapter: The Ensembles
(Photo: © ANIM)

The ANIM Orchestras

Playing together in harmony teaches children to live in peace as a nation, no matter the ethnicity or background.

ANIM website

ANIM offers education both within Afghan music in all its forms and in Western classical music, to break the boundaries not only in the aftermath of the musical banning and the civil war, but also to reach out again to the neighbouring countries, also being part of the same musical heritage, but also to the rest of the world.

ANIM is open to all ethnicities and socio economic backgrounds and has a special focus on young and disadvantages children and girls. 7 out of 10 Afghans are under 25, 36% of the population live below the poverty line. 22% of young Afghan women are literate (source: and SIDA).

By creating several orchestras and ensemble, ANIM strives towards harmony, collaboration and building strong bonds within society, in addition to the musical education. ANIM has eight large ensembles and several smaller ones.

Afghan Women's Orchestra, "Zohra", performing in the Tohalle-Gesellschaft in Zürich, Switzerland (Photo: © ANIM)

The Zohra Orchestra

To create a way back to rebuilding the country and reintroducing music as a major part of the culture and heritage was then to first reveal the Afghan Youth Orchestra made of boys and girls, and then the Afghan Women Orchestra, Zohra, the first all female orchestra ever in Afghanistan. 30% of the students at ANIM are girls.

The Zohra orchestra did a tour in Europe in 2017, visiting Weimar, Berlin, Genève, Zurich and the World Economic forum in Davos.

Young students at ANIM (Photo: © ANIM)
A collaboration between ANIM and American ensemble Cuatro Puntos
The Afghan Women's Orchestra, "Zohra"
Girl Child Song - Afghanistan National Institute of Music
The Zohra Orchestra at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2017
Ensembles of Afghanistan National Institute of Music, performing at the Kennedy Center, in Washington D.C., USA, on Feb. 7, 2013.
A message from Dr Arhmad Sarmast

Stockholm, 14 June 2018

Metallica and The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, represented by its founder Dr Ahmad Sarmast, received the Polar Music Prize at a ceremony and banquet at the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm in June 2018. Several artists honoured the Laureates, among them the Afghan artist and TV host Aryana Sayeed, Loreen, Ghost & Candlemass and Moneybrother.  The banquet was aired on TV4 in Sweden and live on Tolo in Afghanistan.

Svante Henryson conducted the Polar Music Prize band:

Svante Henryson – cello/bass/conductor
Joel Lyssarides – keys
Mattias Norgren – beatbox
Karin Nakagawa – koto
Feras Charestan – qanun
Rosa Quartet – strings:
Daina Mateikaite, Knapp Brita Pettersson,
Anna Manell, Jessie Langhard
Elin Larsson – saxophone (soprano, baryton)

Dr Ahmad Sarmast with the Polar Music Prize award statuette, Aryana Sayeed to the right
Dennis Lyzxén and Svante Henryson, performing the Metallica song "Whiplash"
Loreen performed "Da Zamong Zeba Watan" in pashto
Aryana Sayeed read the citation for ANIM
The ceremony and banquet took place in Vinterträdgården at Grand Hôtel
Karin Nakagawa on koto
Aryana Sayeed performing Kamak Kamak/Alay Joo with the Polar Music Prize band
Aryana Sayeed, "Kamak Kamak/Alay Joo"
Loreen, "Da Zamong Zeba Watan"
Citation and acceptance speech by Dr Ahmad Sarmast