Ahmad Zahir (احمد ظاهر – 14 June 1946 – 14 June 1979) was a singer, songwriter, and composer from Afghanistan. Among his fans, he is considered an icon of Afghan music and is sometimes called the “King of Afghan music”. His songs are mostly in Dari and based on Persian poems, although a few are in Pashto and English Zahir composed and performed rock and pop music, in a similar style to Elvis Presley. Today, he is regarded as one of the greatest persons in Afghan culture and history.
Zahir was born on 14 June 1946 (Jauza 24, 1325 of the Jalali calendar) in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a Pashtun family. His father, Abdul Zahir, was a royal court doctor who served as minister of health and Prime Minister of Afghanistan between 1971 and 1972. He was a speaker of the parliament and an influential figure in King Zahir Shah’s era who helped write the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan.
Zahir attended Habibia High School in Kabul in the early 1960s. He sang and played the accordion in a band mainly consisting of his friends and classmates including Omar Sultan on guitar, Farid Zaland on congas and Kabir Howaida on piano. The band later became known as the amateur band of Habibia High School and performed in local concerts during celebratory occasions like Nowruz, Eid ul-Fitr, and Afghan Independence Day.
He later attended and graduated from Daru’ l-Malimeen (“Teachers’ College”) in Kabul, then continued his higher education for two more years in India to get a degree as an English instructor. Eventually, however, he decided that music was his true calling. Zahir began his solo career composing songs based on well-recognized Persian poems. His first recorded song, “Gar Kuni Yak Nizara”, was his own composition, sung in the pilu raga. He continued writing and recording songs such as “Azeezam Ba Yaadat”, “Ahista-ahista”, “Akhir Ay Darya”, “Hama Yaranam”, “Agar Sabza Boodam”, “Guftam Ke Mekhwaham Tura”, “Shabe Ze Shabha” and “Parween-e Man”.
Zahir worked with mentors such as Ismail Azami (saxophonist), Nangalai (trumpeter), Abdullah Etemadi (drummer), and other musicians including Salim Sarmast, Naynawaz, Taranasaz, and Mas’hour Jamal. He recorded over 22 albums in the 1970s. His songs were noted for their mellifluous tone, poetic style, compelling depth, and passionate emotional evocation. His lyrics covered a wide range of subjects. Many of his songs contained autobiographical elements or political criticism of Afghanistan’s government. As a result many of his recordings were destroyed by the government.
Zahir was on the scene of Afghan music for only 10 years at the most; however, Zahir managed to record more than 30 albums. This was and is unheard of in any music industry around the world. All of these albums were successful and widely accepted (to this date) by everyone. The kings managed to complete these recordings almost 40 years ago with almost no technology of today’s world, and all was done in live recordings. It is said the kings recorded his Arian Music Album 1 in one day, that had more than 12 songs. Zahir only recorded two music videos during his career.
A controversy regarding the relation between his song “Tanha Shodam Tanha” and Claude Morgan’s song “El Bimbo” (1974) exists. Some sources date the song and the album “Lylee” on which it appeared to 1971, which would make Morgan’s version a cover, and some (mostly based on a previous version of this article) date it to 1977, reversing the relationship.
Zahir died on 14 June 1979, on his 33rd birthday. It was reported in the news that he died in a car accident around the Salang Tunnel in the Parwan Province. There are mixed views from critics regarding his death, some claim that he was assassinated. Zahir’s political stance was at odds with the Marxist government of the time. A large crowd of mourners attended Zahir’s funeral in Kabul, clogging the city streets and bringing daily activities to a halt.
After his death, Zahir became some what of a national hero and his image was mythologized by many Afghan people. Because of his privileged family background, Zahir helped to establish music as a more respected profession which in turn led to the founding of The Kabul Music School in 1974.