As the world looks on to see if Afghanistan is going to evolve or devolve, so far it’s not looking great, at all. Especially for girls. Under the new Taliban rule, in the past month boys were allowed to go back to school and girls from grade six and up were not. In a spirit of solidarity with the girls, some of the boys are now refusing to go too, so we’ll see what happens.
Besides girls being educated, the Taliban don’t approve of art or music either, although Afghanistan has a rich history of culture. And music is illegal again. The Taliban really hate music.
This whole scenario is especially disturbing for transplanted Californian musician Lanny Cordola, who six years ago started The Miraculous Love Kids, a music school for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan. He affectionately calls them “his band.”
I find Lanny in Pakistan, fearing for, and not seeing, his students for over a month now. Lanny left on a short trip from Kabul to Pakistan the day the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan. Every flight had been canceled except one to Iran and the last flight to Islamabad. The only reason he was on that one was to renew his visa in Pakistan, where he also did the music mixing for the girls’ recordings.
The immense hope he has given these girls stands in a frightening limbo. Their instruments hidden or destroyed, and the school is of course closed.
Besides this precious and once unimaginable school being shuttered, these girls’ lives are in peril. For now, laying low in their homes, having to wear a Hijab to go out is something that they have not grown up with. They grew up in relative freedom.
In a developing country where the poverty is brutal, Kabul, sitting in a valley at a high altitude, is one of the highest cities and one of the three most polluted places in the world, “somewhere between Beijing and Delhi,” says Lanny. Besides the extremes of temperature, the air sometimes thick from old engines, smelting plants and burning trash, it’s a dense city with around 4.5 million inhabitants. The air gets trapped between the mountains with a lack of rain and most of the year blankets the city in a toxic particulate haze. It’s hot in the summer and freezing in the winter when burning wood chips and kerosene permeate the air.
And it’s still a highly volatile and dangerous place. One of the girls told me she was upset at the growing number of fathers committing suicide as they can’t feed their children, who are crying and begging in the streets. (Lanny’s students are somewhat helped by donations from people sending money to https://miraculouslovekids.org).
In 2012, Lanny read an article about two sisters killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber aiming for American troops. “That was a big epiphany,” he said. “How can we live in such a world where we sacrifice children at the altar of poverty and war?” Seven Afghans were killed and the two little girls. No Americans were harmed.
A couple of years later Lanny found himself just over the border in Pakistan arranging a charity music event, Peace Through Music. He kept reaching out to see if someone could introduce him to the Afghan family in Kabul, to meet the little girl who had lost both of her sisters.
When they met, he was moved by her story and she in turn was equally moved by Lanny’s guitar and asked him to teach her to play. As did her eager friends.
For the next 15 months, Lanny raised money to help the girls, and to set up a proper guitar school where they could safely go and practice each day.
Over the next six years, they moved to four different buildings. The first one, in a military barracks, was stark, unfriendly and Lanny described it as “just awful.” They moved above a supermarket for a year, but the power would go off, there was another explosion and the windows got blown out, so they moved to another place. Always bare-bones buildings, very grassroots, but the girls would eagerly gather and they had a fan for when it was very hot and the power was on. They didn’t listen to music, as there was no internet access, and Lanny couldn’t take his laptop out in Kabul in fear of losing it. He wanted the children to just hear what they were doing, creating, with their own sounds.
“The kids would go to [regular] school in the morning, and they would come in the afternoon, and we’d have a little food for them, and then we’d sit down and go through the setlist,” said Lanny. Whether it was Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” Sting’s “Fragile,” or Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” or others, it was a mixed bag.
There was no typical day. Some days they wouldn’t play music at all; it would be like a therapy session. Just listening. At one point he had hundreds of kids coming, so he had some of the older girls teaching the other girls the basics.
But they’d also talk about what was going on in their lives. Sometimes they’d have group sessions, sometimes private sessions. Of course, there’d be difficult moments, they’ve gone through so much: one’s father was a pedophile, a mother dies, one girl’s sisters were blown up in a suicide attack, and asks, “Why did it happen to my sisters?”
How do you answer that? I ask him. He told the young girl, “I don’t know, sweetheart, why that happens, but I do know what we’re going to do about it, we’re going to honor your sisters by our music and carry them with us, and they can be a part of our group, and every note we play is going to be for girls just like your sisters.”
Music has so many meanings for them. On April 19, 2016, there was a big explosion in Kabul, near the school, from a suicide bomber. Luckily none of the kids were there, but lots of people were killed. Every building in the whole area, all of the glass was blown out. Except for theirs. The kids showed up and said, what do we do…? It reminded Lanny of the song “Fragile” by Sting, so they played it “And that’s when the girls encountered poetry…”
On and on the rain will fall
like tears from a star
on and on the rain will say
… how fragile we are.
