We Heard That Afghan Musical Legend Nashenas Was Dead, So We Called Him Up

Spoiler alert: He's fine. But his country's musical state isn't nearly as healthy as it was.

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Oct 12 2016, 3:16am

When I was young, my parents took me to Melbourne's Monash University for a concert performance by Nashenas, one of the oldest surviving and most popular Afghan musicians. While watching my uncles submit to the mesmerising twirling of the afghan warrior dance, the attan, I realised how Nashenas' music evoked a time and place from their childhood that they had lost in transit. 

On Friday, rumours began circulating that Nashenas had died of a heart illness in a German hospital. The following morning I contacted his family asking for comment about his legacy, only to be told that the internet rumours were false. "I have been humbled by all the prayers, but thankfully am keeping active and still breathing," the singer told me. "Unfortunately the same can't be said about that state of Afghan music today."​

Mohammad Sadiq was born in Kandahar in 1935. A culturally aware poet, he acquired a Doctorate in Pashto Literature from the Moscow University. Upon his return to Kabul he taught himself to play the harmonium, eventually landing at Radio Kabul where, in order to disguise his growing fame from a strict religious family, would sing under the pseudonym "Nashenas" which translates to "the Unkown" or "Nameless One". Eventually his fame got too big, when his father praised an Afghani cover of a Saigal​ Bollywood tune being played on the radio, a neighbour told him that it was in fact his own son. 

Afghanistan ​was different in the 50s and 60s​. Political and social attitudes were in sync with ideals from the west; burkhas were optional, German architects were juxtaposing modern buildings beside century-old mud structures and the co-ed universities were brewing with liberal ideals. Everything was cool until the 70s, when Afghanistan was used as a pawn during the second Cold War.

It has been back peddling from modernity since.

At the height of the increasingly "free" society and with the support of his family, Nashenas became one of the most important Afghan musicians. Experimenting with several different languages and playing various traditional styles from the region, he helped develop a signature Afghan sound; the Kabuli Ghazal. 

His music gave Afghan expatriates distilled memories of their home; of the bustling marketplaces, motorcycle horns, sailing kites, of times that weren't thudding and blood-soaked. His vocal style was like a siren, a megaphone tuned to the frequency of something mystical. Through his anonymous persona, his expression embodied the spirit of the land, tribes and tragedies. 

The musical tradition in Afghanistan is deeply rooted in poetry, the crooner's method was simply to recite and interpret poems within the construct of raga scales. Revising the poetry of Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Rumi and Hafez, to varying musical landscapes, Nashenas kept the Mughal tradition of sharing poetry alive through a more evocative medium. 

In the 60s Zahir Shah introduced the Afghan Constitution, the foundation of a modern democratic state that introduced free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women's rights and universal suffrage. With these Westernized reforms came a wave of American music from the time, Zahir Shah's record collection (a gift from the United States) influenced the artists and musicians that would frequently entertain elite circles at parties held in his kingdom. 

This influence created a bastardized genre that was entrenched in classical Indian tradition, deviating from the rubab and tabla to be disturbed by electric guitars and drum kits. This new-wave spawned artists like Nashenas, the tragic soft rock of Marhom Sarban​ and the pop-icon Ahmad Zahir​, known as the "Afghan Elvis Presley," who embraced his doppleganger by covering Presley's hit "It's Now or Never."

In the late 70s, the bloody coup d'etat that brought the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki to power also marked the gradual imposition of music censorship across Afghanistan. Ahmad Zahir was mysteriously murdered on his birthday in 1979. The Russians claimed it was a CIA bid to denounce the newly formed regime and the Americans accused Taraki henchmen who Zahir had condemned in his songs. 

Over the next 14-years all music was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture up until a total ban during the Taliban regime. In order to survive, artists like Nashenas were forced from the country that helped fuel their expression. Those, like Ahmad Zahir and Sarban, who stayed died persecuted or impoverished.

Nashenas has lived in London for the past 20-years. In that time he has moved away from modernity, choosing traditional garments like the patoo and chapan over the the suits he wore in his 70s music videos.  "It's correct that as I moved (literally) further away from Afghanistan, the music also reverted to a more traditionally folkloric Afghan sound," he explains. "It may have been due to the reminiscence of my birthplace or a sense of longing for the motherland, a nostalgia that comes with age."​​

The musical landscape in Afghanistan hasn't quite healed from decades of war. The comment sections on Afghan YouTube music videos sprawl with nostalgic refugees from around the world, wondering whether they will ever return to that era, that place they once called home. 

Nashenas and his music helps give them hope.

Image: You Tube