Sarban was born in Saragy, an old area of the Afghani capital Kabul to a prosperous rice 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 music style which was highly unconventional for its time, but it went on to become the gold standard of Afghan musical style. The legendary Afghan singer Ahmad Zahir was a huge fan of Sarban and incorporated his original songs and musical style into Zahir’s own collection. Sarban's popularity is mainly with the elite and educated classes in Afghanistan where appreciation of his music is considered the height of sophistication, learning, and elegance.
Sarban was shy and reclusive throughout his life. He seemed indifferent to fame, celebrity, and wealth throughout the peak of his career which lasted from 1960s to present day At the peak of his celebrity, he polarized the Afghan intellectual class between those who loved and referred him for his art and those who criticized him for his personal life (i.e. his eccentric behaviour, his fondness for alcohol etc., rather than his artistic accomplishments). 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 throughout his life, but this was not because of unrequited love. Many of his close relatives (including his younger brother) were arrested for their political activities 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 were the main reasons for 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's path to art and his immortality was purely accidental. Being born in a highly educated and accomplished family, Sarban was the only male family members who had not gone to university. Sarban's career in art began when the director and "father" of the Afghan National Theatre, Ustad Abdul Rashid Latifi overheard him hum a song in a hamaam (communal baths customary in Kabul at the time). The director, however, did not consider Sarban as a singer. He asked Sarban to join his theatre troupe as a lead heroic actor, mainly due to his elegant & erudite elucidation and accent in Persian language, which Sarban had naturally learned in his family upbringing. Sarban accepted the offer to work as an actor because, according to him, thing were tough and he had no prospects of employment and of feeding his young family. While acting in the theatre, Sarban was rediscovered by the composers Nainawaz and Salim Sarmast for his extraordinary and evocative baritone voice. Thus, without any artistic, musical, or vocal training in voice or singing, Sarban was offered the opportunity to become a singer.
Unlike any other great Afghan artist, Sarban stands alone in that he had no previous musical training in either playing instruments of using his voice. He, however, had an acute ear for musical sound, and more importantly, a broad and profound understanding of Persian poetry. It is, perhaps, because of his lack of training and background in the predominant musical traditions in Afghanistan that Sarban became the artist who would free Afghan music from subservience to the Indian, Iranian, and folkloric musical traditions which dominated at the time. In cooperation with composers, mainly Salim Sarmast, Sarban managed to create a musical language that was unique to Afghanistan. Although his first few songs "Tu Aftabi wo man," and "Man akher az ghamat," were made strictly in the Indian classical model, his immediately ensuing songs "Rahm kon ram kon," "Saqi dile ma," "ya maula dilam tang amada," "shod abro para para," and the super hit songs, "az bas ke nazanini," "asare shikanje maujam," "Man nainawaz am," and "Harja ke safer karma," [the latter two songs covered by Ahmad Zahir] became models of a new sound that broke away from the traditional musical vocabulary in Afghanistan at the time. This new sound was made immortal by the creation of a slew of songs in later years (such as Ahesta Bero, Ay Sarban, Dar Damane Sahra, Khorsheede Man, Ay Shakhe Gul, Moshke Taza Mebarad, Dosh Az Masjid, Deshab ba khoda, Nameporsi Naame man, Sobhe Keshaare Maiwar, Take nabashad ham dame jani, Ta ba kai ay mah liqa, Een ghame be haya mara, haal ke deewana shodam merawi, Aye shake gul) which defined Afghan music (especially the Persian musical genre) for decades to come.
Unfortunately, Sarban's personal life, especially his numerous family troubles, constantly hindered his complete devotion to his musical career. Sarban was never able to fully commit himself to his art because of many family tragedies and difficulties that befell him persistently throughout his life. He routinely feel into deep clinical depression due to the numerous concerns in his personal and family life such as the loss of his close relatives and family members including his beloved brothers (for their political activities). Consequently, he took to heavy drinking to deal with his many personal problems. This took a heavy tool on his career, as he failed to produce any original music after the mid 1970s. Nevertheless, his musical legacy and influence remain unparalleled in Afghanistan.
Sarban's greatest contribution to Afghan music was the creation of a unique Afghan sound--distinct from the Indian, Iranian, regional (folkloric), western traditions. His songs set an example for all pursuing Afghan artists to compose & perform in a style that was distinctly identifiable as Afghan, as opposed to mere imitation of other musical traditions. His work with the legendary composer Salim Sarmast led to the creation of a rhythm, melody line, harmony, and texture which became the essence of the Dari (Persian) sound. This sound was a major influence on many later musicians including Nainawaz, Ahmad Zahir, Ustad Zaland, Ahmad Wali, & later Farhad Darya.