He explained to them, it’s so sad that even the stars are crying. They could almost relate, it was like a healing session for them to know that there’s music that can give a voice to their sorrow, and at the same time give voice to hope.
After COVID they streamlined, then security issues got to be an issue, budgetary things got to be an issue. Every girl that came to the school would be paid. “Instead of working on the street that day they’d come and spend the day with us learning English and music, so we’d pay them. They’d only make $2 a day on the streets, if that, so they became the breadwinners with us.” Their fathers, apparently either addicts or with other wives or families, were jobless or meagerly trying to sell sunflower seeds.
Lanny’s teaching the girls guitar grabbed the attention of some famous musicians, including The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, then Sammy Hagar, Chad Kroeger, Tom Morello, The Go-Gos, Nick Cave, and recently Blake Shelton, who have all performed virtually with the girls. This grabbed them international fame, appearing on Good Morning America and the BBC. And they still haven’t left Afghanistan.
Two months ago their futures looked bright, now their hopes and dreams may be forever shattered.
There are not only The Miraculous Love Kids in limbo but an orchestra, the football girls, rock climbing girls, bicycle girls, filmmakers, artists, people doing good, positive things that normal societies do, now in hiding.
“All of that in ten days was wiped out with some uncompassionate decisions by some really uncompassionate people,” said Lanny.
Afghanistan was never really a female-friendly place. Girls have been basically negated and abused. “You tell them that they are equal to boys, it’s a mind-blowing concept for them!” Lanny explained.
Even before the Taliban came in there were problems. The girls couldn’t walk around the streets with their guitars, they’d get attacked or harassed. So, they all kept guitars at their houses and at the school. Now he’s told them to do a Jimi Hendrix and smash them. They protested that Mr. Kiefer (Sutherland) donated the guitars. Lanny told them not to worry. Mr. Kiefer has more guitars where they come from…
Lanny’s enthusiasm and joy come through when he talks about the girls, but I sense his despair. He talks to them every day. “It has its moments of agony. You learn so much about yourself at times of extreme crisis and turmoil, then you see other people, how they handle it and observe that whole thing, and I gotta tell you the girls have been outstanding, they’ve been listening and present. They are like daughters to me. I’ve been helping raise them.”
When he sees the Taliban he sees lost, dark, souls, now emboldened with American weaponry. “Before they were pretty primitive dudes with nothing else going on. They don’t want you to even smile. You can’t even fly a kite, they just want women to cook, make babies, clean and be a receptacle for their physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
“When you look at the songs we’ve done, we strive to have love and mercy for our fellow beings.”
He describes the girls working with Brian Wilson. “In L.A., Brian got to the studio, he’s out there, his hair’s disheveled, we had the track ready, he says in a gruff voice ‘what are we doing?’ He did three passes at the song, and we got him home by 1 pm for his soap operas that he has to see. He has his whole routine. But on ‘Love and Mercy,’ he let us change the lyrics as it was about being in a bar, so we made it a field.”
Sensationally, the girls recorded a cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” with Sammy Hagar and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback and made a video that is beautiful and moving and historic, considering its source in war-ravaged and culturally backward Afghanistan.
“A friend of mine, John Greenberg, who managed Nickelback, Steven Tyler, and different people, introduced me to Sammy Hagar. Sammy did the vocals on his iPhone,” said Lanny.
One of the girls, who he affectionately calls Jellybean (obviously their real names cannot be used in this article) said, “I want to be a rock and roll guy like Mr. Sammy. Even my father likes him.”
Lanny added, “Tom Morello, he is the coolest rock star, the guitar is a major component of who he is, but his spirit is so much larger than a guitar can contain. He believes that music should aim for transcendence, it should sing of justice and not just be for entertainment purposes. Should have a higher cause.”
The last video they recorded, the day before Lanny left, was a Bruce Springsteen song. They set up all sixty of their guitars around the room. Lanny says it’s “an unbelievable song” with the girls playing “The House of a Thousand Guitars” and hoping they can get The Boss himself…
Brother and sister wherever you are, we’ll meet in the house of a thousand guitars.
Wake and shake all your troubles my friend, we’ll go to the place where the music never ends.
We’ll rise together until we find the spark, here in the house of a thousand guitars.
It brings tears to Lanny’s eyes recalling it. That’s the power of music when it’s used in the right way, to evoke emotions and tell stories. The guitar was a lifeline for the girls.
