• Birth name Ahmad Toryalai Zahir
  • Born 14 June 1946 Laghman Province, Afghanistan
  • Died 14 June 1979 (aged 33)
  • Years active 1967–1979
  • Also known as Afghanistan Elvis Presley

Most experts define music as an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, and harmony. From historical accounts, it is clear that music has the power to move people; its ecstatic possibilities have been recognized in all cultures and have usually been admitted in practice under particular conditions, sometimes stringent ones. Therefore, many like the description given by Sa’di in the Gulistan.

No musician! Far is he from this happy abode
No one ever saw him twice in the same place
As soon as the shout rose from his mouth
The hair on the bodies Of the people stood on end
The hair on the bodies Of the people stood on end
Whilst he distracted Our senses and tore his throat.

In a 1989 article entitled “Afghan Music,” Dr. Javid tells us that the history of Afghan music goes back 5,000 years starting with the Vodi and Gathas of the Zoroastrian civilization. He says, “It is mentioned by Rigveda poets that the sound of music has been heard from the palace of Yama, the first king of Aryana.” It has been suggested that the advent of Ustad Qasim Afghan and his contemporaries signified the cross over from traditional folk music, which had its roots in the ancient culture, to modern Afghan music. Unlike traditional folk musicians, these modern musicians played songs written by known individuals, usually professionals, and in doing so moved away from the process of oral transmission. These early pioneers of modern Afghan music were also active in the movement for Afghanistan’s Independence in the early 20th century. This period of enlightenment brought great Ustads such as Shaida, Amir Mohammad, Brishna, Nabigul, Yaqub Qasimi, Ghulam Hussain, Hussain Sarahang and Rahimbaksh.

By exploring the ways we remember Ahmad Zahir-from the endless repackaging of his music to the more serious reappraisals of his significance in contemporary culture-we come to see this modern icon, as well as ourselves, in a new and different light. Although I was only four years old when Ahmad Zahir left this world, his music and legacy has reinforced and kept in touch with my Afghan heritage. In Ahmad Zahir’s words, “awaleen eshqam” (my first love) was his beautiful songs; in particular “Leyli Leyli Jon” was my foremost attraction to Afghan music.

In the course of conducting my study into Ahmad Zahir’s life, I noticed that less than meager amounts of printed materials have been devoted to his artistic career. I encourage our intellectuals to concentrate some of their precious time reserved for politics to retrieve our heritage. Due to a scarcity of available information, I hope that I might do the late Ahmad Zahir justice because he was such a spectacular person who is not easily described on paper, especially in such a brief article.

What made Ahmad Zahir spectacular were not just his songs but also how unpretentious he was from his childhood to his days of celebrity fame. Ahmad Zahir was born on the 23rd of Jauza, 1325 (June 13, 1946) in Laghman, Afghanistan, the third child of Dr. Abdul Zahir. He was the most celebrated popular Afghan music phenomenon of his era and, for many, the purest embodiment of modern Afghan music. Ahmad Zahir’s life and career have become part of music legend for many Afghans.

Ahmad Zahir’s father, the late Dr. Abdul Zahir, was born into a rural family in the Nangarhar Province. He finished his secondary school in Kabul and attended University in the United States. He received his Ph.D. in the medical profession from the United States. Upon his return to Afghanistan, he rose through the ranks of Minister of Health, President of Parliament, and finally Prime Minister.

As far as one can tell, Ahmad Zahir was not born into a musically rich family and his earliest musical influence was not family members. Therefore, the artistic talents of Ahmad Zahir developed naturally. His son, Rishad Zahir, informs us “He would buy new records and keep up the date musically. He loved music of other cultures such as European, American, Indian and so on.” Although his immediate family nurtured his interest in music, most high-ranking Kabulis were not interested in musical professions.

Still, young Ahmad Zahir followed his own dreams and ambitions. According to Rishad Zahir, the first instrument that Ahmad Zahir learned to play was the mandolin. He knew the quality of his talents very well and wanted to maximize those talents. Ahmad Zahir’s first significant step towards a musical career took place when he was in high school at the age of fifteen. His debut song “Aye Bulbul-I Shorideh” was performed at Hibibia High School. Ahmad Zahir was still a ninth grader when he made appearances on the stage at school concerts with the accordion, his favorite instrument. By memorizing his lyrics, he was free to effectively interact with the crowd. Young Ahmad Zahir had become skilled at elevating his schoolmates’ spirits and in return his schoolmates awarded him title of “Bulbul-I-Habibia”(Nightingale of Habibia). While in high school, he and others formed a band called “Amatorha-I-Lycee Habibia” at Kabul Nindari, Ahmad Zahir was awarded the title “Star of Lycee Habibia.”

