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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some years ago, I was traveling across Afghanistan when the Afghans in the car said we had to stop. We had to buy some music. They said I could not understand Afghanistan unless I heard Ahmad Zahir.

Mr. AHMAD ZAHIR (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Ahmad Zahir is the latest of NPR's 50 Great Voices. We're discovering influential singers around the world living or dead, famous or not. Zahir is sometimes seen as Afghanistan's Elvis. His lifelong fans include a man who grew up with his music: Amin Tarzi.

Dr. AMIN TARZI (Marine Corps College): He looked like Elvis. I think his hairdo was very much an Elvis hairdo. He did some of the things with shaking his tush, and he had a lot of that. He was a showman.

INSKEEP: A showman who, appropriately enough, once recorded an Elvis tune.

(Soundbite of song. Its Now or Never)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing) It's now or never, come hold me tight. Kiss me my darling...

INSKEEP: And just like Elvis, the Afghan singer kept his fan base for decades after he died in the 1970s. When you hear his story, you learn a lot about how people relate to music. And you learn even more about Afghanistan.

Dr. TARZI: When I listen to him today, it brings a time - I would call it my innocence. Afghanistan became a desperate country, but his voice teaches me the time when Afghanistan was a hopeful country.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Amin Tarzi, our guide to Ahmad Zahir's life and music, is a U.S. citizen now and teaches at the Marine Corps College. In the '70s, he was a boy growing up in Afghanistan.

Dr. TARZI: I was at - say, age of 12, 13. I was a very romantic kid.

INSKEEP: What do you mean, romantic?

Dr. TARZI: You know, I kind of lived through his songs. I actually liked a girl four years older than me. We didnt date. In Afghanistan, we didn't date people, especially not four years older than yourself, you know, at age 12. But...

INSKEEP: But you had ambitions?

Dr. TARZI: I had ambitions. And through these songs, I would live those ambitions.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing in foreign language)

Dr. TARZI: I have to say that his voice was not my favorite voice, but Ahmad Zahir was more about what he said, how he said it, and what people said about him.

INSKEEP: Ahmad Zahir became a star in the years just before Afghanistan descended into more than 30 years of war. It was a happier time, though the government was rapidly becoming unstable. Zahir was the son of a former prime minister. He moved easily among Kabul's cultural elite. His bands moved between the Asian drum, called the tabla, and Western instruments like the accordion. And he sang of love - explicitly.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Whats he singing?

Dr. TARZI: (Foreign language spoken), your smell rises still. (Foreign language spoken), your smell from my bed. And he says your - (foreign language spoken) literally means your pain, you know - the burn of your love is still on my body. So it's pretty provocative. Some people liked the lyrics; some people were offended by the lyrics because, you know, here is a man who comes in Afghanistan of 1970s. You know, its a conservative country. For a lot of people, it was a kind of a freedom. Here, we can talk about an issue that Afghanistan has not touched upon: A man and a woman were in bed, and now the man is singing about the smell of that woman in his bed.

INSKEEP: Nor was that Ahmad Zahir's only edgy subject. As governments fell, as communists came into power, as the country deteriorated, he sang about poverty.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing in foreign language)

Dr. TARZI: He says in one place, somebody is wearing a silken robe and the other person is walking with bare feet. In one place, you see here that the laughter over good food and somebody else is hungry. And here he keeps on saying that if I were in place of this person, I would have ripped the sky.

INSKEEP: How should I think of this song? Is this a protest song?

Dr. TARZI: Its a protest song, yeah. It is a protest not only to the government; its a protest, I would even say, to God.

INSKEEP: He is saying, as some great, religious character might say: Why, God? Why is this happening?

Dr. TARZI: Yes, exactly. And in Afghanistan, one thing that is very important in the culture where we are talking: The issue of justice is paramount. If you dont talk about that, you dont capture anybodys mind. And he did talk about it in different levels - the injustice of the lover to the beloved, the injustice of the cup going empty. This combination, I think, is what makes him one of the greats.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. TARZI: And then he also sings another song, which is very iconic - that, my death will occur in a sunny day in the spring. So people after the fact, they say that, you know, he actually foresaw his own death.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: How did he die?

Dr. TARZI: Up to today, everybody who knows him would tell you that he was murdered by the Communist regime. He was very open about his criticism of the country, where if you say a word about the regime, you would get killed, and he was openly attacking this regime. The Afghan government, at the time, claimed that he died in a car accident. Everybody up to today says he was murdered by the Communists. And at the funeral, everybodys walking behind Ahmad Zahirs hearse. We all did. My school - we didnt ask our teachers. This is the communist time, where you cant even, you know, you have to stand up and sit down, every classroom just emptied out. People would climb on trees just to see; it was impossible to even get close to it.

INSKEEP: Im beginning to get a sense of what has made this man last. Were doing this series on great voices. But you said, strictly speaking, this is not a great voice; its not the greatest Afghan voice.

Dr. TARZI: Some people will kill me for that, but no, I dont think he is a great voice. Id say that musically speaking, hes good, but hes not great. It is his other aspects that make him iconic in Afghanistan and beyond. For better or worse, he is the symbol of an Afghanistan that nobody thinks is going to come back in their lifetime. He is the symbol of this - good old days, a bygone time that those of us who lived it, think about it, and the young Afghans dream of it.

INSKEEP: Thats Amin Tarzi, speaking of Afghanistans Ahmad Zahir, one of NPRs 50 Great Voices.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZAHIR: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: You can see and hear more at npr.org. Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

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