Interview by Gabriele Naddeo
Illustration by Thomas Borrely
Picture by Firas Colin
Roughly eight years after the release of “Kabul Fire Vol. 1”, German-Afghan hip hop producer Farhot published the follow-up of his first solo album at the beginning of 2021. As for many other projects developed just before the COVID-19 pandemic, he intended to put out the record in 2020 but eventually decided to postpone the release. He then ended up spending that year exploring a lot of the Afghan culture via the Internet, by watching YouTube clips, movies, and documentaries by Afghan directors. He soon realised that the new record was gradually becoming more and more influenced by this digital journey to a land in which he was born, but in which he never lived, since his family was just waiting for his birth to leave the country and move to Germany. By mixing modern beats and old Pashto songs and collaging together bits from the Afghan movies he watched during the lockdowns with rhymes from contemporary artists, Farhot managed to balance Afghan tradition and hip hop culture, producing a record that is incredibly fresh and rich in sound. Aside from cooperating with JuJu Rogers and Nneka – with whom he has collaborated since 2002 – the album also features the visual artist and activist Moshtari Hilal on the beautiful Sampling Watana. It is right in that song that the philosophy of the whole album unfolds to the listener: sampling is a way of celebrating diversity. It’s an art form that can link together all the different versions of us.
There are loads of samples from movies and documentaries in “Kabul Fire Vol. 2”. That is clear since the intro of the album, “Bale Bale”, sampling the film Opium War. Why did you decide to sample movies and how did the idea of the record come out?
After publishing my first album, “Vol. 1”, it felt natural to me to start thinking about a follow-up record. As I had the first volume out, a second one had necessarily to follow, right? When I was in the phase of getting started with this new record, I decided I wanted to explore more of the Afghan culture. As I couldn’t really get there, I started to watch lots of YouTube videos and movies. I have to say that at first I didn’t expect too much, since when I was a kid I watched with my parents a bunch of Afghan films that back then I didn’t like.
However, I was quite impressed by the quality I found. Above all, the movies by Siddiq Barmak blew me away, thus I felt quite lucky when I eventually had the chance to get in touch with him. He permitted me to use anything I wanted out of the film, thus I took the opportunity to sample some dialogues and sounds from his Opium War movie, like the one that you can listen to in the intro track. Though I have to say it was not too much of a conscious or planned decision – those films and dialogues came to me naturally. I looked for samples in those movies as I would do it when I listen to music.
Looking at the music production, you used loads of vintage instruments on this record: Yamaha CP70, Rhodes piano, the Celesta…
Let’s say that old instruments inspire me more than new ones. Let’s take, for example, the song Pul. That is just CP70, plus a couple of dirty breaks, and some indie samples. Not lots of ingredients, as you see, but the right ones, like the Italian cuisine! That beat is quite old and I consider it as one of my best productions. It passed through the hands of rappers like Nas and Action Bronson, then a couple of artists in Germany wanted it too. Eventually, it ended up on my second solo album.
In the same way, I usually enjoy listening to old music rather than to new tunes. That’s exactly what made me addicted to music in general: hearing people sampling old tracks and then finding out more about those songs from the past. I guess this fascination for the past influenced my taste for old instruments as well.
The same fascination for the past that pushed you to discover old YouTube clips from Afghanistan, right? I was interested in the poem that you sampled in Yak Sher. Can you tell me more about that?
In that song I sampled Ahmad Shah Massoud – a resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan – reciting a poem written by Mohammad Is’Hagh. In that case, I just wanted to focus on the poetry rather than on the character. I have always known him as a fighter, so when I found this YouTube clip of him reading out loud poetry it struck me and I wanted to make something out of it. He is a big part of the Afghan culture and is often seen as a legend, but not everyone in Afghanistan loves him.
In terms of sampling, I think what you and the artist Moshtari Hilal did on Sampling Watana is very fascinating. I would be interested in knowing more about the process behind that song, as well as the cooperation with her.
Moshtari is an amazing artist, as well as an activist. I have followed her works for years and when I started to focus on “Vol. 2” I involved her in the project as a sort of artistic consultant. I asked her lots of questions, showed her my productions, and she managed to turn all those rough ideas and thoughts into actual words, helping me build up the philosophy that is at the foundation of the whole album. She opened my mind to many topics, making me aware of how I made that album, of what I was doing as a producer and composer. Sampling Watana is when this process reached a peak. This song did not start from my sound but from some WhatsApp audios that Moshtari sent me. She spoke to me about sampling and collaging – something that she also does as a visual artist – as methods that bring together different fragments. As she says in the song, sampling and collaging are ways of putting together in one place so many different versions of us to celebrate that diversity, to make those different pieces exist at the same time.
She elevated the concept of sampling, making it the absolute centre of the work, rather than looking at it as a mere tool for making beats. She added meaning to that process. Thus, that song became a celebration of sampling through sampling, a powerful method to praise diversity, as it can connect distant worlds, different times, and different versions of us. Those words amazed me, so I started from those WhatsApp audios to find the right inspiration for the music. I eventually chose to sample a song in Pashto, which is one of the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, a language that I can’t speak. The word that you can hear repeated throughout the song, watan, means homeland.
Speaking of Afghanistan, you mentioned in a Bandcamp article that your family left the country straight after your birth, right?
Yes, we got on the carpet and flew over here! I was born during the Russian invasion. My family was just waiting for me to be born to get out of the country. We were fortunate enough to have the means because when you want to get out you need the money. The route that my family took to get out of Afghanistan included a trip by night on a donkey towards the Pakistani border, then reaching Iran, taking a flight to Turkey, and finally another flight to Germany. My family chose Germany mainly because they knew you had a good chance to be accepted when seeking asylum there. At first, we wanted to go to the U.S., as we have lots of relatives there, but then it didn’t work out.
I liked the fact that references to the Afghan culture come throughout the album in a variety of forms. Not just music or movies, but also, for instance, the carpets in the album cover or the song titles, like Kishmish which means raisin.
Again, Moshtari helped me a lot with that as well. I named the song differently at first, then she suggested the title Kishmish and I decided to keep it. I loved it, both for the way the word sounds and also because raisins play a big role within Afghan cuisine. In terms of the carpets shown on the cover, my father is in the carpet business, so he was able to make those for me – I got them just here in the studio!
Speaking of food, can you tell me more about the Deep Fried project? Is it linked to the Kabul Fire Records label? How did the label start?
The idea behind Deep Fried – a project that for the moment is paused – was to spotlight young producers, to create a stage for them, motivating them to create new stuff. I am a producer and composer but I have started quite late making music that was 100 percent me, so I liked the idea of supporting fellow younger producers by trying to create a network with them and for them, in this sense. The same motivation pushed me to found the label Kabul Fire Records. I don’t make a living out of the label’s proceeds, it is mainly something that I do for passion and to promote the idea of music that I like. For instance, once I saw live here in Hamburg an artist named Kuoko and fell in love with her sound and performance. We soon became friends and now she’s releasing music via Kabul Fire Records. I wanted to create a label that stood for my taste, that’s it.