Oct 29, 2019

Songs that Cross Borders

Coming off our adventures with Square Dancing, and Jad's dive into the world of Dolly Parton, we look back at one our favorites. About a decade ago, we found out that American country music is surprising popular in places like Zimbabwe, Thailand, and South Africa. Aaron Fox, an anthropologist of music at Columbia University, tells us that quite simply, country music tells a story that a lot of us get. Then, intrepid international reporter Gregory Warner takes us along on one of his very first forays into another country, where he discovers an unexpected taste of home.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

Aaron Foxes book: Real Country: Music And Language In Working-Class Culture 

Gregory Warner's podcast Rough Translation 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists





JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab.


ROBERT: And we have been spending a lot of time dancing and singing lately.


JAD: We just put out a thing about square dancing.


ROBERT: Yeah. You have the Dolly thing going on in another ...


JAD: Indeed.


ROBERT: A whole 'nother operation over there.


JAD: Yes, sir. And both of those -- those things have kind of a question at the heart of them, which is ...


ROBERT: Mine or yours?


JAD: Is it mine? Is it yours?


ROBERT: Could be everybody's, you know? And there's some music that does sort of break through.


JAD: Exactly. And the crazy thing is, like, 11 years ago, we did a show called Pop Music.


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


JAD: Which, I think it was initially, like, about like why are certain things catchy? Like, why do certain earworms get stuck in your head?


ROBERT: Right.


JAD: But I think it also ended up being more interestingly about why do certain songs seem to sort of just slip across borders?


ROBERT: From weird places. From Tennessee to Zimbabwe say, Or then from -- to Afghanistan. So you get a song, and it moves strangely around the world. It's popular for some and not for others. And when we were stumbling about this question way back then, it was a thought that we heard first from -- well, from this guy.


AARON FOX: I'm Aaron A. Fox.


ROBERT: He is a professor of musicology at Columbia University in New York.


AARON FOX: And a damn good country and western lead guitar player. Country, not that rock and roll s***! One-two-three. I hear that train a-coming, it's rolling around the bend.


ROBERT: Country music is a genre we normally associate with Kentucky.


AARON FOX: Nashville.


JAD: West Virginia.


ROBERT: A particular part of America.


JAD: Cowboys, pick-ups.


ROBERT: Yeah. But it has spread, he says, to the most unusual places.


AARON FOX: So some examples of that, and there are quite a few, include the extreme popularity of American country and western music over the last 50 or 60 years with Aboriginal Australians.


ROBERT: You mean Hank Williams would be recognizable to somebody somewhere in Western Australia?


AARON FOX: Absolutely.


ROBERT: Really?


AARON FOX: Dolly Parton being another one.


ROBERT: Dolly Parton?


AARON FOX: Dolly Parton is this international global star of the world's music. So especially in southern Africa, she's a revered like a saint.


[SONG: "My Tennessee Mountain Home"]


AARON FOX: Yes, it's true. Zimbabweans love Dolly Parton. You can fill a venue with a band playing Dolly Parton songs and everybody will know all the words. And most universally of all, Don Williams.


[SONG: "Tulsa Time"]


ROBERT: What if Don Williams were to go to Dar es Salaam or to Zanzibar or to Kenya or someplace and book a club.


AARON FOX: Don Williams has actually gone to Zimbabwe, where he has filled a soccer stadium with 40,000 people twice in a row.




ROBERT: I just wonder like what exactly are they hearing?


AARON FOX: I have asked Grenadians, St. Lucians, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Norwegians, Finns, Germans, Russians, Chinese, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, Thai, why do you like country music? And the first answer is virtually always something along the lines of it's the stories.


JAD: Like, as in the stories in the lyrics?


AARON FOX: I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison. And I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got run over by a damned old train.


JAD: Um, that doesn't sound very Aboriginal to me.


