Musical connections from Afghanistan to Mexico to your screen!

The pandemic emphasized for all the promises and perils of human connection. Through empathizing with people on the other side of the planet, we can better fight shared challenges like pandemics…but in-person connections transmit this often deadly disease. How can cultural diplomacy organizations adapt to the COVID era?


On August 15, 2021, we faced an unrelated challenge with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. I taught violin for 4 years at Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and could not sit idly by while a generation of Afghan musicians suddenly faced the return of the only regime to ever ban all music nationwide for 5 years (from 1996 to 2001). For all Afghan musicians, their profession—and means to survive—was at an end. For some, their lives were at risk.

My former boss at ANIM, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, focused on the evacuation of the ANIM community (which he has now achieved). I tried to help everyone else who found me on WhatsApp: our chat group now represents the interests of 326 Afghan musicians seeking to survive, to be free. The Cultures in Harmony community stepped up, and to date, you have donated $30,893. Thank you!

Our plans are described in more detail here. As we learn more about how to identify long-term solutions that will work for many fo the 326 Afghans on our list, we must also bear in mind that the Taliban’s lengthy list of prohibitions coupled with their inability to manage an economy of led to the total economic collapse of a country that was already desperately poor. Therefore, we have disbursed to Afghans a total of $6,687 in small grants of $200 or so, sent via Western Union or MoneyGram, for expenses ranging from firewood for the winter to visa fees to medical and transportation expenses. 

For the long-term, we have committed $20,000 to our partner Proyecto Habesha, which has 7 years of experience resettling Syrian refugees in Mexico. To grant political asylum, the Mexican government insists that all of an asylum seeker’s expenses be fully underwritten, so getting an Afghan musician to Mexico on track to becoming a Mexican permanent resident costs around $536 per month (including international flights, housing, food, transportation, university classes, job training, and Spanish language classes). Our $20,000 commitment of your funds to Proyecto Habesha will enable us to jointly bring 3 Afghans to Mexico. Mexico’s most prestigious newspaper, Reforma, published this article about our collaboration.

This leaves us with $4,206 to continue to disburse in small grants and to use towards the cost of getting 3 more students from our list to Italy, where Professor Mario Sollazzo and his team have secured places for them at their conservatory in Modena. Obviously, this is not enough, so we gratefully appreciate your continued support of our work. 

Sierra Tarahumara

Long before the fall of Kabul, the US Embassy in Mexico supported our project bringing musical and medical supplies to the isolated Rarámuri community in the remote Sierra Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua state. Our host was Romayne Wheeler, the pianist who has devoted the last 40 years of his life to helping the Rarámuri. This beautiful documentary showcases the importance of helping provide this music-loving indigenous community with the resources they need and deserve.

To help sustain this work even during and beyond the pandemic, we used funds from our savings and from a benefit concert in Mexico City to launch the first edition of the Festival of the Sierra Tarahumara. This first edition had only a local and livestream audience. During the festival, again we donated musical and medical supplies to the Rarámuri.

Donating a violin to Candelario Cubesare in Seyotavo, Sierra Tarahumara

However, from 2022 onward, we will welcome members of the public (that means you!) to attend in person what we believe is the most intimate, exclusive, spectacular music festival in the world. Where else can you listen to music at the end of a canyon over a mile deep, while knowing that your support helps connect a community that lives in some of the most forbidding and isolated terrain on earth?


In February, we asked musicians from Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, and the USA to play the same piece, celebrating how these challenging times inspired the kinds of virtual artistic collaborations that cultural diplomacy organizations can do particularly well. Please check out the video if you haven’t already.

The future

We hope to return to in-person projects in 2022 and beyond. We will return to Tunisia, where we have taught young musicians annually since our founding in 2005. New partners in Bhutan and the Congo hope to collaborate.

Despite the challenges posed by connecting people across cultural and national barriers in a time of global pandemic, this task remains more important than ever. Thank you for your continued support, and on this Giving Tuesday, please donate to Cultures in Harmony.