Ahmad Zahir: The enduring appeal of the Afghan Elvis
There is some dream-like footage online of a 1970s gig at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, showing an energetic figure leading a multi-instrumental band. The performer’s hip looks (dark quiff and sideburns; loosened tie) and rollicking, psych-roots grooves reflect the ‘Afghan Elvis’ nickname he earned.
This was Ahmad Zahir, pop culture sensation and the son of Afghanistan’s former prime minister: during a booming ‘golden age’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was a prolific recording artist and a music idol for the masses. Zahir’s music drew from Persian poetry as well as Indian classical styles, and it increasingly revealed a political edge.
On 14 June, 1979, his 33rd birthday, Zahir died in mysterious circumstances (officially a car crash, but some have questioned that). On hearing the news, his pregnant wife Fahira went into premature labour, giving birth to a baby girl, Shabnam. Nearly 40 years later, Shabnam and US film director Sam French are collaborating on a Kickstarter-funded documentary about her father’s life.
“If there’s a common thread that brings Afghans together, it’s my father’s music,” Shabnam Zahir tells me, from her home in the US. “There are so many ethnic groups in Afghanistan; he tuned into that, and would do concerts in all these different locations. He’d change people’s views of one another.”
Despite never having the chance to know her father personally, Shabnam Zahir has grown up with a sense of his legacy. Her half-brother Rishad (from Zahir’s first marriage) has also pursued music and Dari literature. Shabnam is conscious that for all the Western prime-time political coverage about Afghanistan, the country’s musical and cultural heritage is largely overlooked.
尽管沙布南・查希尔从来没有见过她的父亲，但她从小就对父亲留下的遗产有着深刻的认识。 她同父异母的哥哥里沙德(查希尔第一次婚姻所生)也追求音乐和达利语文学。达利语是阿富汗人使用的一种波斯语方言。 沙布南・查希尔意识到，尽管西方媒体在电视黄金时段对阿富汗进行了大量政治报道，但这个国家的音乐和文化遗产在很大程度上被忽视了。
“The media exposure that is so clouded with negativity and despair… it’s heart-breaking,” she says. “As young Afghans who grew up in Europe and the States, that’s not what we were told. Women would dance the shimmy and the twist at my father’s concerts, and they’d have no reservations about it! Now, his music takes listeners back to a country that was progressive and hopeful.”
She has her personal favourite tracks from her father’s catalogue; she picks out the swirling, spiritual melody of Ay Qawme Be Haj Rafta (based on Rumi’s poem, O You Who Have Gone On Pilgrimage), and by contrast, the polemical Zindagi Akhir Sarayat, which the government banned from radio airplay. She explains: “Translated to English, the song’s refrain is: ‘Freedom and liberty mean life to mankind. There’s no need for submission, fight for your freedom.’”
她从父亲的音乐目录中挑选了自己最喜欢的歌曲；她挑选了旋转的灵魂乐《 Ay Qawme Be Haj Rafta 》(根据古波斯诗人鲁米的诗歌《哦，那个去朝圣的人》《 o You Who Have Gone On Pilgrimage 》改编) ，与之形成对比的是引起争端的《 Zindagi Akhir Sarayat 》，政府禁止播放这首歌。 她解释道，“翻译成英文，这首歌的副歌是：自由和解放就是着人类的生命，不要屈服，要为你的自由而战。”
Film director French first encountered Ahmad Zahir’s music when he visited Afghanistan in 2008; French’s intended brief trip actually became a stay of several years, as he was inspired to create films including the Oscar-nominated short Buzkashi Boys (2012).
电影导演弗伦奇第一次接触艾哈迈德 ・ 查希尔的音乐是在2008年他访问阿富汗的时候。弗伦奇原本计划的短暂旅行实际上变成了几年的停留，因为他受到启发去创作电影，包括奥斯卡提名的短片《马背叼羊男孩》(Buzkashi Boys，2012)。
“He [Ahmad Zahir] provided a window into the complex cultural landscape of an often misunderstood country, a place with a rich tradition of music and art,” enthuses French. “I became passionate about making films that showed another side of Afghanistan than the one we see on the news, and the story of this remarkable man presents the perfect opportunity to explore a country that most people in the West have never seen.
“My hope is that in these times of strife, with tribalism and xenophobia on the rise, the story of Ahmad Zahir can show how art and music can unite us.”
“我的希望是，在这些纷争不断、部落主义和排外主义抬头的时代，艾哈迈德 ・ 查希尔的故事能够展示艺术和音乐如何将我们团结起来。”
Marching to a different beat
The British musician and academic John Baily has devoted decades to the research of Afghan music, originally moving to the city of Herat with his wife, fellow ethnomusicologist Veronica Doubleday, in the mid-‘60s. In his richly layered book War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan, Baily explores Afghanistan’s music culture from 1970 onwards (noting that the “wealthy and cosmopolitan” Ahmad Zahir “when not accompanying himself on the ‘armonia or piano accordian… was accompanied by instruments such as trumpet, electric guitar, and trap drum set, instruments not available to the average amateur enthusiast”).