ROBERT: You know how many Aborigines are actually run over by trains? Thousands, actually. That's not what Professor Fox is saying. He says ignore the details and listen for the larger story, which has to do with moving, with migration, and with regret. You're lonesome for something, and the thing you're missing is ...


[SONG: "The Green, Green Grass of Home"]


AARON FOX: You know, the green, green grass of home.


ROBERT: Aaron Fox says you can boil much of this music down to just this feeling. You look, you long for something simpler, something that you left behind.


ROBERT: What would be the best couple of examples you can think of of "I miss the farm, I miss the crickets?"


AARON FOX: Oh, where do you start? The first hit country song was a nostalgic reverie for quote The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane performed by Jimmie Rodgers and Fiddlin' John Carson.


ROBERT: The song was recorded in 1927, and that happens to be the moment ...


AARON FOX: If you look at the US census ...


ROBERT: ... as he'll tell you ...


AARON FOX: When the United States crosses the threshold from more than 50 percent agrarian and rural dwellers to more than 50 percent urban dwellers.


ROBERT: In other words, country music really exploded -- and this is not an accident -- when most people no longer lived in the country.


AARON FOX: Country music is born when the country becomes a nostalgic idea.


ROBERT: And so, in America anyway, suddenly there was this dreamscape of country places that no longer existed except in heads, and the music started just then. So if people in Los Angeles and in Chicago heard country in their minds, seems just as logical that people who move from the country to the city in Asia, in Africa and Australia might have exactly the same experience.


JAD: Yeah, but these songs are sung in English. If these people in these faraway places don't speak English, what are they hearing?


ROBERT: Well, it's important to understand English, and the real enthusiasts around the world are English speakers. However, one explanation for its popularity elsewhere is that even if you don't speak English, the message is literally in the music itself. There is grammar here. In the vocalization, the singers -- this is a very normal country western thing, they actually make a croaky sound that is very distinctive.


AARON FOX: One of the principal vocal articulations is what country singers call a 'cry break.' In my book, I parse the cry break into dozens of different specific articulations.


ROBERT: And it's not just the voices by the way, says Fox. It's the instruments. The instruments seem to be crying.


AARON FOX: In fact, the steel guitar is the signature sound of country, because it's recognized as iconic of a crying human voice. It's called the crying steel.


ROBERT: You can hear the lonesomeness. And what seems to come roaring through, is things just aren't what they were before. And all over the world, where people are leaving from the country to the city, and they are in enormous numbers, this is a story all kinds of people can understand.


AARON FOX: Country is just as much Grenadian music as it is Kentucky music. It's just as much Hawaiian music as it is West Virginia music.


ROBERT: Are you -- is that -- when you fill a football stadium with Dolly Parton listeners, are we saying that they're there in part because the song she's singing are their stories too?


AARON FOX: Yep. Yep. This is our music.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dolly Parton: I've written a lot of songs about the Smoky Mountains where I grew up. We had a good life back there in the hills.]


AARON FOX: We're all going through some version of you know, a one- to two- or three hundred-year change from being essentially peasants to being moderns.


ROBERT: Professor Fox has a book on this subject, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture.


JAD: You can find more information about that on our website, Radiolab.org.


ROBERT: Okay, we are gonna take a little break, and when we come back we're gonna travel east. Way, way east to a distant land where we're gonna stumble across interestingly, very familiar music.


JAD: And I gotta say this next story, this is one -- it's one of the more charming and delightful -- it's got one of the best moments I think of any piece we've ever made, and this is going back again 11 years. So we're gonna play that story in a minute.




[KEIRA: Hi. My name is Keira Fessler, and I'm calling from Yakima, Washington. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]




JAD: Three, two, one. Jad.


ROBERT: Robert.


JAD: Radiolab.


ROBERT: We're back and we've just heard a story about country music that traveled across the world in patches. And for this next story, we're gonna hear from one of the -- from a truly international, you know, reporter. A radio reporter, Gregory Warner.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: He was a ...


