Five For Fighting’s John Ondrasik and American Musician Lanny Cordola Talk Afghanistan, the Power of Music and More

When Grammy-nominated artist John Ondrasik of Five For Fighting tweeted about raising awareness for girls in Afghanistan, American Songwriter knew something important was afoot.

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“In 2016 Lanny Cordola moved to Kabul to teach young Afghan girls guitar,” Ondrasik wrote on social media. “I am honored to join @tmorello@BethHart@nilslofgren Victoria Williams & other artists to raise awareness for his girls and all still abandoned in Afghanistan in singing Tom’s beautiful ‘God Help Us All.'”

So, we reached out to Ondrasik and to Cordola to see if they wanted to talk about what’s happening abroad in the Middle East. Thankfully, they obliged.

Below, the two artists talk about their work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, how Cordola is helping a group of young girls stay alive and flourish with music and what artists like Tom Morello and Nandi Bushell are doing to help the efforts.

John Ondrasik: Lanny, can you please talk about how you ended up in Kabul, Afghanistan, teaching young girls the guitar in 2016?

Lanny Cordola:
I always had a deep longing to put the power of music at the service of the war-torn and the poverty-stricken. And later, as I discovered that girls are the most oppressed and neglected in these marginalized regions of the world, it enabled me to find a deeper meaning to this strange enterprise called life.

With that in mind, I began the long arduous quest, first inspired by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and his belief in the healing power of music. This profoundly resonated in my soul. In 2011 I met a musician named Todd Shea through another musician friend Mark Levine, who wrote a book called Heavy Metal Islam. Todd was working to help better the lives of poor children in Pakistan and he invited me there in 2010 and thus began my journey into suffering humanity.

In 2012, I read about two sisters who were killed by the Taliban in a suicide bomb attack. The intended targets were US forces. This shook me to the core. I thought, ‘How can I live in a world where beautiful, innocent girls full of so much potential are sacrificed at the altar of poverty and war?’ After making some inquiries, I arranged to meet the family of the girls in 2014, including their 8-year-old sister who survived the attack.

This was the catalyst for The Miraculous Love Kids/Girl With a Guitar, which then led me to relocate to Kabul in February 2016.

JO: I became aware of you on a call with Project Exodus Relief while coordinating evacuations from Afghanistan. Mike Edwards spoke of your work with the  Miraculous Love Kids and how you’d escaped to Pakistan. Can you tell us your experience when Kabul was falling to the Taliban, how you felt as an American artist in the middle of the chaos, and how you were able to get out of the country?

LC: I didn’t actually escape Kabul. Interestingly, I had a flight booked for August 15, weeks before my visa was about to expire. It turned out to be the last commercial flight out of Kabul. When I found out what had happened, I was in Islamabad where I mix the songs I record with the girls and our guest artists and also record songs that I write about my experiences in Kabul, Iraq, Pakistan, and Kashmir.

I was there for 83 days in agony trying to evacuate them. There were several botched attempts that put the girls in serious danger including one where I was to meet them at the border with Pakistan but these supposed special ops guys weren’t so special.

JO: “God Help Us Now” is a beautiful song. I remember sitting down, to sing a verse, and was haunted by the girls singing the chorus. How did the song come together and how did you select the artists who are performing on it?

LC: We had recorded the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams” with Tom Morello in 2020. He was so generous in wanting to help the girls and me, that I took a deep dive into his catalog and discovered this gem, “God Help Us All.” I arranged it for the girls who immediately loved it. After Tom heard it and gave us his blessing, I reached out to Victoria Williams and Beth Hart, who both agreed to come on board. Then Julien Baker added her voice to the chorus. Then after speaking with you, John, and hearing him speak about his passion for the Afghan People, I asked if he would add his sonorous voice to the song and he graciously agreed. In the meantime, Tom had asked Serj Tankian and Nandi Bushell to add their voices and I also got a hold of Nils Lofgren to add his voice, and thus “God Help Us All” came to life.

JO: There is currently a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Children are starving. The Taliban have forbidden artistic expression, and many women have not been allowed to return to school. How are your girls and their families doing now?

LC: Our girls and families are also having a hard time. Quite frankly, we are all in a state of shock by how it all went down. So reckless, careless, and inhumane. War has so many layers and dimensions. I will be writing and singing about this for time immemorial.

JO: When it comes to Afghanistan so many want to help those left behind but feel helpless. What can Americans and our fellow songwriters reading this article do to support your Miraculous Love Kids and their families?

LC: Songwriters are vital to situations and groups like ours. You, John, wrote the penultimate song about the crisis in Afghanistan, “Blood on My Hands.” To give a voice to the muted souls of the earth is our sacred duty. To help others see and feel the suffering through words and melody is sacrosanct art. And any songwriter who feels the call to help give our girls a voice through their songs would be an immense blessing.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts

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