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Kabul's kids given their music back

Lesley professor re-creates child songbooks from '60s

Rummaging through her bookshelf five years ago, Louise M. Pascale, an assistant professor of creative arts and learning at Lesley University in Cambridge, came upon the collection of Afghan children's songs that she had compiled as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s.

It was sort of like finding an old yearbook, but instead of illustrating how hairstyles and skirt lengths had changed over the years, the tattered green songbook called attention to a greater change: The devastation reaped on Afghanistan after years of Taliban rule.

Holding the relic, Pascale was certain that all remaining copies of the songbook, which she distributed in Kabul during her time in the Peace Corps, had been destroyed. She assumed they were lost, along with instruments and archives of local folk songs, when the Taliban outlawed music.

"I said to myself, 'I want to give this back to the kids in Afghanistan,' " Pascale recalls. " 'It's not doing me any good in my bookcase.' "

But what initially struck her as a simple plan, requiring no more than the cost of photocopies and postage, has turned into a five-year, $40,000 operation. The time and effort were to pay off last week, when 3,000 copies of a revamped songbook and CD were scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan to be distributed to school children in the spring.

If the reactions of Afghans living in America are any indication, the songbooks are likely to be greeted with gratitude from older Afghans -- people for whom these songs evoke a lost era of peace, freedom, and music. Many of the Afghans Pascale has worked with on the project were moved to tears the first time they listened again to their childhood songs.

"It must be as if we didn't hear 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' or 'The Eentsy, Weentsy Spider' for decades," Pascale says. You forget that the song even exists until someone speaks the words or hums the chorus, she explains, but the memory the music triggers brings with it all the scents and sounds of childhood.

The songbook has come a long way from its creation nearly 40 years ago, when the 22-year-old Pascale realized, while traveling to Afghan schools to teach music, that students lacked books of songs. She worked with local poets and musicians to transcribe traditional songs.

For one song, an Afghan version of "Old MacDonald's Farm," she asked children to draw pictures of the animals mentioned to use as illustrations.

Before leaving the country, she had the book printed at Kabul Press. In broken Farsi, she asked the printer for four-color printing. It was only after she returned to the United States and the book was mailed to her that she saw how the printer had interpreted her instructions: a few pages in blue, a few in yellow, and so on.

Although elements of the new songbook evoke that first attempt -- one of the barnyard animal drawings makes an appearance on the inside cover, and eight of the songs are the same -- the sleek, full-color book conveys a cheery professionalism. And unlike the first version, whose song lineup was determined by a few musicians in Kabul, this book contains a careful selection of songs from all over the country, with songs in Farsi, Pashto, Uzbek, and Hazara.

Perhaps the most practical part of the book comes tucked into the back cover: a CD with recordings of the songs. Each song has two tracks -- one with children singing and one instrumental version.

Pascale's goal, to return these songs to a country stripped of its music, will be realized in the coming months. But the project is not over yet. The Afghan minister of education has asked that songs now be gathered for adults, so a second book can be created. Pascale takes the request as a good sign: "It makes me feel that they see the importance of it, and they know that music is a way to solidify and connect the country."

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