JAD: Longtime NPR East Africa correspondent, right?


ROBERT: That's right.


JAD: And done a bunch of stuff for us too.


ROBERT: From -- yeah, from Kenya, from Russia. He does a podcast about the trials and tribulations of passing from one language and one country and one culture into another. He calls it Rough Translation.


JAD: It's great.


ROBERT: But this is before all that. This is Gregory 11 years ago. When -- well, he was just as crazy as he is now, but you'll hear about this in just a second.


ROBERT: Gregory Warner, you won a journalism fellowship and they said to you you could go anywhere in the whole world. Where did you decide to go?


GREGORY WARNER: So I went to Afghanistan.


ROBERT: Have you ever been to a war zone before, by any chance?


GREGORY WARNER: I mean, I've -- no.


ROBERT: Have you done any international reporting before?


GREGORY WARNER: Well actually, earlier that year I had been in Estonia covering an accordion festival.


ROBERT: [laughs]


GREGORY WARNER: So that was a prime piece of ...


ROBERT: That counts. So you play the accordion?


GREGORY WARNER: I play accordion.


ROBERT: Are you like an accomplished accordionist?






GREGORY WARNER: No, no. I'm just an amateur accordionist.




GREGORY WARNER: But -- but ...


ROBERT: So when you go to Afghanistan, do you bring your accordion with you?


GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, I brought my accordion.


ROBERT: How did that work out?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, I show up in Afghanistan, I'm carrying my accordion and I'm thinking, "Maybe this wasn't the smartest idea."


ROBERT: Because?


GREGORY WARNER: It wasn't an accordion-playing crowd. I mean, I was going down the street and women in burkas are holding their babies, and little boys will actually sob -- sob, begging you to sort of buy a piece of gum. Here I am with my shiny red accordion, and it's just not very appropriate.


ROBERT: Does there come a time when you're actually willing to use the accordion?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, it was a weeknight. It was in my living room. I find Najib who's my fixer and translator. He's working for me. He's lying on his back, and he's flinging his legs up into the air. A guard is catching his legs and flinging them back down.




ROBERT: Why are they doing that?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, this is a kind of ab crunches.


ROBERT: That's what we're listening to now?


GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, there he is throwing his legs up, guard pushes them back down. Going up. Back down. So I figured I'd help him out. So I start playing my accordion for him.




GREGORY WARNER: And it's going well. Najib's bopping his head to the tune. And then he kind of looks at me. He says, "Hey, how do you know Afghan music?" I say, "I'm not playing Afghan music." And he says, "Yes, you are." I say, No, I'm not." "Yeah, you are." I said, "No, no, no. That's like a folk are from the '60s called Those Were The Days, My Friend. Some song that my mom used to sing.


GREGORY'S MOM: Those were the days, my friend.


GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, that's my mom.


GREGORY'S MOM: We thought they'd never end. We'd sing and dance forever and a day.


GREGORY WARNER: He says, "No, no. That's an Afghan song." And then he's back to the ab crunches. And I'm like, "No, no, no, wait, wait, wait. Please tell me the story of Those Were The Days, My Friend."


GREGORY WARNER: So what's the story of Those Were The Days, My Friends? That's what we call it. Tell me about that song. [sings]


NAJIB: That song is from a singer who is famous for being a Casanova. His name is Ahmad Zahir.


GUARD: Ahmad Zahir. Famous singer in Afghanistan. It's 25 years ago.


GREGORY WARNER: How does -- how does the lyrics go in ...


NAJIB: [sings in Dari]


ROBERT: Wait, wait, wait. That's -- that's not da da da da da.


GREGORY WARNER: Okay, it's true. He did get it wrong. So I forgot about it. I thought he was crazy. Then it kept happening. I would bring my accordion, play it for some people. Every time people would say, "Hey, isn't that a Ahmad Zahir song?"


ROBERT: How do you say -- how do you spell his name?