In 1961 (1340) at the old Radio Kabul building, a group of amateur musicians assembled and formed an orchestra, which included Ahmad Zahir. This group’s first public concert was held at Cinema-e-Kabul. Three years later, Ahmad Zahir held his first formal solo concert. The song with which he debuted at Lycee Habibia, “Aye Bulbul-I Shorideh”, was also his first song recorded at Radio Afghanistan.

After his father was appointed Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Ahmad Zahir continued his studies in the field of education in New Delhi. Apart from his studies, Ahmad Zahir did not neglect his musical career. The influence of great Indian musical legends fastened his interest to music. As a result, he left his studies and arrived at the presence of great musical masters. During his two years in India, he absorbed an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience.

Upon his return to Afghanistan in 1969, Ahmad Zahir accepted a position at Kabul Times and simultaneously was employed at Afghan Films. At this time, Ahmad Zahir also got married. More astonishing than these turning points was the evolution of Ahmad Zahir’s musical talent at the youthful age of twenty-three. He had developed into a complete musician who had excellent knowledge of Western and Eastern arts of music.

At this time, Ahmad Zahir was starting to become a popular musical artist, not just among his fans but also throughout the entire country. Ahmad Zahir tried to satisfy the demands of various segments in society. He did that by choosing bewitching lyrics and rhythms. His choice of poetry included classical Pashto and Dari poets, his era’s contemporary poets, and also young aspiring poets like Hafiz Shirazi, Sa’di Shirazi, Jalaluddin Balkhi, Pashman Bakhtjaar, Dr. M.H.A. Ibaadi, Froghi Basmaani, Rai Mehri, Ghulam Reza Qudsi, Yasemin Bahbahani, Ustad Khalilullah Khalili, Mehdi Sahidi, Bhadur Jagaana, Hussain Manzowi, Nizam Wafa, Abu Al-Qasim Lahuti, Dr. A. Dehqaan, and Sadiq Sarmat. However, Ahmad Zahir also wrote his own lyrical poems such as “Ghwaab az chashmaanam raboudi,” “Boye tu khizad hanooz,” “Iyn shehr ra baraaye tu megoyam,” “Bigardam doure khaakat maadare man,” and “Aye khuda maadare man baaz ba man dee.”

Although he accepted works from great composers such as the late Naynawaz and Taranasaz, the majority of his musical compositions were his own. Ahmad Zahir also adapted Indian, Spanish, French, English, and American compositions to his lyrics. Rishad Zahir informs us, “Most of his compositions were his own for he had a great talent and creativity for composing.” He, himself, played the mandolin, accordion, harmonium, and organ. His music was unique because it included many traditional as well as modern instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, organ, tabla, drums, guitar, rubab, harmonium, piano and accordion.

Unlike the current trend in music, Ahmad Zahir did not copy others and revered originality. In fact, he once remarked, “Copy khani hunar nist.” (Copying is not a talent). His style of music evolved into his own unique musical identity. “Ahmad Zahir’s School of Music,” is followed by younger musicians even today, twenty years after his death. One reason for this is Ahmad Zahir’s liking for complicated developments and love-stricken endings in his songs. Hence, these musicians are drawn and attracted to the magnetism of Ahmad Zahir’s golden voice and music.

By 1973 (1352), Ahmad Zahir’s popularity had developed into a national frenzy. According to his son, “In 1973, at the zenith of his career, my parents separated. This was during the time when he held more concerts and was touring in other cities in Afghanistan. The love of the audience for him and his music was growing increasingly.” He had become an icon and his popularity spilled over national boundaries. He sang “Banu Banu” while on tour in Iran. During this time, Ahmad Zahir earned the national title, “Singer of the Year.” In his acceptance speech, he advised future musicians that “Ghorur shikast hunari bar mewarad…riqabati hunari bayad sahlim bashad nah hasahdat amiz.”

In spite of his free-spirited posturing, Ahmad Zahir remained studiously polite to his elders and was devoted to his mother. In fact, his mother’s death came at a stressful time in his life. It moved him so much that he wrote one of him most passionate songs for her: “Binazam qalbi pak az madar-e- man siya shood, khuda-ya madaram az man juda shood.” Ahmad Zahir himself created an aesthetic vocabulary for dealing with joy, love, pain, and loneliness through his music that is unparalleled by modern musicians.

Although Ahmad Zahir had not followed in his father’s footsteps at becoming a statesman, he did retained most of his late father’s political nature and intelligence. Instead of expressing himself from behind the lectern, he made his people’s beliefs known by carefully researching, selecting and performing suitable poems as songs in the recording studio and private gatherings. Like early 20th century Afghan musicians, Ahmad Zahir had matured into a brilliant musician, but more importantly he had become a national figure of acclaim.

