Aspiring Afghan musician seeks US 'encore' after heroic studies in war-torn homeland

Perry Chiaramonte

For one up-and-coming trumpeter from Afghanistan, music has set him free.

Ahmad Baset Azizi, 18, has spent the last year studying at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan — a long way from learning how to play the trumpet in his native country where studying music was once forbidden.

“It was hard for me to walk the streets with my trumpet,” Azizi, who goes by his middle name Baset, said in an interview with Fox News. “When the Taliban was in power, music was banned so many people thought it was still not accepted and they would give me a hard time.”

It was back in 2011 when Baset originally started learning his instrument after he was encouraged by his father to do so.

“I was able to practice all the time. I played whenever I wanted. This is normal life here for a musician. Not like back in Afghanistan.”

- Ahmad Baset Azizi

“At the time, I really didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I was not happy with it at first. It was too big for me and hard to play. But once I decided that I liked it, I decided to become the best trumpet player I could be.”

While the Afghan government has allowed music once again, learning how to play was no easy feat for the young musician.

“I could never practice at home in case someone would hear my trumpet,” he said. “I could only practice at school and it was not open all the time.”

Baset says that when he was younger, his original school, which was next to the Afghanistan Ministry of Affairs, was often closed after bombings or attacks in the area.

“There were a lot of bombs,” he added. “You would leave school and see bodies on the street.”

He eventually attended the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), but because of the previous Taliban ban on music the relatively new school was often the target of insurgents. Baset narrowly missed being injured himself in one such bombing.

“We had two chamber music concerts for successive nights. I played the first night, but the second night it was Afghan traditional instruments, so I decided that I did not want to go,” he said. “There was a bombing that night inside the hall. I even heard the sound of the explosions. It was so stressful. I still have it in my mind.”

Baset remained determined to attend school and master his instrument. Fast forward a few years and the trumpet teacher at ANIM – one of the only players in Afghanistan – left the school. That meant that Baset was without a competent instructor.

That’s when he turned to the internet, where he watched trumpet videos on a near endless loop to teach himself. One of the videos that he discovered was of David Bilger, the principal trumpet player of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Baset was so captivated by the music he heard, it led him to track down Bilger on Facebook and send a friend request.

“He was hilarious,” Bilger said to Fox News, recalling the first time he spoke with Baset on Facebook Messenger. “He introduced himself saying that he was the second-best trumpet player in Afghanistan, because there were only two. I said to myself, ‘OK, I’ll bite.’”

Bilger says that young Baset was looking for lessons.

“He was without a teacher and basically looking for help,” Bilger said. “We started with Skype lessons every week.”

It was several months into their lessons when Baset told Bilger his dream -- to spend his senior year of high school at Interlochen, a prestigious music school in Michigan. The orchestra player helped Baset get in by helping him develop a repertoire for his audition.

Bilger also helped set up a GoFundMe campaign where enough money was raised to cover his costs to attend the school after he was accepted into the program.

“I really liked it,” Baset said to Fox News. “I was able to practice all the time. I played whenever I wanted. This is normal life here for a musician. Not like back in Afghanistan.”

It was during the past year that he was able to meet Bilger in person, and they were even able to occasionally continue their lessons one-on-one.

“Not only did he teach me how to play the trumpet, but he is also teaching me to be a fine person,” Baset said of Bilger.

Last Saturday the young musician graduated with honors recently was accepted to University of Kansas School of Music.

He plans to attend in the fall, and while he has received a scholarship his family cannot afford to cover his other costs to stay here.

Under the encouragement of Bilger and others who have supported him here in the U.S., Baset has set up a new GoFundMe campaign. He has had $12,000 of his $65,000 goal donated to him in the past three months.

Baset says he would like to become a professional orchestra musician after he completes his college education and that, someday soon, he would love the opportunity to sit next to Bilger in an performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“In college, I hope to get good enough to sit and play with him.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych