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Afghan Elvis

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The odd power of the cover band. So one day in Afghanistan, reporter Gregory Warner started playing "Those Were the Days My Friend" on his accordion. His translator, shocked, asks, "How do you know Afghan music?" Greg scratches his head and thinks, "But this is just some folk song my mom used to sing to me!"

And so Greg learns the tale of Ahmad Zahir, AKA "Afghan Elvis," who became a pop sensation in Afghanistan in the 1970s with his hybrid versions and East-meets-West music. Though Zahir died under mysterious circumstances in 1979, his music lives on with surprising popularity. We follow Greg on his accordion-wielding journey as he talks to Zahir's widow, childhood friend, and numerous fans to get to the bottom of why his songs endure.

Watch Greg's Johnny Cash performance below.

Comments [48]

Igor Brodsky

"Those were the days my friend" is not a folk song. It was composed by Boris Fomin, lyrics by Konstantin Podrevsky. It's translation into English is credited to Gene Raskin.

Mar. 27 2014 04:31 PM
Siddique from USA

Hey guys, I know the story of how El Bimbo was recorded.. So, the studio owner Mr.Hamidi, bought many Vinyl records from London and brought them to Kabul, and then Ahmad Zahir found lyrics for the song and they played the vinyl on a turn table, and Ahmad Zahir sang on top of it :) The music you hear in that song was NOT recorded in Afghanistan. . .

Mar. 24 2014 09:36 PM
Hogai Nassery from Decatur, GA

An amazing story. I grew up in the US listening to my parents' Ahmad Zahir's cassette tapes. My uncles and cousins would copy each other's tapes and trade songs. His voice was like magic, even to my sister and I, who grew up on Abba, the Beatles and the Jackson 5. I forgot all about the song "those were the days my friend". My parents loved both the English and Farsi versions. Ahmad Zahir represented the soul of Afghanistan.

Mar. 24 2014 10:37 AM
Mythmara from Santa Monica, CA

Great show!!!! I too was so uplifted to hear this bit of Afghani history. Thank you.

Mar. 23 2014 08:21 PM
Maarten from Houston

This 10 minute broadcast has material for hours of reflection. The clip shows what I have experienced all over the world: people want a decent life, have fun together and basically left to do their own thing. Glad I tuned in to NPR!

Mar. 23 2014 01:29 PM
Barbara DiAdamo from Mesa, Arizona

I was on my way to a health food store today and stayed in the car to listen to the remainder of the story. When I heard the exuberant response of the Afghan people to the Johnny Cash song I burst into tears because I felt so touched. THIS is the human spirit - joy and enthusiasm and celebration! Thank you for the program.

Mar. 23 2014 05:34 AM
Kay Roberts from Atlanta , Georgia USA

This show was wonderful. I was moved to tears when I heard how the Afgan people were so passionate about music. It's amazing how much joy and hope music gives to people. This topic is very dear to me and it made me so happy to hear this show. I love it. Thank you !

Feb. 14 2013 09:56 AM
rob from USA

GREAT SHOW. Thanks - This was wonderful to hear and even better to see! Great work! I didn't expect it, but suddenly I found myself emotionally happy.

Dec. 09 2012 06:15 PM
mal from midwest

Great show!

What goes around, comes around.

But, it is "Johns Hopkins"

Cheers!

Dec. 09 2012 05:13 PM
noor from United States.

Ahmad zahir talent was beyond words. He is the only singer whose songs even today after 50 years is loved by all generations in Afghanistan. He is still considered the king of Afghan music.
We call him the voice of golden ages and he still remains the best singer for the new generation of Afghanistan. He is an inspirational figure for all singers of Afghanistan today.

Dec. 09 2012 03:40 AM
Daud from NY

What an amazing episode. I have been a listener of Radio Lab for a long time, but as an Afghan-America, this just warmed my heart. Had to send the link to friends.
One thing,though:
You could not learn how to pronounce his name? Really?
Yes, it is written with an "i", but it is pronounced Zaher, as Najib, Ahmad Zaher's wife, and the other two Afghans said it.
The clip in Mazar-e Sharif was amazing. Who'd have thought?
Thanks.

Dec. 08 2012 05:29 PM
Hannah Parrott from Mont Vernon, NH

It's amazing how people can come together to listen to music.
So many cool stories about music traveling around the globe.
Thanks!

Dec. 08 2012 04:07 PM
Steve Cobb from Nashua, NH

In 1992, while spending the night in a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, I followed the sound of music to a hotel lounge. Every person in there was a black Kenyan, including the two musicians, who were performing American country music, and the crowd knew all the words. Being half black and from California, I found the experience incredibly surreal. Urban Kenyans, with all their tribal divisions, were united by the music of a foreign tribe: American white rural people.

Dec. 07 2012 01:53 PM
Laura Ashkin from Sierras in California

In 2003 our family was traveling in India. My husband and I are amateur (very amateur) bluegrass musicians. We stayed with various families, and would sing and play for them. One universal favorite was a song called "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" by Flatt and Scruggs. I was mystified as to its popularity, until one host, an engineer who had lived in a village until the age of 12, said, "Play that one again about the Native Place." And then he went on waxing eloquent about the country and crops coming up etc. At that moment I got it! India today is going through the same dislocation that the US was experiencing when bluegrass became popular. It was interesting to hear this same idea on your great show. Thanks.

Dec. 07 2012 01:18 PM
dijay

It is distressing that the interviews with Zahir's wife has been removed from the internet. They were the most interesting and revealing parts of the video. Seems the the leftst's pro-communist view still prevails

Nov. 05 2011 05:57 PM
anna from portland, or

loved this story!!!!

Aug. 27 2011 09:22 PM
Cat from Vancouver

Absolutely loved this story.
But I have news for you: that one song is neither Elvis, nor Ahmad - it's Freddy Quinn and he was a maritime German!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSYblBKZ75Y

May. 05 2011 12:40 PM
Cat from Vancouver

Absolutely loved this story.
But I have news for you: that one song is neither Elvis, nor Ahmad - it's Freddy Quinn and he was a maritime German!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSYblBKZ75Y

May. 05 2011 12:39 PM
Anthony

El Bimbo was based off of Tanha Shudham Tanha, not the other way around. The piece sort of gives the impression that Zahir is ripping western artists off, which isn't true. Zahir's songs were original compositions.

Apr. 11 2011 02:51 AM
Leila from Florida

This was such a beautiful segment, I was in tears at the end. You did with this exactly what I love Radiolab for, you take science, and relate in the most human ways. You're really able to express a shared humanity and it gets me every time!

Mar. 27 2011 10:03 PM
Christina

Wonderful!

Feb. 27 2011 04:18 PM
Craig from Bucks County, PA

that link for "Those Were the Days My Friend" seems to be dead. Great show by the way!

Feb. 22 2011 12:12 AM
Yonathan from Tel Aviv, Israel

Thank you RadioLab for another awesome show!
The last piece was especially moving...

Dec. 16 2010 06:43 PM
Kevin Ledoux

What a great story! The first thing that popped into my head when hearing of the day of his death was that for Afghanistan, it was truly the day the music died.

Sep. 24 2010 06:09 PM
Joann Tsoutsouris from Kentucky

This show brought me to tears! How beautiful and tragic!
The absolute beauty of the connections created by music. What a lovely show!

Jul. 02 2010 10:07 PM
Chuck Palus from Philadelphia

By some sort of strange accident I read the Jorge Borges short story The Zahir a few hours before I listened to this podcast, not suspecting any connection. Try it yourself,
http://southerncrossreview.org/66/borges-zahir.htm

Aug. 24 2009 05:35 PM
Andy Gillis from Brooklyn

It might be noted that 'Those Were the Days My Friend' is really an english cover of the Russian song 'Dorogoi dlinnoyu', and so it should be much closer, musically and geographically, to Afghanistan than it is to the west.

Great show!

Mar. 24 2009 07:21 PM
Leonard Ritter from Hamburg, Germany

You guys make incredible shows, and this one was no exception. I love you! :)

Jan. 29 2009 11:44 AM
shafiqullah from kHAIR KHANA KABUL AFGHANISTAN

I THINK AHMAD ZAHAIR WAS A GREAT PERSONILITY AND I LOVE HIM UP TO NOW AND I APPRECIATE HIM NOW AFTER 30 YEAR WHICH IN THAT CONDITION HE MADE LIKE THIS SONGS WHICH WE CANNOT MAKE IT TO DAY

Jul. 07 2008 05:05 AM
Jonathan Knapp from Philadelphia, PA

Loved this segment! So wonderful to hear about simple things that we all share, anywhere in the world. The things that make us truly human. Music, imagination, humor, love. These are the things that make us great and its wonderful to have it illustrated so deftly. Thanks for playing for all of us and sharing yourself with them and us.

Jul. 01 2008 12:13 AM
John Schneider from Woodland, CA

This was a great radio show..... written and produced with great skill. I enjoyed it very much.....good to hear that outstanding radio is still alive and well! Thanks so much.

Jun. 23 2008 06:22 PM
Soledad Robledo from Santiago

This was a great show. Radio can be magic. I was specially moved by the story of the late Afghan singer. In my country we also had a fabulous artist called Victor Jara who was killed because of his ideas and lyrics during Pinochet's dictatorship.
By the way, Kenya is in East Africa.

Jun. 16 2008 06:32 PM
Corey Dimond from New Zealand

What an interesting show.
My whole life I've experienced extremely lucid music in my head. I always thought it was quite normal which I think it may be. I manage it by having music or radio shows like this one on at all times. When things are silent I feel very uncomfortable. I remember growing up, being tormented by the last song I heard before I left to go to school until I came home and was able to replace it with a new one when I listened to my stereo.

One thing I wonder, is now that they've isolated a gene that expresses musical ability, are people with this gene over represented with this earworm?

Jun. 01 2008 10:54 PM
ss from moscow, russia

i loved this piece.
a funny thing about the "those were the days" song that you don't mention is that the tune's originally from a russian folk song. adds another strange layer to the afghans recognition and love of the tune! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lc1fR30EPY

Apr. 26 2008 08:27 AM
Jerry M from Martinez, CA

I love this show. I look forward to listening to it whenever a new episode is available. I was listening to this piece while I was working and the last piece about Johnny Cash in Afghanistan had me laughing out loud, I am a mailman, so the people on the street probably thought I was a little crazy, but it's Johnny Cash, so it's ok.

I liked the idea of the sense of longing tied to country music. It makes sense that Jimmie Rogers sang about railroads, the Carter Family, Hank Williams and even Woody Guthrie came out of the 30's. One could argue that it was chance, and the invention of the record. But a more compelling argument would be the migrations due to the Great Depression. Also, that would explain why alot of my Myspace musical groups are European rockabilly groups. I have often wondered what the appeal of the hillbilly twang was to Italian, Spanish and even Finnish groups.

Thanks for another great show. So hurry up with the next one already :)

Apr. 24 2008 10:47 PM
Suzanne Cofer from Nakatsugawa, Japan

As an American living abroad in Japan, the piece on the inherent longing in American Country music really hit home (no pun intended). I always listen to the Radiolab podcast while running, and when Daniel Lanois' Panorama entered my consciousness I had to stop for a moment because tears had literally overtaken me. I called Mom and Dad the instant I got back to my apartment.

A million thank-yous for yet another intellectually and emotionally stimulating show.

Apr. 22 2008 10:21 AM
andy from louisville, ky

Great show. It took me two hours to get Johnny Cash out of my head, including the accordian.

I overheard a coworker talking today, and she used the word accordian. BAM! The song was right back where it started.

Apr. 01 2008 04:14 PM
Valerie from Scottsdale, AZ

Your story really grabbed me. Now I'll look for some music by Ahmad Zahair. I also liked your poem (with the link to a song) about the skinny guy who lost the money. Thank you.

Mar. 30 2008 09:54 PM
Ahmad from california

This was an awesome piece. It brought tears to my eyes. Very moving. I was born in afghanistan around the same time Ahmad Zahir was assisinated. We came to the US in the mid 80's and I grew up listening to his music along side american music. Everytime i listen to his music it takes me back home.

I did have one concern about Greg's report. As for his comment about Music not being there after the Soviet invasion, until the US invasion. Is a bit exagerated. The US did not some how miraculously bring back Music...just the sound of bombs!

Mar. 28 2008 04:31 AM
A Faz from NY/NJ

I grew up in Afghanistan listening to Ahmad Zahair's songs. I left the country in 1978. As a fan (almost worshipper) of this extremely talented afghan musician I was devastated when I heard of his death. Listening to your interview with Greg was a surreal experience. I particularly enjoyed Greg's interview clips with Ahmad Zahair's wife. I knew of their little girl's name, Shabnum, which means morning dew but, I had no idea that she was born in the same day that her father had passed.

Mar. 21 2008 05:54 PM
ofelia from NYC

beauteous!

Mar. 21 2008 05:07 PM
a. hammagaadji from new york

Among the countries mentioned on your show as places where country music is popular was Keenya. Excuse my ignorance but, where is that exactly?

Mar. 21 2008 04:13 PM
a. hammagaadji from new york

Among the countries mentioned on your show as places where country music is popular was some place called Keenya. Excuse my ignorance but, where is that exactly?

Mar. 21 2008 04:10 PM
Adrienne from Golden, CO

I listened to the show in the car today and absolutely loved this piece. Decades without music - I cannot imagine the deprivation. Great job, Greg ... you never know when that accordian will come in handy.

Mar. 17 2008 12:56 AM
Rebecca Wolinsky from Denver, CO

From earworms to a 94-yr old psychotherapist to "A Ring of Fire" played on accordian by an American in front of 300 Afghanis... wow. And that's just in ONE show. I'm hooked.

Mar. 16 2008 06:17 PM
Sylvia from Seattle

Your show really touched me deeply. While listening to your show, the world suddenly became a very small and comforting place. Your piece on the wide spread appeal of American country music around the world reminded me that our similarities as human beings far out weigh our differences. Thank you!

Mar. 15 2008 01:53 AM
Zak from Detroit

As a not very big Johnny Cash fan who has never been to Iran, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this clip!

Mar. 10 2008 10:46 AM
Tori from Amsterdam

As a life-long Johnny Cash fan who recently spent several years in Iran, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this show!

I used to love listening to Johhny Cash with the Call to Prayer in the background. Many of my Iranian friends have come to love his music as much as I do. He is truly the American Shahjarian. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFiZEl_jQLw) (Don't ask me to explain that though)

Mar. 06 2008 06:12 AM

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