ROBERT: Ahmad -- who is he?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, that's what I wanted to find out. So the first thing Najib gave me was his entire CD collection. And one night I sit down and listen to it. I'm hearing one Western riff after another. John Lennon, Nat King Cole, definitely a lot of Elvis. Like, I realize on this tune ...




GREGORY WARNER: This is an Ahmad Zahir tune. You can actually overlay the Elvis version right on top of it.


ROBERT: Is he stealing these tunes? Is that what you saying?


GREGORY WARNER: It's more like he Afghanized them. Like, here's one of his biggest hits, Tanha Shodam Tanha. Now you remember this is the song that Najib sung to me, but it did sound familiar. So I emailed this tune to an old friend in St. Louis. He immediately said, "Oh, yeah. That's that Western disco hit El Bimbo.


ROBERT: Oh, that's amazing! [laughs]


GREGORY WARNER: So now this is the Western version. It's the same melody as the Ahmad Zahir version, same key even. Now let's just go back to the Ahmad Zahir version for a second. Now listen to this violin line. Da da da da da.


ROBERT: Oh, yeah.


GREGORY WARNER: So this is East meets West, Ahmad Zahir style. And this is like the mega-hit in Kabul in '73. This is the sound of Afghanistan in the '70s. So I begged Najib to tell me more about this Ahmad Zahir guy, and finally he says, "Okay, I'll take you to meet the old childhood friend of the man himself." So we drive up to this gate, this guy with white hair opens the door. He and Najib chat for a bit. This guy named Sadat Dardar.


ROBERT: Sadat Dardar.


GREGORY WARNER: He's been friends with Ahmad Zahir since the fourth grade. And he takes us inside, he closes the gate behind us. And the scene changes. Suddenly, it's a garden, birds are chirping. And then Sadat stops and he points to this old fountain in the courtyard and he says something to Najib and Najib starts laughing. And Najib says, "You know, this is the fountain where Ahmad Zahir used to play his accordion." Ahmad Zahir plays accordion just like me.


NAJIB: He's saying that 40 girls were lying down there and he was playing accordion here, you know?




ROBERT: 40 girls?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, they -- they did call him Casanova for a reason.


ROBERT: But was that okay? Because in Afghanistan maybe girls and boys are supposed to, like, be hanging out.


GREGORY WARNER: Well, yes and no. Because Afghanistan was a pretty different country in those days. It's something I didn't even realize until I got there. This is the '70s. The women were wearing skirts and Jane Fonda haircuts. The men are wearing sideburns and they're doing their James Dean. And it's not just what people are wearing, it's that there's this sense of possibility in the air. Things are opening up finally. And the poster boy for all this is Ahmad Zahir. He's a bad boy.




NAJIB: When he had a concert, everybody, all the boys and girls would come to his concerts wearing new clothes. And not only all the girls of Afghanistan, but the foreign girls they also were in love with him.


GREGORY WARNER: Let me just play one little clip from one of his shows, and I want you to hear a little scream that comes right in -- right here.




GREGORY WARNER: For young Afghans at the time, especially young Afghan women, Ahmad Zahir, he was like a god.




NAJIB: No mother will give birth a child as good as Ahmad Zahir.


GREGORY WARNER: And this is where the story gets a lot darker. It's 1973. The Russians start to move in. And the new president that they put in, he doesn't really like Ahmad Zahir at all.




GREGORY WARNER: Well, it was really in their interest that Ahmad Zahir would come out publicly praising the government, and he always refused to do it. Anything political, he wouldn't play the show. And some of his songs, especially the later songs started to actually have coded anti-government lyrics in them.


ROBERT: Ay-yi-yi.


GREGORY WARNER: And then he would have other lyrics about how freedom is the most important thing.


ROBERT: So what did the government do to him?


