The Afghan Elvis

by Joshua Foust on 4/24/2008 · 2 comments

Ahmed Zahir = the ORIGINAL Afghan music pimpBy far my favorite show on NPR, Radiolab, recently did an episode on the power of pop music. The last segment in it followed one Gregory Warner on his trip—accordion in hand—to Afghanistan. While playing an old folk song from the 1960s, his translator stops him to ask why he knows Afghan music. Confused, Warner replies it was just some old song his mom used to play for him.

This is how he learns of Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis, one of the greatest cover artists of all time. Before he was executed by the Communists in late 1979, the man brought Afghan pop culture to its peak, “Afghanizing” many classic western songs, from disco boogies to Johnny Cash. Speaking of Johnny Cash, here is Warner playing “Burning Ring of Fire” to uproarious applause by a bunch of Mazar-i Sharifians.

That is awesome. It reminds me of this anecdote National Review polemicist John Derbyshire shared four years ago about pilfered folk songs:

The other day my son, noodling around with some songbooks on the piano, played “Clementine.” My wife, who grew up in Mao Tse-tung’s China, was delighted. “I didn’t know you had that tune in the West,” she said. Puzzled, I asked her what she meant. “Why, it’s a North Korean folk tune. We learned it at school. It was in a North Korean movie we all saw.”

…If Rosie is representative, which she probably is, several hundred million people believe that “Clementine” is a North Korean folk song. In North Korea herself, people probably believe it was written by Kim Il Sung.

Unlike Derbyshire, I think it’s wonderful when songs get covered and interpreted in a new and original way—especially when that involves crossing some culture barrier and adding local aesthetics. It is basically a whole new song, even if it feels familiar—like Chinese pop star Fae Wong covering The Cocteau Twins.

Anyway, here is Ahmad Zahir’s website, which has videos, songs, and all the images you could possibly want. That man was a badass, and we salute him.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

Michael Hancock April 26, 2008 at 1:27 am

I can see how the ‘borrowing’ of national folks melodies could annoy or even anger some people, but I think that music, like land, has no ethnicity. I remember how one “Kazakh” national melody seemed rather familiar, and a little too waltz-like to be native to a dombra. The song is Sulu qyz, which is a revamped version of some Polish or German folk song, the name of which escapes me. I happened to know it because it was in the songbank of the casio keyboard I had in High School. While music isn’t truly universal [throat singing, tonality, micro-tones, rap, and choral music are acquired tastes], it is nice to see a little mixing – that’s how all the best music is made!

Admiral April 26, 2008 at 8:06 pm

I’d like to second the general acclaim for freedom of expression on this post and comment. Certainly, IP protections have gone too far in the US, probably mostly due to the beastly industries feeding off the monopoly pricing combined with the alluring image of IP actually being “property” — despite its relative lack of scarcity.

Thanks for bringing this up!

PS*** Reminds me of how The Verve got ripped off by the Rolling Stones (not vice versa) …

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