Besides a unique and new musical sound, Sarban was the first artist to choose poems & lyrics for his songs which were not primarily about romantic love. The vast majority of songs in Afghanistan up to that point chose poems/lyrics about romance, love, longing, and the trials and tribulations related to love. Sarban considered this trend to be frivolous and glib. He, therefore, made a sharp departure from this tradition, and chose social, political, economic, spiritual, and even religious matters as subject matter for his songs. An astute student of Dari/Persian literature, he personally picked poems which were considered by many to be not only unconventional but unsuitable for being turned into songs. For instance, Een Ghame Be Haya, Ay Sarban, and Dar Damane Sahra, Ay Shakhe Gul, Harja Ke Safar Kardam, Beya Ta Gal Beyafshanem, were considered too erudite, abstract, and gloomy to be composed into songs. Almost all composers declined to consider them for composition. Salim Sarmast was the only composer who offered to do the task. Today, these are among the best songs of Afghan musical tradition. Sometimes, if he did not get his way & was pressured by his employer (Kabul Radio) to sing more conventional love songs, he would pick a completely unrelated verse or two from another poem & insert it in the romantic song composed for him. For instance, in his song "Soraya chara Am kon," which contains a traditional romantic subject matter, he violently inserted a completely unrelated verse:
Agar Dastam Rasad Ba Charkhe Gardoon (If my hands could reach/grab the one who runs the universe) Azo Porsam Ke Een Chook Auto Aan Choon (I shall demand of him, how is this so?) Yaki Ra Dadayi Sad Nazo Nehmat (One person you lavish with a hundred gifts & prides) Yaki Ra Qorse Jawr alooda Bar Khoon (But another you torture with the yoke of blood & misery)
Sarban was the first person to put lyrics to the iconic "Ahesta Boro" (Step softly) anthem played for all 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 been 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.
Sarban's "Moshke Taza Mebarad" (based on an obscure poem glorifying the city of his birth, Kabul) became one of the models for patriotic and national songs, and is still one of the most evocative and emotionally stirring Patriotic songs of Afghanistan due to its original and moving composition and evocative singing by Sarban. It is said that many composers laughed at Sarban when he suggested the poem for composition into a national song due to the poem's complex vocabulary and imagery, but once again, his main artistic collaborator Salim Sarmast came to the rescue and set the lyrics to a sublime composition which moves Afghans to this day with the words Moshke Taza Mebarad Abre Bhmand kabul (Fresh Musk Scatter the silky Clouds of Kabul) Mauje Sabza mekarad Koyo barzane Kabul (Waves & waves of greenery grow the mountains and rocks of Kabul)
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 Sufi or mystical poetry, which use the metaphorical language of romantic love, to describe the author's relationship with God. Often such poems use words such as "beloved" figuratively 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. Certainly, in his own personal life, Sarban was highly influenced by the Sufi tradition of mysticism. This is evident not only in his choice of poetry, but also in his mannerisms, such as his constant raising of his forefinger when speaking or singing (the raised forefinger is the mystic's gesture denoting not only the oneness of God, but also the oneness of all creation and being.
Arguably, the most highly acclaimed song in Persian Language in Afghanistan is Sarban's Khorsheede Man Kojayee, which has been covered by numerous Afghan Artists. The song, considered by critics as the greatest Afghan Persian song was based on a poem by the Kurdish Persian poet Abolqasem Lahouti and composed by Salim Sarmast. The song exemplifies the highest tradition of Afghan music in which sublime poetry is fused with hypnotizing melody & music, and extraordinarily emotive elocution. Furthermore, Sarban's songs "Ay Sarban" (based on a poem by Saadi), Dar Damane Sahra are considered among the most accomplished examples of the Afghan musical repertoire.
Almost all of Sarban's songs were recorded in the first decade of his career--1960s. Sadly, the vast majority of his original repertoire, which was recorded with a full orchestra, is not available to us. Except for a few songs from the original recordings (Khorsheede Man, Asare Shikanje Maujam, Az Bas Ke Nazanini), the overwhelming majority of Sarban's songs are re-recordings which were done in late 1970s and released in audio cassettes. These later versions lack the full orchestra and chorus and rely only a few instruments. Furthermore, Sarban's vocal gifts were past their prime at that point. Most of originals recordings which were held at Kabul Radio, were destroyed by the Taliban in late 1990s when the Taliban captured Kabul & destroyed a large number of original recordings of the Afghan musical repertoire in Kabul Radio, and Afghan Television. As a result, it is possible the some of his most memorable recordings are permanently lost. Recently, however, a few vintage and rare recordings of Sarban's records (for instance the original of his song Khorsheede Man, and Asare Shikanje Moujam) were uploaded by some good samaritans on YouTube. We hope that this trend continues and those who have access to rare Sarban records make them available for the hearing and enjoyment of all.
Sarban's songs have been covered both live and in recording by a vast number of Persian singes in countries ranging from Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, to Uzbekistan. In Afghanistan, his song "Ahesta Bero" is played in every Persian wedding as the bride walks to the aisle, in the same manner as Wagner's Bridal Chorus "Here Comes the Bride" is played each time a bride in the west walks the aisle. His song such as Ay Sarban is covered by hugely popular singers such as Googoosh (from Iran) and Ahmad Zahir from Afghanistan. Every successful musician from Ahmad Zahir to Farhad Darya cite him as one of their main influences.
Discography & Songs: