Californian Lanny Cordola was a wandering, mostly session musician when life’s splendidly random circumstances brought him to Pakistan in 2010. He had met fellow American musician Todd Shea in 2009 through a mutual friend, Mark Levine, a professor at UC Irvine who had written a book improbably titled Heavy Metal Islam.
“Todd had formed a non profit organization after traveling to Pakistan in 2005. My initial motivation was a peace through music initiative, bringing together high profile musicians from the west to collaborate with high profile musicians from Pakistan, which did culminate in a benefit concert in NY with Pakistani singer Atif Aslam and Slash, Duff, Gilby and Matt from Guns N Roses, with yours truly along for the ride,” he says breezily.
In Pakistan, as the worst floods in the country’s history ravaged the nation, Lanny toured the camps and afflicted areas, helping out with others as best he could. He was struck by the joyfulness of the displaced kids — what he calls “the wild joy.” This is where he came up with the idea for the music school for girls, which he eventually opened in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014. It was, you will not be surprised to learn, the first of its kind.
“In 2012 I read about the horrific suicide bomber attack on ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] in a market in Kabul that killed 7 innocent Afghans, including two sisters, 11 year old Parwana and 13 year old Khorshid, and several American troops,” he says. “The girls had been trying to intercept the bomber to protect their American friends. ‘How can we live in a world where we sacrifice precious little girls like this at the altar of poverty and war?’ I asked myself. Then a still small voice whispered… ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ I soon made arrangements to visit the family of the sisters, living in a very poor area of Kabul called Shuda.”
He brought his guitar with him and one of the girls was intrigued by it and asked if she could try playing it, and asked him to teach her.
“The younger sisters of Parwana and Khorshid moved me greatly, and when they asked I said I would do everything I could for them to honor their fallen sisters. So this is what ultimately brought me to Kabul — after two further trips there to get the family settled into a new home and enrolled at a private school, I decided to officially form The Miraculous Love Kids to assist with their well being, education and to share the wonders of the guitar with other war torn Afghan Girls.”
The name for the school came “in some kind of fever dream” and operated for nearly six years, not without difficulty, having to move locations several times, once because a nearby bombing destroyed the school, although fortunately none of the girls were present.
Lanny raised money to keep the school going and achieved some international fame when he convinced Sammy Hagar and Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger to play on a video of “Fly Like An Eagle” with the girls.
Incredibly, some 200 girls attended the school at its peak, and, post covid, there were 20 regular students when they had to disperse and hide as the Taliban swept through the Afghan capital on August 15, 2021.
“‘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, in a beautiful piece written by WONDERLUST’s European Editor, Lucia Gillot.
All of a sudden, like a candle being snuffed out, the heady days of girls studying music in a country that has not exactly prioritized the rights of females were over.
“Even though their rights are guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, girls had little to no rights and were being married off as young as 6 years old.” Lanny says.
I asked him about the Kabul he knew between arriving there and the darkness that descended over it when the Taliban swept into the city and back into power.
What was Kabul like when you got there? Did it feel liberated — relatively liberated — or suppressed? Was there a hopefulness about the city?
My first trip here was March 6, 2014. It was a 5 day whirlwind to meet the family of Parwana and Khorshid. The guy that I stayed with, who sadly turned out to be a scoundrel, operated an underground rock club, so I kicked out the jams with some locals and expats till the wee hours. I also met Malalai Joya, the author of a book called A Woman Among Warlords, a very compelling book about her life but also a short history of Afghanistan. She was the youngest woman ever elected to the Afghan Parliament and was banned after she called out all the warlords for their egregious deeds. We spoke about Martin Luther King, John Lennon and girls playing guitars, which she was fully supportive of.
Meeting with her was quite an ordeal —driving through winding streets and backroads where she was hiding underground due to all the threats she received. A brave and visionary soul she is.
Kabul at this time felt very oppressed — there was a palpable ominous feeling. There was also a peculiar hope but very fragile and, as I experienced, a house of cards ready to collapse due to many factors — corruption, poor planning, arrogance, ignorance, tribalism and patriarchy. There were glimpses of what things could be if the energy went in the right way but tragically it didn’t.
Compared to Pakistan, Iraq, the Kurdish region and Kashmir, Afghanistan was quite hermetic.
What were the people like? Friendly, suspicious, welcoming? Did you speak the language?
Because The Miraculous Love Kids model is based on 1) well being, 2) education, 3) life skills and 4) music, it became quite popular as parents were happy to have their girls learn English and I gave them money to keep them off the mean streets of Kabul. I couldn’t keep up with the demand — if we had the resources there would have been tens of thousands of girls on board. Of course the terrorists would have made this untenable, but the thirst was there.
I learned a little Dari, their language, but they were more interested in learning English.
All the people that came to our center were super grateful for this program. One father came to me in 2018 and told me he didn’t have much time left as he was gravely ill, and would I be the father of his three children, two daughters and one son? I had never experienced anything like this before. After a small prayer I went back and told him I would with one condition, that he would always be father #1 and I would be father #2 but that I hoped he would live a long time and we wouldn’t have to be concerned about this. But sadly several months later he passed, so I became their father in the sense of support and guidance. They are truly miraculous love kids, and what an incredible gesture by their father to entrust me with his beloved children.
