N.R. Safi has never visited Afghanistan, but that country is part of his heritage—his father is of Afghan descent—and for a long time, its music has played in his head. A few years after founding Tucson, Arizona, psych band Myrrors (in which he’s known as Nik Rayne), Safi inherited a trove of his paternal grandfather’s tapes, filled with decades-old songs from Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. This spurred him to ramp up the solo project he calls Naujawanan Baidar, using his cassettes as both source material and inspiration to create new sounds.
The first two Naujawanan Baidar tapes, now compiled together as a double LP, mix traditional Afghan melodies, entrancing loops, outward-bound psychedelic jaunts, and enigmatic noise. Playing non-Western instruments such as the Afghan rubab, Indian tabla, and Persian sorna, Safi recorded directly to cassette, dubbing sounds back and forth through effects that he says “added [a] layer of barely-controlled chaos.” Recording in the American Southwest, he later edited the material in Eindhoven, Netherlands, where he currently lives. The results do indeed evoke a dusty tape unearthed in a market stall in some far-off land, but they also bear an otherworldly aura beyond any specific time or place.
Safi achieves that aura by emphasizing melody and texture in equal measure. Nearly all 15 tracks on Naujawanan Baidar involve simple hooks and rhythms from which Safi rarely wavers. But those elements aren’t just left to toil away on their own. Dense webs of crunchy distortion, brazen in-the-red mixing, and tape decay all wrap each tune in an alluring cloud of smoke. This hypnotic effect is mirrored in Safi’s repetitive song structures, which are so insistent it feels like they’re cutting new grooves into your brain as they play.
Within these loops, Safi generates lots of sonic variety. On “Khyber Sound,” a low rumble and a handclap beat ride under Safi’s fiery yelps. “Mojaherin” follows with a swaying rhythm somewhere between a march and a dance, sounding dubbed from a late-night broadcast of an old epic movie. In places, Safi’s repetitions turn abstract: The hammering “Symmetry of Knives” is seven minutes of metronomic crash and burn, while during the nuclear meltdown of closer “Panj Ruz Pesh,” it’s hard to discern Rafi’s source sounds among all the wreckage. Such hermetic sonics can induce claustrophobia, but they’re also exhilarating, a synthesis of old and new that forms its own kaleidoscopic ecosystem.
At times, Naujawanan Baidar feels like a random spin of an Afghan FM dial (it even opens with a static-filled “Radio Introduction”), not unlike some of the early compilations on Sublime Frequencies, taped straight from the receiver. Yet Safi’s work is bigger than a documentary field recording. He certainly respects the artists he’s building on—he cites Ahmad Zahir, Salma Jahani, and Beltoon and Hamidullah, among others—but his reimagining of this vital slice of Afghanistan’s musical legacy is as much about moving forward as looking back. The name Naujawanan Baidar means “enlightened youth” in Farsi; as he put it recently, “there is a big opportunity today for the children of the diaspora to look to their roots and bring some fresh new ideas to the table.” On Naujawanan Baidar, Safi advances that cause with intoxicating zeal.