The story of Afghan singer Ahmad Zahir is inseparable from events that shaped the modern history of Afghanistan. Knighted by Western media as the “Afghan Elvis,” Zahir rose to fame in the late 1960s and early ’70s, just as television and radio brought together Afghans of all social strata and tribal allegiance for the first time.
A colorful performer and outspoken public figure, Zahir’s popularity peaked at a moment when his country was coming tantalizingly close to mending longstanding ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions. His Dari (Persian) lyrics connected with listeners due to its raw, expressive style, as did a fiery live ensemble featuring Western trumpets and electric guitars and led by Zahir himself on harmonium.
In life, he transmitted Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage to the rest of the world across an extraordinary 30 albums. In death, he remains an inspirational figure in Afghanistan, his legacy growing more potent over time as the country slipped in and out of silence.
Born June 14, 1946, Zahir had a privileged upbringing in Kabul during a time when the city was considered one of the most liberal places in Central Asia. Women could be seen sporting stylish Jane Fonda haircuts, and Western clothing styles weren’t unusual around the city.
In a 2009 interview with Afghan TV channel PUL, Ahmad’s sister Zahira spoke of their father Dr. Abdul Zahir’s early influence. A respected physician in the Royal Court, and the prime minister of Afghanistan between 1971 and 1972, he helped write Afghanistan’s constitution in 1964 and was committed to modernizing his country. Zahira says the progressive, open-minded spirit the elder Zahir fostered in the family was crucial in shaping his children’s destiny.
Ahmad Zahir pursued a life in music from a young age, forming school bands and performing at large, state-organized concerts and parades around Kabul for national occasions such as Afghan Independence Day.
Cultivating Elvis-like sideburns and sporting flamboyant suits, Zahir was the first Afghan pop star to recognize the power of image and harness it in pursuit of fame.
Following a period in India during which he trained as an English teacher, Zahir returned to Afghanistan in the late 1960s to work as a journalist at the Kabul Times, although he continued to harbor musical ambitions. In a country that was still learning how to relate to the Western world, Zahir’s privileged background and position enabled him to move both within the Afghan elite and mingle with influential foreigners, interactions that alerted him to the pop music coming out of the US and Britain, made by the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash and the Beatles. Within Afghanistan, Zahir was keenly interested in bands such as the Blue Sharks, Afghanistan’s first rock band, which had been formed by second-generation Filipino immigrants Chris and Danny Hilario.
As foreigners breezed through Afghanistan on the so-called “Hippie Trail” between Europe and South Asia, more and more liberal ideas began to enter Afghan culture. Women started to push for equal rights, for example, and were allowed to choose whether or not to wear a burqa. Zahir absorbed many of these lessons, although he differed from the hippies in one notable way: While they smoked marijuana, Zahir gravitated towards alcohol, newly available in Afghanistan during a trial production period in the 1960s and ’70s. His taste for alcohol ended up adding an unruly unpredictability to his instrumental and vocal talent.
As time went on, it was becoming clear to Zahir that his calling lay far from the offices of the Kabul Times. He continued to perform at private events while beginning to make a connection with Radio Afghanistan though a series of live broadcasts that would propel him to regional superstar status.
Cultivating Elvis-like sideburns and sporting flamboyant suits, Zahir took the radio performances to television, harnessing the power of image and exploiting it in pursuit of fame. A huge audience and a new form of hero worship emerged in kind, adopted from Indian celebrity culture and the fandom that greeted the stars of the Hindi films shown in Kabul’s cinemas. Soon, private shows for friends and family as well as sterile state occasions could not contain the energy and passion of Zahir’s performances. He began to organise his own concerts, at venues ranging from the Hotel Kontinental to Kabul’s larger sports stadiums, a pursuit of independent bookings unheard-of at the time in Afghan popular music.
Zahir’s fresh approach synthesized many styles that could be heard at the time across Central Asia, with influence coming from Indian, ancient classical from the Afghan Royal Court and a variety of music originating in the thriving Bollywood film industry. Traditionally, most Central Asian music came from professional (kesbi) musical families, who were commissioned to create songs for formal occasions. Amateur music (shauqi) was considerably more intimate, with rûbab (“doorway to the soul”) strings, tabla percussion and the sense of lingering hashish clouds creating a dense, heady atmosphere. It was that informal vibe that Zahir specialised in, adding extra power to the mix with his strong tenor.
