Some years ago, I was traveling across Afghanistan when the Afghans in the car said we had to stop to buy some music. They said I could not understand Afghanistan unless I heard Ahmad Zahir.
Zahir is the latest of NPR's 50 Great Voices, in which we're discovering influential singers around the world — living or dead, famous or not.
The list includes Zahir, who's sometimes seen as Afghanistan's Elvis. His lifelong fans include a man who grew up with his music: Amin Tarzi. Tarzi, our guide to 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.
"He looked like Elvis," Tarzi says. "I think his hairdo was very much an Elvis."
Zahir was a showman who, appropriately enough, once recorded an Elvis tune — 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.
"When I listen to him today, it brings a time that I would call my innocence. Afghanistan became a desperate country, but his voice teaches me the time when Afghanistan was a hopeful country," Tarzi says. "At the time when I was in Kabul, I was a romantic kid. I liked a girl four years older than me. ... In Afghanistan, we didn't date, but through his songs, I lived those ambitions."
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. As the son of a former prime minister, he moved easily among Kabul's cultural elite.
His bands moved between the Asian drum called a tabla and Western instruments like the accordion, and he sang of love, explicitly.
"[He sang], 'Your smell rises still, your smell from my bed. The burn of your love is still in my body.' It's pretty provocative," Tarzi says. "Some people liked the lyrics; some people were offended by the lyrics. For a lot of people, it was a freedom. 'Here, we can talk about an issue that Afghanistan has not touched upon.' "
That was not Zahir's only edgy subject. As governments fell, as communists came into power, as the country deteriorated, he sang about poverty. One song in particular, Tarzi described as a protest — not only to the government, but a protest to God. Justice was a central theme of his music, and it resonated with the Afghan population.
"For better or for worse, he is the symbol of an Afghanistan that nobody thinks is going to come back in their lifetime," Tarzi says. "He is the symbol of the good old days."