What was the cultural and social scene in the years you lived in Kabul? What was the food like?
The cuisine is very meat heavy and since I’m a vegetarian this became a challenge — however they have great beans, rice, vegetables and fruits.
There were some great pizza places. I frequented many restaurants, one was a Charlie Chaplin themed emporium — strange but a lot of Afghans love Charlie Chaplin. Another was called Barg, where they had many dishes and a very good breakfast, and they played muzak versions of “Cavatina”, the theme from The Deer Hunter, and Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When we Touch.”
Then there was Le Bistro where you could get beer and wine with a wink and a hefty price.
The social scene was quite vibrant among certain well-to-do Afghans and the expats. There were several soiree’s in places like the Gandamak, which served libations (on the down low) and was near the Iranian embassy. I also had many memorable nights at the Canadian embassy with my friend Colonel John Pumphrey, mostly playing guitar and discussing The Miraculous Love Kids — to this day he is a staunch supporter.
How did the locals have fun? Is any of that possible now?
There was a zoo which had some rides that I took the kids to on a few occasions. There was also an amusement park with rides and the like which we had to stop going to because gangs frequented the place and became a danger for the girls. There were malls that had rides and restaurants that I would take them to.
There were many pool halls and a few bowling alleys but I never experienced these myself. I would also take the girls swimming at Qargha Lake, which, as you can imagine, was a big no-no to the Fundamentalists. The girls loved this even though they would wear their clothes double and triple layered. We also took boat rides around the lake and they even rode some horses one time. Sadly this is all over now. The Taliban believe joy is a sin — but blowing up children is God’s will.
What were your favorite moments and places to go?
My favorite place was Wazir Akbar Hill, near the green zone, it has a 360 panoramic view of Kabul. When the girls were younger we used to practice up there with permission from the warlord, Vice President General Rashid Dostum.
He liked music and approved of my efforts. I used to write poetry up there and gaze into the wounded soul of Kabul. There was also an Olympic pool that the Russians built in the 1980’s that the Taliban would use to execute their prisoners — I made a few videos there playing guitar by myself, and filmed our video “Mother, Mother” there as well.
What’s your oddest memory of Kabul?
That would be when I was in lockdown for 93 days staying at my friend’s hotel, The Serena, in central Kabul. It was a place which then was a ghost town, yet a Taliban contingent were also staying there. I would see them in the morning at breakfast and one of them followed me into the garden where I would have meditative walks. He was very curious about me and had this strange giggle when he finished speaking — he was very interested in America and spoke good English. His superior was a big baboon of a man and grunted whenever he would see me. I would sit each day where they had massacred a family including two children — that scene made it into a song I wrote during this period called “The Plague.” Then I saw a ghost in the gallows and a shadow in the shade. I saw a carriage of carnage and debts still unpaid. So I had breakfast with the Taliban, Syd Barrett and Mighty Mouse, in the year of the metal rat right next to the slaughterhouse.
What parts of your time there did you most embrace?
As you can imagine, the times with the kids, whether on Afghan Star [an American Idol type show] where they played Sting’s “Fragile”, or in our Miraculous House teaching them new songs, or playing for the Afghan First Lady, Rula Ghani, at the Presidential Palace, or playing a concert with our friend Colonel John at the Canadian embassy. Time with them was incredibly moving and precious.
What, besides the school and the girls, do you most miss?
I miss driving around the city and taking in the gravity of its history. As dangerous as it was, there was a lot of grace, charm and fractured beauty.
Do you think Kabul will ever emerge from this darkness? Why do the Afghans tolerate the Taliban?
I do believe that things can and will change for Afghanistan, and I will do all I can to help this happen.
They have suffered too much and far too long. They have been a laboratory rat for too many world powers and I see a time when peace and prosperity reigns supreme.
Afghans tolerate the Taliban for one reason: Fear. I truly believe of the nearly 40 million Afghans 30 million would leave if they could. I do know that far too many males wallow in this authoritarianism, but I have also met some of the kindest, gentlest males in the world in Kabul.
Describe the circumstances on how you left? And what are the odds of getting all the girls out? Are they still unknown to the Taliban?
I had a flight booked several weeks earlier for August 15 as my visa was set to expire. I was going to Pakistan for a week to work on songs that I had recorded with the girls, then back to the States where I would renew my visa and raise funds.
The drive to the airport was tense but I still had no idea what was about to transpire. At the airport many flights were cancelled and I was wondering if mine would be as well — I was kind of hoping it would so I could remain in Kabul, ride out the storm, but as fate would have it I was on the last commercial flight out of Kabul, arriving at my destination around midnight.
Getting all the girls out will be a Herculean task. We will start with 40, which includes 15 girls and their family members.
And yes I know without a shadow of a doubt this will happen. One of the last songs we recorded was Tom Petty’s “I Won’t back Down” —
You can stand me at the gates of hell but I won’t back down.
As far as I know they are still off the radar with the Taliban — thankfully they are all laying low, staying home, and when they leave they wear burqas, which as horrible as they are in some respects, they are a godsend in protecting them.