Lyrically, Zahir’s songs were vivid, electric and raw, characterised by a sense of yearning but tempered with an obvious confidence in his powers of seduction (“I will so intoxicate you that you will know the meaning of intoxication,” he sings on “Tura Afsoon”). Singing in Dari but in love with Western styles, Zahir is said to have “Afghanized” many American songs, such as on his cover of Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never,” but the results still utilized traditional Afghan instruments like the rûbab and tabla and remained in 3/4 or 7/8 time.
The women loved the way he expressed himself. It was ahead of the time and rebellious.
Between 1965 and 1973 Zahir recorded numerous privately commissioned albums, including Hindi Songs, Afghanistan Songs and Laily Laily Jan. As word of his private albums spread, Zahir’s music was shared in comparatively primitive ways – most of the music in Kabul was passed around hand-to-hand via cassette tapes, which were still relatively new at the time. His first official album, titled Dilak am, arrived in 1973. Following its success, Zahir began re-recording the various portions of his massive catalogue in sessions recorded live from the Radio Kabul studios or with his friend and producer Ahmad Hamidi, who imported quality reel-to-reel equipment from London to establish the first recording studio in Kabul around 1972.
With his music omnipresent on Afghan radio, Zahir connected with leading composers and songwriters in Kabul such as Nai Nawaz and Shah Wali Taranasaz in order to create fervently-received albums such as Mother and Awara. The dynamic between the front man and his team was beginning to create something musically modern and culturally vital, the perfect soundtrack to an era defined by the optimism of independence. Meanwhile, an unprecedented fanbase developed across the region through concerts in Kabul and Herat, as Zahir became one of the first Afghan musicians to extensively tour neighbouring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
When Ahmad Zahir took the stage he was loud, frequently drunk and sexually charged, generating intense enthusiasm among female fans. “The women loved the way he expressed himself,” says Nabila Furmoly, a researcher in Afghan music at the University of Munich. “It was ahead of the time and rebellious. People from the lowest tiers of society really connected with that. They felt he was their own.”
Although he came from extreme privilege and was not averse to the trappings of fame, Zahir had a burning sense of what he perceived to be the continuing injustices at the heart of Afghan society. His political outspokenness further strengthened the emotional connection with his countrymen. According to Furmoly, who has spent much of the last few years researching the original Dari poetry that inspired Zahir’s songs, “He picked poems that explore the human themes that were relevant to his time. People still identify with that.”
Whether an ancient medieval poem or one from Iranian feminist, poet and film director Forugh Farrokhzad, Zahir made the lyrics his own. In “Tu Baraym Moqadasi,” for instance, it seems like he’s worshiping a woman, complete with cocksure horns and a mischievous bass. To Western ears, that’s a normal topic, but in Islam, to worship anything but Allah is kuffur, or “unbelief,” which meant Zahir was veering dangerously close to apostasy.
In 1973, just as Zahir’s rise to fame was accelerating, a Soviet-backed coup threw Afghanistan into political unrest, as Mohammad Daud deposed his cousin and brother-in-law King Zahir Shah to seize control. Although the Soviets sought to further modernize the country, an atmosphere of pronounced rejection of Western culture began to settle in among hardline members of society. The US-backed groups that would eventually become the mujahideen called for a return to modesty, scaling back women’s rights, as well as expressing the need for more rigid religious practise – a quite different reformist attitude from the liberalism that had accompanied Zahir’s rise. Although the peak of his career was still to come, this coup was the beginning of the end for the golden age of Zahir and his country.
In 1978, after years of tension and refusal to publicly support the new Soviet-backed regime, Zahir’s music was blacklisted from Afghan radio. Zahir had already been the victim of a smear campaign launched by the Soviets, who lofted accusations that he had murdered his first wife, and this confluence of events inspired a marked shift in Zahir’s lyrical focus. Whereas economic inequality might have been a major talking point before, it was now largely supplanted by more explicitly political and partisan lyrics. His live performances became more and more provocative, taking cues from one of his musical heroes, John Lennon.