英国音乐家、学者约翰・贝利(John Baily)花了数十年时间研究阿富汗音乐。60年代中期，他与妻子、民族音乐学家维罗妮卡・道布尔戴(Veronica Doubleday)最初搬到了阿富汗古城赫拉特。在他层次丰富的《战争、流亡与阿富汗音乐》(War，Exile and the Music of Afghanistan)一书中，贝利探讨了自1970年以来阿富汗的音乐文化，注意到“富有和大城市的”音乐人艾哈迈德・查希尔，“在没有和声或手风琴伴奏的时候... ...其伴奏的乐器包括小号、电吉他和爵士鼓，这些乐器对于一般的业余音乐爱好者来说是不可能的。”
Baily charts the rise of the US-backed mujahideen, the era of Taliban rule, and a sense of modern recovery with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded by musicologist Ahmad Sarmast in 2010. Baily also notes that in 2011, a Kabul FM radio station was dedicated solely to the songs of Ahmad Zahir.
贝利回溯了了美国支持的圣战者组织的崛起、塔利班统治的时代，指出音乐学家艾哈迈德・萨马斯特(Ahmad Sarmast) 2010年创建阿富汗国家音乐学院代表阿富汗现代意识的复兴。贝利还指出，2011年，喀布尔调频广播电台专门播放艾哈迈德‧查希尔的歌曲。
“Ahmad Zahir is a legend for Afghanistan, for all generations,” declares the genial Sarmast, when I call him in Kabul. “It was about the style of his performance, and his musical forms; there are a lot of adaptations from Indian music, Western forms adapted with beautiful poetry, a strong folk music influence, and a sense of social responsibility… the variety means everyone can find themselves in Ahmad Zahir.”
为人亲切的萨马斯特在喀布尔接受我的采访时说， “艾哈迈德 ・ 查希尔是阿富汗好几代人中的传奇人物， 这与他的表演风格和音乐形式有关。他的歌曲很多改编自印度音乐，有配上优美诗歌的西方音乐形式，强大的民间音乐感染力，以及一种社会责任感... ...这种多样性意味着每个人都能在艾哈迈德 ・ 查希尔身上找到自我。”
As a student, Sarmast attended several of Zahir’s concerts: “He was extremely lively on stage, full of movement and happiness C that distinguished him from other singers in Afghanistan,” he recalls. “Every single concert was sold out; the audience would be on the dancefloor in front of the stage, clapping to the rhythm of each particular song.”
He also clearly remembers Zahir’s death: “In reality, it was a day of national mourning,” he says. “Afghanistan was slowly becoming a police state, yet there were hundreds of people carrying Ahmad Zahir’s body to state C and I was one of those people. We left our school to join the crowds.”
他还清楚地记得查希尔之死。他说，“那天实际上已成为全国哀悼日。当时阿富汗正慢慢地变成一个警察国家，但仍有数百上千人抬着艾哈迈德 ・ 查希尔的遗体示威，我就是其中之一。我们离开学校，加入了人群。”
Sarmast left Afghanistan during its ongoing civil war in the ‘90s, and continued his musical studies in Russia and Australia. He returned to launch the Afghanistan National Institute of Music; his own father, the eminent Afghan musician, composer and conductor Ustad Salim Sarmast, had been an orphan, and Sarmast was inspired to create life-changing opportunities for disadvantaged students. He has faced extremely serious risks in the process: in 2014, he was nearly killed in a Taliban bomb attack C surgeons removed 11 pieces of shrapnel from his head, and restored partial hearing after both his eardrums were torn.
90年代阿富汗内战期间，萨尔马斯特离开阿富汗，在俄罗斯和澳大利亚继续学习音乐。他回国创办了阿富汗国家音乐学院。他的父亲，著名的阿富汗音乐家、作曲家和指挥家乌斯塔德阿・萨利姆 ・ 萨尔马斯特(Ustad Salim Sarmast)是一个孤儿，萨尔马斯特受到启发，决心为贫困学生创造改变人生的机会。在这个过程中，他面临着巨大的危险。2014年，他差点在一次塔利班炸弹袭击中丧生，他的两个耳膜都被撕裂，外科医生从他的头部取出了11块弹片，他恢复了部分听力。
His resolve and passion seem to have been reinforced, as the Institute has flourished, spanning varied Afghan and Western classical disciplines; it currently has around 250 students, a third of which are female C in 2019, he will also take its all-female Zohra Orchestra on a European tour.
“Everyone has an opportunity here, including the poorest of the poor and middle-class kids,” says Sarmast, warmly. “We are practically a beautiful mosaic of the ethnicities of Afghanistan.” He explains that the Institute’s ensembles represent a continued link with the ‘golden age’ of Radio Afghanistan, when the airwaves were a hotbed of orchestral talent and music innovators including Ahmad Zahir. And he expresses a fervent, fearless belief in the enduring ‘soft power’ of music.
“Music is not just entertainment; it is vital for healing C and it is what this country needs more than anything, after 40 years of war,” says Sarmast. “You can beat the Taliban in the battlefield, but to win in the long term, you need to present an alternative to the community. Investment in arts, culture and education is as important as investment in security. Music is also a basic human right.”
By bringing Zahir's legacy to broader audiences, that soft power is channeled for new generations of Afghan talent.