Ahmad Zahir’s song “Zindagi akhir sarayad” was a poem concerning man’s relationship to God. However, the fact that he chose to sing these radical lyrics “zindagi akhir sarayad, bandagi dar car-o nist, bandagi dar shart-o bashad, zindagi dar car-o nist,” displays the views of a revolutionary artist. The lyrics convey to us that we should act on our plans right now for tomorrow is too late. Ahmad Zahir like progress and when the country became a republic in 1973, he congratulated the new government by singing two songs “Da Jamhoriat” and “Mubarak Jamhori Mubarak.” Accordingly, when he noticed that the republic was full of empty promises he again raised his voice. His song “Ilahi man namedanam, bah ilmi khood tu medani,” which was recorded and played on the radio became a controversial song in the mid-70’s. According to insiders, the song’s verse “Tu padshah-e haft kishwar” drew some criticism from the government. The Administration assumed Ahmad Zahir had denounced President Daoud Khan who was also Minister of numerous Cabinet positions. Soon radios stopped playing the song because of political pressure levied by the government. However, that did not bother the free-spirited Ahmad Zahir.

When April 1978 the republic was replaced by a dictatorial regime led by President Taraki and then eventually Hafizullah Amin, everyone was fearful for their lives minute-by-minute and nobody was safe from the regime, even their comrades-in-arms. Yet, Ahmad Zahir built up courage among those in the resistance movement against oppression. In one of the private recordings of Ahmad Zahir, he voiced political protest against the Taraki-Amin regime in at least three songs. One song “Safar bih roshenahi” contains straightforward demonstrative lyrics: “Chi mulk ra baad az shahi deda bashi, pas az shahi gadahi maslihat nist, safar bih roshenahi maslihat nist.” Moreover, then he refers to Traci as Tahriki (darkness) during his song. In another song, he points out to the gathering lyrics that describe dictatorship, “Fikri khood-o raahi khood, dar alam rindi-ney, tu past-o dari beh mashab, khood-binih o khood rahi, aye baad shaahi khuban.” In the last song “Bigzarad bigzarad umre man bigzarad,” he mocks Taraki. Ahmad Zahir even mentions that they could get imprisoned for this defiant act. He was a very patriot Afghan as was reflected in his song “Aye hum watan, aye Nehru-e balinda-e jawed, khoosh bash keh baz akhtar -e amwali tu tahbi, aye ranj-o bahr aye car-e tu sazinda-e dowran, dowran ze tu-o qudrat-e jawaid-it tu bahli.” Maybe it was written in the stars for him not the around when the Red Army invaded in December 1979. One can only imagine how much sorrow he would have felt at the current situation in Afghanistan and its scattered people. He took ethics, his people’s wishes and societal benefits into consideration when writing or selecting poems to be performed.

Unfortunately for his family, friends, and his country this young man was taken from the ones he loved so much through an alleged traffic accident north of the Salang Kotal on Wednesday, Jauza 23, 1358 (June 13, 1979). Many people including his son are convinced the traffic accident story was a cover up for an assassination by the Taraki-Amin regime. He remarks, “It was a way for the government to intimidate other people, so they would not stand up against the regime.” Ahmad Zahir (33 years old) turned his eyes form this world on the same day he was born into this world. The night before his death, he was awaiting the birth of his second child. Ahmad Zahir had said that he would name the child, Shabnam. Rishad Zahir laments that, “His life was cut short while another precious life, Shabnam’s was coming into his life. He was happy and looking forward to his new life with his new wife and new child.”

Ahmad Zahir left behind two children, Rishad (29 years old) and Shabnam (20 years old). Rishad Zahir was born in Seattle, Washington while his parents were on vacation. He and his family left Afghanistan in 1979 and after a brief stay in Germany, they immigrated to the United States. Like her stepbrother, Shabnam and her immediate family immigrated to the United States in the early 1980’s. She is attending university at this time.

Loss and mourning loom over Ahmad Zahir’s life and legacy. Since his tragic death, he has embodied our culture’s feelings of loss and has become an object of mourning, of fantasy and of desire. Some say certain humans are in touch with their sixth sense. Is that what compelled Ahmad Zahir to sing, “Marg-e man roz-e fara khaahad raseed dar bahar-e rowshan az am-mawj-e bood” (the day of my death will come in bright spring). IN any case, true to those lyrics thousands of his compatriots followed his casket to his burial site. No one had ever witnessed such an enormous gathering for the funeral of even a king in the history of modern Afghanistan.