GREGORY WARNER: They banned his songs from the radio, they started throwing him in jail kind of regularly. But even when he gets out of jail, he refuses to play any of the Communist Party events, but he plays plenty of his own shows. In fact, after one concert he meets this beautiful woman named Fahira. The way she tells the story, he taps her on the shoulder. He says, "Hey."


FAHIRA ZAHIR: He says, "Hi. Can I talk to you?" I turned my face, I said, "Yeah." He said, "No, never mind."


GREGORY WARNER: He tapped you on the shoulder and he said, "Can I talk to you?" And then he said, "Never mind," and he walked away?


FAHIRA ZAHIR: And he just walked away.


GREGORY WARNER: That was a pretty good seduction technique.


FAHIRA ZAHIR: I guess he was very good in it. He got lots of girls like that.


GREGORY WARNER: And he got her. And they got married, and she got pregnant. Meanwhile, the political situation was getting worse and worse. All his friends are fleeing the country. There are murders, tortures.


FAHIRA ZAHIR: Somebody came to our house, knocked the door. And he said, "Can I talk to Ahmad Zahir please?" Ahmad Zahir offered him, "Can I get you a drink?" He said, "No, no, no. I've just come from the Ministry of Interior. There is a plan for you. I don't know what they're going to do to you. That's all I want to tell you. To be careful."


GREGORY WARNER: But Ahmad Zahir and his wife, they don't do anything.


ROBERT: They don't?


GREGORY WARNER: They don't leave.




GREGORY WARNER: He says, "Oh, we'll go after the baby's born."




GREGORY WARNER: Five days later, it's his birthday. June 14th, 1979. He's actually signing a contract for a concert that day.


FAHIRA ZAHIR: He went to sign a contract.


GREGORY WARNER: And as he's driving away, he tells her to make some lunch.


FAHIRA ZAHIR: He said when we come back we'll go shopping, and then I will make lasagna and then we'll go out.


GREGORY WARNER: So she makes lasagna and she waits for him to come back. And she waits, and then she falls asleep.


FAHIRA ZAHIR: I had a very weird dream. I'm somewhere very high in the mountains, and I have no shoes and there is a very strong wind blowing and my hair is everywhere. And I see him not the way he went in the morning. His beard is out like he hasn't shaved for the past two days, and he has something white around him. And something is pulling him. And he's calling to me that "I don't want to go." And suddenly I woke up. I run down, I saw my father-in-law. He wouldn't talk. He was just bending, you know, like shaking himself and bending and just holding my hand. I didn't know anything what -- what happened.


ROBERT: So what happened then?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, the government says that Ahmad Zahir had a traffic accident, but everybody else tells me he was shot in the head, probably by government operatives. And the news spreads through all the neighborhoods in town. So you have Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, they're all getting up and not really knowing what else to do. They come walking to Ahmad Zahir's house. The courtyard starts filling up with people. 50, hundred, 200. They're inside the house, they're outside the house, they're on the street. At this point the body comes, born by six policemen on a stretcher. People start to wail, they start to push. In fact, all the windows break, the doors break. They bring the body through the courtyard into the living room, and Fahira pushes through the police, and she sees her husband's body on the stretcher.


FAHIRA ZAHIR: So I thought he was hurt or something. And when I pulled the sheet from his face, that's when I fell down on top. When I fell, they took me to the hospital and that's how Shabnam was born.


ROBERT: So does she go into labor?


GREGORY WARNER: She goes into labor.


ROBERT: Right there?


GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, yeah. And she almost dies in childbirth, but her baby's saved, she's saved. And her baby has the same birthday then.


ROBERT: Her baby was born on that very day?


GREGORY WARNER: That very day.


ROBERT: So then what happened?


GREGORY WARNER: Well, then the music basically stops. It's that winter that the Russians invade, starts a long period of war. You have the jihad, then the Mujahideen, then the Civil War. When the Taliban come in, they just ban music entirely. I mean, no instruments. We're talking 20 years where the cultural life of this country basically is frozen. I can't even imagine what that's like. I can barely go a day without hearing some tunes. 2001, the Americans come in. Afghanistan's opened back up. The radios turn back on. And who comes out of them? Ahmad Zahir.