Over the rousing percussion of “Ajab Sabri Khoda Darad,” which was recorded around 1976, Zahir sings; “If I were God…when seeing one shivering and naked and another clothed in a hundred colours, I would tear up the earth and sky.” The nationalistic “Zindagi Akhir,” adapted from the poetry of Heraf Sherazi, is amongst the most familiar to Western ears of all his songs. Its wandering guitar solo is enticing, full of both sadness and hope. He sings: “If submission were enough, then there’s no need for living.” In the same song he uses the word “Aab,” literally “water,” but also “to liquefy,” expressing how freedom was being diluted rather than flowing freely through Afghanistan.
One of the last songs Zahir recorded in Afghanistan was “Man Nagoyam,” and the prophetic lyrics use the metaphor of a bird trapped inside a cage: “Liberate me, liberate me, liberate me. Oh, how the thought of homelessness haunts me. Please save my home.”
With the country crumbling around him, Zahir made the decision to flee Afghanistan once his daughter was born. On June 14, 1979, his wife, Fahira, had a nightmare in which her husband was separated from her. She awoke later that day to find crowds surging into her home, carrying Ahmad Zahir’s corpse. It would have been Zahir’s 33rd birthday.
The official line is that Zahir died in a car crash in Kabul, but his family, friends and supporters have always disputed this explanation. Ahmad’s sister Zahira told PUL TV in 2009 that their father was forced to sign a phony account of his son’s death before the authorities would return the body.
As for Zahir’s daughter, the shock of Fahira seeing her dead husband induced an immediate, near-fatal labor. Today Shabnam Zahir shares both her father’s birthday and, unfortunately, his death date.
Music in Afghanistan since Zahir’s death has largely dovetailing with the political climate of the country. In 1979, Communist tanks had again rolled into the country to brutally suppress an uprising in Herat, resulting in the slaughter of over 30,000 Afghans. In the mid-’80s, the Soviets were finally usurped by U.S.-backed mujahideens, who themselves eventually gave way to the harsh regime of the Taliban. Many surviving Afghan musicians went into exile in Pakistan.
The Taliban ceremonially burnt tapes and instruments and desecrated Zahir’s grave. Struggling to keep this music alive, one popular ploy was to keep approved tapes of Quranic recitations in the car, alongside those cassettes containing forbidden instrumental music. The tapes praising the prophet Mohammad were kept handy to be played at checkpoints, but once travellers were out of earshot it was back to Ahmad Zahir and his contemporaries.
During the period of Taliban control, proprietors of secular music shops could be jailed if they were found selling banned music. However, after the occupation of US and British forces post-2001, copies of Zahir’s albums began to emerge again. Today, there is a row of shops in Kabul selling cassettes of contemporary music, and Zahir continues to be a popular purchase even among youth born decades after his death. In films like The Kite Runner and Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake, Zahir’s music is used as an accompaniment to haunting images of present-day Afghanistan, but today those Afghan markets are the prime spots to pick up tapes from a less-troubled era.
Just as Fela Kuti in Nigeria or Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in Brazil, the emotional power of Zahir’s music, combined with an explicit political message and meditation on eternal themes, continues to excite fans, musicians and collectors both in Afghanistan and beyond. Zahir’s recordings have recently earned the attention of a new global audience through a slew of reissues, including the Guerssen’s label Hip ’70s Afghan Beats. According to label owner Antoni Gorgues, the circumstances of obtaining Zahir’s music were as opaque as many of the details of his life – they had significant difficulty confirming that Yamma Naim, the Radio Kabul employee supplying the tapes, was actually the person who he claimed to be. Even in a new market, the provenance of Zahir’s music couldn’t help retaining a mythic quality.
In 2005, Jean-Pierre Guinhut, the French Ambassador to Afghanistan, said that “The death of musicians through war should be commemorated in history as one of the worst crimes against humanity.” In the 22 years following Zahir’s death, music in Afghanistan was, at best, controlled by the state, and, at worst, outlawed. However, Zahir’s legacy has become even more potent.
Today in Afghanistan, one of the few places where men and women, young and old, rich and poor can mix comfortably is at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 1974. In spite of a bomb that destroyed its concert hall in 2014, it remains a symbol of defiance and hope in dark times. As the ethnologist John Blacking, a student of Afghan music, says, “Music is essential for the survival of man’s humanity. Afghans have a very strong sense of humanity.” Today in Kabul, there is an FM radio station broadcasting only Zahir’s music – rarely in the 5,000 years of the city’s history has one voice been so heard so widely.