By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Students from Afghanistan's only music academy brought the war-torn country's rhythms to the State Department on Monday as part of their first U.S. tour, with brand-new Secretary John Kerry recalling his rock roots for the musicians.
The tour by the 48 musicians from the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) will include performances on Thursday at Washington's Kennedy Center and next week at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Organizers said the visit by the musicians ages 10 to 22, many of them orphans or street children, was aimed at improving Afghanistan's image after more than a decade of fighting between U.S.-led forces and the Taliban.
"The major objective of the trip is to change the perception of Afghanistan, to show the public the ... positive changes that are most of the time overlooked or (hidden) behind the violence, the roadside bombings," ANIM head Ahmad Sarmast told Reuters.
He said the musicians had been told not to try to stay behind in the United States while on the tour. He said the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had made the warning informally.
"We explained always to them that the life of an illegal immigrant somewhere is not a sweet one," he said.
Eileen O'Connor, a State Department spokeswoman, said the warning was in line with department guidelines for travelers about such issues as visa restrictions.
The austere Taliban banned music outright when they took over Afghanistan in 1996. Sarmast, the first Afghan to earn a doctorate in music, set up the school in 2010.
The school operates under the Ministry of Education with hefty foreign funding. Half the school's 140 full-time students are orphans or street children, and a third are girls.
In a State Department auditorium, musicians in a traditional Afghan ensemble that included drums, the long-necked tanbur and the ghichak, a type of four-string fiddle, played for an audience with Kerry a surprise guest.
The former Massachusetts senator, who was formally sworn in on Friday as Secretary of State taking over from Hillary Clinton, greeted the musicians as "ambassadors of peace."
"I'm particularly happy to welcome you here because when I was your age, I played in a rock band," said Kerry, 69, drawing applause and laughter from the youthful artists.
"You can actually go to YouTube and you can hear some of our music. It's called 'The Electras,' and I still play guitar," he said.
Other State Department performances included a solo guitarist and an ensemble of the Indian sitar and lute-like sarod.
The U.S. tour is being funded by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the World Bank, the Carnegie Corp of New York and the Afghan Education Ministry.
The concerts in Washington and New York will feature Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" on traditional Afghan instruments and Ravel's "Bolero." They will also include smaller ensembles of wind instruments, of the sitar and sarod, and of traditional Afghan instruments.
Laila Nabizadeh, a 13-year-old percussionist from Nuristan Province in eastern Afghanistan, said her mother had wanted her to study the Koran but an uncle had encouraged her to attend the music institute.
"We are looking forward to someday more schools similar to ANIM being set up all over Afghanistan. In that sense, the school I go to is a model for the future of Afghanistan," she told Reuters.
(This version of the story corrects the eigth paragraph to say that the school was set up in 2010, not two years ago.)
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and James Dalgleish)