From ‘Full House’ to Afghanistan: an American teaches street children music

Lanny Cordola, a US rocker, had toured with well-known names in music, and he had appeared in a couple of episodes of the ABC comedy as a musician. But everything changed when he learned about two attacks in Afghanistan.

Ivan Flores
Lanny Cordola sits with his beginner guitar class in Kabul, Afghanistan. He’s reached out to those who have experienced life ‘at a harsh level.’

On a warm Thursday morning last August, a very odd group of people gathered outside the Abu Fazal mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. The mosque was the site of a horrific attack in December 2011 that left more than 80 dead. The unlikely group in August included Afghan children younger than 14, two older Afghan men, and a slightly older US man with long curly hair, a golf cap, and a guitar. Much to the surprise of the onlookers outside the mosque, the group broke into a song.

A little loud and a little out of sync with each other, the young members of the Miraculous Love Kids and their American teacher, Lanny Cordola, were performing the song “Don’t Panic” by the British rock band Coldplay. Not that anyone present in their audience of older Afghan gentlemen and a few women knew what it was – until a few children sang part of the lyrics in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s national languages. As the youths sang “We live in a beautiful world” in the local language, the initially suspicious crowd warmed toward them. Within no time, a small congregation had formed around them, smiling and cheering for the children.

Mr. Cordola, a rock musician, moved to Kabul in early 2016. Before that he had toured with well-known names in music such as Gilby Clarke from Guns N’ Roses, and he had appeared in a couple of episodes of the ABC comedy “Full House” as a musician. But everything changed when he learned about two attacks in Afghanistan.

“I saw this photo on the news of a young girl in green crying, surrounded by dead bodies. It really moved me,” Mr. Cordola says. “But when I read about these two sisters ... who were killed in another attack while working on the streets selling scarves, I knew I had to do something.”

Cordola hoped that his music could bring healing to child survivors of the frequent attacks – and at the outset, he specifically wanted to help the family that lost the two daughters. “On one of my visits to their house, I brought my guitar along, and one of the [other] daughters – Mursal – asked to play it,” he narrates. “I taught her a few moves, and seemed to make her very happy.”

His mission became clear: “That’s when I thought, ‘Why not do this – teach music?’ ” he shares. His venture has been largely self-funded.

In particular, he wanted to work with street children. So Cordola and his Afghan associate, Jamshid Bik, drove around parts of Kabul to talk to such youngsters. “They were a bit distrusting at first, so we told them to bring their fathers, uncles, and brothers along – anyone who made them feel safer,” he recalls. “After they started coming regularly, the word got out, and next thing we know we had a large classroom.”

Today more than 60 children participate, the classes taking place in a large apartment rented by Cordola in central Kabul. Parents rarely accompany the children now, although he adds with a chuckle, “Some of the mothers and fathers have also picked up the guitar and sat for a lesson or two.”

A key factor in families’ acceptance of the music lessons is the fact that they provide stability and a routine. And in addition to music, Cordola and his team of volunteers teach the children English and other subjects. “Jamshid also teaches them the Quran, which also encourages parents to send their kids to us,” Cordola notes.

“Working with Mr. Lanny has been a very fulfilling experience,” says Mr. Bik, Cordola’s interpreter and colleague. “I am going to be here for as long as God wills me to be here.”

Of course, the undertaking hasn’t been without risks. As an American in a postconflict and conservative country, Cordola has to be mindful of the security situation and local values. “I’ve heard some stories that people weren’t happy with what we were doing, although I haven’t faced any direct threats,” he says.

Playing U2

Most of the songs that Cordola picks for the children are in English, and he has some verses translated into Dari. He chooses songs that he feels the youths can relate to.

Take the U2 song “Pride” (“In the Name of Love”), which is about Martin Luther King Jr. “I used that song to explain to them about civil rights,” he says, noting pragmatically, “I don’t assume they retain a lot of what I tell them, but it is a lot of seeds being planted.

“We pick songs that speak to the universal human condition, which they have experienced at a harsh level,” Cordola elaborates. But the youths, he admits, “usually prefer the noisier songs.”

Indeed, a recent class has a lot of high-pitched singing. The children, mostly girls, are thrilled to have guests and demonstrate some of their best moves on the guitar. Thirteen-year-old Mursal, the girl who lost two sisters in an attack, takes control of the crowd, shouting over the din, “Give me a D minor!” Soon, all the youngsters organize themselves and are following Mursal’s lead. (Many Afghans go only by a first name.)

“I love coming here. Mr. Lanny is my qahramaan,” she says at the end of the class, using the Dari word for hero.

For Mursal and her friend Breshna, these classes are more than just an extracurricular activity; they are a way to leave behind the evils and misery of their daily lives. “My father is a drug addict, and a few months ago, he abandoned us,” Mursal confides. “We don’t know where he is, but my mother is a strong woman; she is a policewoman. She provides for my four siblings and myself,” she adds with pride.

Both girls plan to finish school and go to the United States for further studies. Mursal wants to be a music teacher like Cordola. And Breshna says, “I no longer sell scarves on the streets. I play guitar, study English here on the weekends, and I go to a school on weekdays.”

The girl in green

Still, a few children have dropped out of Cordola’s classes because of family pressure. “It’s a constant struggle,” he says with a small sigh. But he is sure he can turn things around and recalls an incident with one of his first students, Tarana – the girl in green in the photo, a picture taken right after the attack at the Abu Fazal mosque.

Although Tarana started attending Cordola’s classes, her father didn’t approve and wanted to put a stop to it. Cordola invited him over for a chat. “Her father came to one of our classes, sat through the session, and even picked [up] the guitar and inspected it,” Cordola recalls. Convinced that this could be a positive change for his daughter, who spent a few hours every day selling trinkets on the streets, he agreed to let her attend. Today Tarana, age 14, leads some of the classes for the younger children.

Cordola often collaborates with local artists to give the children exposure to a variety of local art and music. “We’ve conducted classes with Ramika Khabiri, one of Afghanistan’s first female rap artists,” he notes. They’ve also teamed up with ArtLords, a peace organization working on cultural development in Afghanistan.

“I first met Lanny and his kids during one of their practices, and I could see the impact the music had on those children,” says Omaid Sharifi, cofounder of ArtLords. The organization collaborated with Cordola to paint a mural of Mursal holding a guitar at the very location where she lost her sisters.

“What Lanny is doing – giving these children a safe place to grow and heal through music – is innovative and effective,” Mr. Sharifi says.

The deteriorating security situation does not deter Cordola. In fact, it pushes him to work harder. “There are terrible things happening, but we elect how we respond. I choose to respond with hope,” he says. Unlike most foreigners working in Kabul, Cordola has no exit plans, even after the bombing May 31 that killed at least 150.

“I will only leave if I feel that my presence could adversely affect the kids,” he says. “Till then, I will live my life like a great song.”

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