Arts, Culture & Media

Remembering 'The King of Afghan Music' Ahmad Zahir

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Ahmad Zahir is considered an icon of Afghan music. He died in 1979. (Photo: myspace.com/azahir24)

Music and Afghanistan has been an uneasy relationship in recent years. During the years that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, most instrumental music was forbidden. Music cassettes and instruments were routinely destroyed.

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Since the downfall of the Taliban, music has returned, but the stigma the Taliban had associated with songs has not been an easy one to erase. Still, musicians there are trying to return to the glory days of Afghan music. Those glory days in Afghanistan, like a lot of great pop music around the globe were in the 1960s and '70s.

It's so easy to get lost in the narrative of forbidden music under the Taliban, that it is striking when you hear the kinds of sounds that were coming out of Kabul nearly 40 years ago.

Ahmad Zahir, Afghanistan's psychedelic folk master died in 1979, but ask anyone in Kabul today about him, and it's like referring to Elvis. Or as one proud Zahir fan quipped in their comment on an Ahmad Zahir video on YouTube: he is not the Afghan Elvis, Elvis is the American Ahmad Zahir.

Zahir is called "the king of Afghan music" and now Guerssen Records, a small boutique label in Spain, has provided the sonic backstory for Ahmad Zahir.

Guerssen dug out the original master tapes of Zahir's hits from the '70s and have released a nine track collection of his biggest.

Sadly, some of the unease with music associated with the Taliban seems to have been at the root of Ahmad Zahir's death in 1979. The Marxist government at the time reportedly didn't see eye to eye with Zahir's political views.

They said Zahir died in a car accident, but Zahir's father, a doctor and former prime minister, said the cause of death was a bullet shot in his son's temple.

Zahir's story and music are stark reminders that as slow as progress may seem in Afghanistan right now, it's not as if the country is starting from zero. A pluralistic society with open minds and really cool music thrived there not so long ago.

Many in Afghanistan today are simply trying to recapture it.