The songs already recorded with Nick Cave and “I Won’t Back Down”’ with Blake Shelton won’t be released until the girls are safely out of Kabul. They were going to make an album next year of their collaborations. Let’s hope and pray that can still go ahead.
Lanny told me a story of when he was on tour with the Beach Boys in the ‘90s and met B.B. King in a Memphis bar after the show. B.B. King is one of his guitar heroes, so he said, “bestow a little wisdom on me Mr. King. He said, ‘well first of all you call me B.B., and secondly, ‘be true to the music, and the music will be true to you.’” Lanny taught that to the girls.
“One of the girls, she really likes the songs, and she likes to sing, but she loves to play the notes and BB King loves to play the notes, so I named her Boo Boo King.
“Our girl Jellybean, her first video playing lead guitar part and she’s sharing the screen with Tom Morello. Now you and I know who Tom Morello is — Icon Guy — but these girls have no idea who they’re playing with or the impact of these stars. No clue. He’s just Mr. Tom who cares about them and plays really cool electric guitar. He gets a kick out of that.
He doesn’t know when it will happen in their musical journey, when they have the epiphany of, “Oh yes, my first guitar solo was with Tom Morello…. OMG the first song we played was with Brian Wilson… My first vocal duet was with Blake Shelton…”
The girls are driving him crazy, when are we out of here? He thinks he’s talked to fifty different groups of people in the past month to sort out a rescue operation for the girls and their families. The girls are trying to stay calm. He has them writing notes to people who have donated and fears they’re going into refugee camps. He’s trying to appeal to the government of Pakistan to help get them out of Kabul, and — you didn’t think you’d ever hear this — safely into Pakistan.
He tells me that people are dying in Afghanistan because of paperwork, and how appalling it is that if someone doesn’t have a visa, or a passport, or a P2 they are stuck there. Very few people have documents. He’s trying to get them out and do the paperwork afterward. There are eight core founding member girls and 26 family members. That’s the beginning.
He’s nervous and rightfully so. He tells me of an Afghan family who showed up in Pakistan several days ago, the family of a musician. The Taliban went to his house to get him, he wasn’t there, they destroyed the instruments, beat up the family, then disappeared. The family took off and made a harrowing two-day journey across the border to Pakistan. He doesn’t want his girls to go through that.
“I’m so freaking proud of them. Something inside tells me it’s going to happen. We have to be patient.”
He says that driving down the street in Kabul you see the girls on the street begging, the men with no arms and no legs, and it’s heartbreaking but that’s what you see every day.
“Every day 25,000 children die of poverty and war around the world. These things can be solved, but they meet at Davos and the UN and what gets done?”
Lanny wants to set up a Miraculous Love Kid community, but says: “We’re not even at stage one yet, we have to get them out of there [first]. These girls know what it’s like to live in poverty, they know what it’s like to live in war, and now they know what it’s like to be a rock ‘n roller. I was a rock ‘n roll wild man and I got a responsibility now with the kids. The Miraculous Love Kids. We’re a band.”
It’s the end of September, and tonight in Kabul, I managed to briefly talk to Jellybean. Sounding spirited, positive and hopeful, her English is surprisingly good from six years of learning Western songs with Mr. Lanny. Jellybean was one of the first girls to come to the Miraculous House as they call it, where a large John Lennon poster adorned a wall that said “People for Peace”. This is how they learned of The Beatles, besides recording “Eleanor Rigby” with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco. As you do.
Jellybean said she remembers school as a good place for her to learn, so she can have a good future and “help other girls and people of Afghanistan and other poor countries — this is my great ambition” she said with a deep resolve.
One of the other girls, T, said that school was very important to her “because knowledge and learning helps you have a better life. Now the Taliban have taken this away” and she feels like she is “in jail for the crime of being a girl who wants to learn and use the knowledge to help others”.
It’s true, their lives have suddenly stopped.
These Afghan girls have never heard of MTV or Nirvana, yet know the Foo Fighters as they’ve played with keyboardist Rami Jaffee, twice. And they were learning “Times Like These” before the collapse of Kabul.
When asked what the most difficult thing to learn on the guitar was, Jellybean and T both said bar chords! However, with their remarkable courage and talent, and with the love of “Guitar Father” Lanny Cordola, they seem to have mastered them.
When asked who they’d really like to play with most? T wants to sing “Fragile” with Sting, and Jellybean wants to sing “Pride (In the Name of Love)” with U2.
And why not? They are The Miraculous Love Kids after all!
We just need to get them to safety first.
For Z, T, Boo Boo King and Jellybean.
You can help the girls at: https://miraculouslovekids.org