From the time of this death in 1979, it had become an annual event to gather at Ahmad Zahir’s gravesite and pay homage to the people’s fallen friend and favorite musician. This event lasted until 1992 when Kabul finally fell and was engulfed in warfare. Surprisingly, after seven years, this past June 4th at Chabot College in Northern California, “A Night of Tribute to Ahmad Zahir,” attended by about 350 people was hosted. The event’s purpose was twofold: to honor one of Afghanistan’s biggest national and cultural icons and to raise funds for Afghans living in utter poverty in Afghanistan and regional countries. All profits went to different associations such as the Voice of Children and Children of War. This proves that even today, Ahmad Zahir has luring charm in assembling crowds of musical spectators as he did in the music halls in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Zahir worked hard all his life directing his God-given talents to create a legacy of music for everyone to enjoy. Very early in life, as a result of his efforts, he realized all the benefits that life has to offer fame, fortune and success. To all those who lives he touched, whom he gave great love, friendship, trust, respect, help and kindness, he will always be highly revered, loved and respected by his fans and all those who knew him.

One of Ahmad Zahir’s greatest contributions to Afghan society was his dedication to the revival of folkloric songs. He also reacquainted Afghans with the classical literature of Maulana Balkhi and other great mystics. Ahmad Zahir’s songs such as “Tu tu dani tu,” “Mara Aan rooz geryan afaeedan,” and “Pooshida choon jan merawee” are a few of his typical mystical (tassawufi) style songs. Poems from such greats became lyrics for his songs; as a result, he captivated and cultivated listeners into lovers of fine literature. He gave these revived poems and songs as a present to future generations of Afghans.

Regrettably due to his short life he could not completely fulfill his artistic goals. WE can just imagine his potential success by benchmarking his part to his contemporaries. If Ahmad Zahir had lived he would have been 53 years old and most likely would have been the most honored musician since the death of Ustad Sarahang. In contrast to today’s commercial rhythm and beat driven market, Ahmad Zahir was a unique and versatile musicians who knew how to write lyrics and compose meaningful songs as well as upbeat melodies. He expanded his horizon by traveling abroad to India, Iran, Australia, Europe and the United States. Ahmad Zahir sang in Pashto, Dari, Hindi and English.

He will go down in Afghan history as the man who changed the course of music in the later part of the 20th century and will be forever recognized as one of the greatest entertainers whose life was cut short before attaining the “Ustad” title. He had a great skill at being the first to select and debut melodious songs such as “Zimzim Zimzim Kajaki” that Ustad Mawash, who had received the title of “Ustad” in the 1970’s, sang in Iran. Rishad Zahir reminds us that, “He was very dedicated to the path that he had chosen, by constantly recording new cassettes.” Throughout his life, Ahmad Zahir recorded about twenty-two cassettes. The last songs to be recorded at Radio Afghanistan studios were “Badaha khaal-ist.” Shah Wali Wali “Taranasaz” later changed it and sang it as “Kalaha khaal-ist adam-e danha kujast.”

The late abdur Rahman Pazhwak long ago wrote in his book, Aryana, “It would be a pity if music, so much a part of the people, disappears.” Unfortunately, today most of the ancient traditional folksongs and modern Afghan songs are unrecoverable in the rumble of Kabul’s pillage. However, with growing technological advances we are able to preserve and share some remnants that have been left behind. For example, almost one year after his death, two video records from the television studios were made public by the new government in e1980. Recently, a set of twenty-six of Ahmad Zahir’s CDs was produced, including radio songs and majlisi songs. Still, more intriguing is that Ahmad Zahir never knew about the Internet, but today a site http://www.ahmadzahir.com/ dedicated to him is becoming very popular. He once recited, “Mard namirad bah marg, marg az-o naam jost, naam chi jawaid shood, mordanish awsan kojast.” This charismatic musician will forever influence Afghans but this time Ahmad Zahir will do it broadly via cyberspace throughout the world.

His music provided a healing for some people. They have said that Ahmad Zahir’s music gave them comfort and helped them through difficult times in their lives such as period so depression, lengthy illness, turmoil, loneliness and grief. Others have said that his music brought them much happiness and gave them a joyous escape from the drudgery and stressful aspects of their day-to-day living. Ahmad Zahir was indeed a very talented and gifted person who gave us a beautiful legacy of uplifting and healing music.

Ahmad Zahir’s kind ways and beliefs did not change with fame and celebrity. According to Rishad Zahir, “It needs to be mentioned that it was not music alone that attracted people towards him. He had a compassionate heart and felt deeply for the poor, needy and weak.” Nevertheless, he was also very outgoing and had a lot of positive energy that brought joy to whomever was in his presence. Ahmad Zahir will be remembered for his invigorating singing style, dynamic stage performances, insatiable smile, long cowlicks, spidery side-burns, extreme allure, intelligence, patriotism and generous love for humanity. Both he and his music are very special gifts given to us by God. All we can say to Ahmad Zahir is what he once brought into verse, “Khuda buwad yar-it, Quran nigah dar-it.”  (May God be your friend and Quran your protector).

By: Mir Hekmatullah Sadat