Abdul-Rahim Sarban (عبدالرحیم ساربان), known simply as Sarban, was an Afghan singer (1930 – April 2, 1993) Born in Kabul, Afghanistan he is known for his unique voice and music style that no other singer from Afghanistan has been able to imitate. Sarban’s songs are unrivalled for their choice of poetry, originality of composition, and sophisticated orchestration. Known as the Frank Sinatra of Afghanistan, he was the first Afghan artist to break away from the prevalent musical forms in Afghanistan at the time, namely the Indian inspired pure classical tradition (epitomized by Ustad Sarahang, Ustad Rahim Bakhsh and others), and the ‘mohali’ (regional & folk) musical traditions exemplified by the Pashto music, logari, qataghani, qarsak etc. In partnership with the legendary composer Salim Sarmast, Sarban’s music heavily incorporated elements, rhythms and orchestration of the western musical traditions of jazz and “Belle Chanson.” His songs Ahesta Bero, Khorsheede Man, Ay Sarban, Dar Damane Sahra, Biya ke Borem ba Mazar, Moshke Taza Mebarad and many others are rank among the highest in the Afghan musical repertoire and are admired fore their depth, refinement, and beauty. A celebrity in Afghanistan, Sarban is also widely recognized in other Persian-speaking countries like Iran and Tajikistan, where he gave live performances at the height of his career. He sang both in Pashto and Dari. Leaving Afghanistan during the troubles, he lived in Pakistan where he died in poverty. After 12 years of his death, his remains were taken back to Afghanistan for reburial.
Sarban was born in Saragy, an old area of the Afghani capital Kabul to a merchant father. Little is known of his childhood as most sources speak of him after his rise to fame. From humble beginnings to national recognition, Sarban gained popularity due to his unconventional music style. The legendary Afghan singer Ahmad Zahir was also a big fan of Sarban and incorporated his original songs into Zahir’s own collection.
Sarban was shy and reclusive throughout his life. He seemed indifferent to fame and his celebrity status in the 1970s and 1980s. At the peak of his celebrity, he polarized the fan base as those who loved and reverred him and those who criticized him for his eccentric on stage behaviour. Speculations said he had a constant problem with alcohol with claims he couldn’t sing live on Kabul Radio without having a drink first. There are apocryphal stories that he had deep depression because he fell in love with one of his cousins, but reportedly she or her father did not accept his proposal, and that as a result Sarban was heartbroken and never married. However, these are mere rumours. Sarban did fight with severe bouts of depression but there is no evidence that these were the result of unrequited love. Many of his close relatives (including his younger brother) were arrested and executed by the communist regime at the time, and many others were imprisoned or forced to flee in exile. This and the financial difficulties of raising a family without any reliable source of income could have been contributing factors to his depressive bouts. As regards to his failed love with his cousin, these are mere rumours. His close friends and family all dismiss this as urban legend. Sarban was indeed married to one of his cousins, and he has four children (three daughters and a son). HIs son Abdulrab Sarban also recorded an album covering some of Sarban’s famous songs. Sarban suffered a stroke in 1984 which incapacitated him & rendered him speechless. Due to the political turmoil in Afghanistan, he and his family emigrated to Pakistan where he died in poverty. But after 12 years of his death, the Afghan Government made arrangements with his family to relocate his remains to Kabul.
Sarban was the first person to put lyrics to the iconic “Ahesta Boro” (Go Slowly) anthem played for brides on their wedding day. These lyrics, along with the composition, have become an expected and celebrated feature of Afghan weddings, with the composition also having being sung by many popular Afghan artists. Muslim singer Sami Yusuf used the tune of a Sarban composition, “Beyake Berem Ba Mazaar” (Come, Lets Go to Mazaar), in his song “Hasbi Rasbi”. Many others have covered the song and composition as well, both within Afghanistan and in other Persian cultures.
In addition to the various compositions and lyrics he contributed, Sarban was also arguably symbolic and typical of Afghanistan’s culture in his day, reflected in his singing of the beautiful poetry of many famous poets from ages past, such as Hafiz Shirazi, to whom he paid tribute with the song “Dozh as Masjid (Soye Maykhanaa Aamad Peer e Ma)” (Last night, upon departing the Mosque, our Master headed towards the Tavern). Sarban’s cover is a cut down version of the original poem, retaining 3 of the 10 verses composed by Shirazi.
Sarban’s compositions, like “Dozh as Masjid”, feature various styles of religious or mystical poetry, which although appearing to be ordinary love songs, utilise a language of their own. Often such poems use words such as “beloved” metaphorically in reference to God, and it could be argued that Sarban was part of a musical movement in Afghanistan which sought to enlighten the audience as much as it entertained them.