ROBERT: So Greg, when you turn on the radio today in Kabul, do you hear Ahmad Zahir?


GREGORY WARNER: I'm telling you, it's my main way that I connect with taxi drivers. Invariably, they're listening to an Ahmad Zahir song.


ROBERT: Even now?




ROBERT: Why? Because they're just not been a chance for new artists to emerge? Or it's just, you know, it was a deep freeze?


GREGORY WARNER: And also Ahmad Zahir reminds everybody of what Kabul used to be. I had this experience with my accordion again and again myself. Even when I played people my music, they'd get this smile on their face as if I was reminding them of something they knew before me. In fact, there was one time I was up north and there was this big music festival, and I had brought my accordion. And they said, "Well, why don't you play?" And I said, "Well I mean, I could play for you, sure." They said, "How about right now?" And so they kick the band that's on there off, they send them to drink green tea. They shove me up on stage. I'm standing in front of 300 Afghans, and these guys, they're not from Kabul. They don't speak English. They're not wearing suits and ties. This is a very Afghan crowd. So I figure I should play some Johnny Cash.


ROBERT: [laughs] Of course!




ROBERT: But they're going crazy!


GREGORY WARNER: It was the best crowd I've ever had.


JAD: Greg Warner traveled to Afghanistan with support from an international reporting project fellowship from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And if you visit our website, Radiolab.org, you can see video -- actual video footage of that Johnny Cash concert. It's worth checking out.


ROBERT: Yeah, he shot it, so there you see them all in their strange non-country western clothing.


JAD: Well, we should -- we're out of -- we're out of time. When you're on our website Radiolab.org, you can also send us an email: Radiolab@WNYC.org. I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: Thanks for listening.


[AARON FOX: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad, Lulu Miller, Rob Christensen, Ellen Horne and Tony Field. Production support by Sally Herships, Sara Pellegrini, Arielle Lasky, Heather Radke, Jesse Banco, Anna Brocko-Wayrock.]


[FAHIRA ZAHIR: And to Everett and Soren Wheeler. Thanks to Ellen Horne and Falling Tree Productions. Josh Kurtz and Dan Hershey.]


JAD: Well, okay. That was -- that was ...


ROBERT: That was Gregory.


JAD: That was Gregory and a very sober Jad outroducing him 11 years ago.


ROBERT: Are you embarrassed?


JAD: No, just commenting. I'm just noticing.


ROBERT: You now are more relaxed, I think on the radio than perhaps you were then.


JAD: Maybe. Maybe a little bit. Certainly older.


ROBERT: Older.


JAD: But anyhow ...


ROBERT: Gregory, too. Gregory's older, too.


JAD: But what's interesting -- what interestingly hasn't changed, is that some of the ideas that we were talking about in this episode, we're still playing around with. You know, I just actually last night released episode three of Dolly Parton's America, and episode four coming up next week very much vibe with these ideas, and explore them in their very Dolly-specific, very strange context. But the same kind of questions.


ROBERT: Well, where can people find the Dolly Show?


JAD: At the -- at the bodega.


ROBERT: At the bodega.


JAD: No, they can find it at DollyPartonsAmerica.org and also Apple Podcasts and iTunes and Google Play and all the things.


ROBERT: And wherever you get your podcasts.


JAD: Yes.


ROBERT: That's what they say these days. Okay, that's it for us for the moment. We'll be back ...


JAD: But only for the moment.


ROBERT: Only for the moment. We keep returning.


JAD: Mmm.


ROBERT: And that is our intention.


JAD: Yes.


ROBERT: So wait for us for the next time we're here, and until then lead a clean, useful and virtuous life.


JAD: [laughs]


Copyright © 2019 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.