Woodbridge High's Sulaiman Azimi Carries on Afghan Father's Musical Tradition

Habib Azimi, 51, left a burgeoning pop music career behind when he fled Afghanistan in the '80s. Decades later in Northern Virginia, his son Sulaiman is aiming for a career making pop music for his peers.
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To students and teachers at Woodbridge High School, senior Sulaiman Azimi is known as the toboggan-wearing, raspy-voiced singer/guitarist whose songs even the teachers like. Word is out that he has a music producer -- in New York.

Unbeknownst to many, however, is the musical history Sulaiman carries in his genes: His father, Habib Azimi, 51, was a pop/folk singer in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s and a regular on the country's national radio and television stations. He sang at private parties with Jalil Zaland, the godfather of the country's music scene. After fleeing Afghanistan's Communist-backed regime in 1983 with his wife, Habib moved to Northern Virginia, gave up the music profession, began working at a taxi company and started a family.

Now, as Sulaiman prepares to graduate from high school next month, he says that his musical ambitions are weighted with pressure to live up to and carry on his father's short-lived legacy.

"Somewhere deep down inside, when I'm songwriting, I'm doing it for him. I don't know if it's to impress him or not. I get emotional when I talk about him. My dad is the one who brought me into the music thing," Sulaiman said while rehearsing one night inside a small, red-walled studio in his home's basement. "I want to complete what he didn't get to complete."

Habib, a manager for White Top Cab Company in Alexandria and Fairfax County who once was known throughout Afghanistan by the stage name Habib Wali, views his son's path with a sense of nostalgia. "This is some kind of continuation. He's got it in his heart. When I play something for him, he gets it," said Habib, whose wavy mane and leather jacket of his youth have been replaced by baldness and fragile speech wrought by a stroke. "After his 15th birthday, I got him a guitar. I told him, 'You're dealing with a person's heart.' I told him not to pollute it or use it as a way of attracting women in a nasty way. 'Do it as an art.' "

Habib and Sulaiman share a father-son bond but represent distinct generations and cultural upbringings that, in their own small ways, are a chronicle of political and music history.

One grew up in Kabul in the 1960s and 1970s, experienced the fall of several regimes and a Soviet invasion, studied engineering, and played music with hand drums and a hand-pumped accordion-like keyboard. The other has come of age in a mostly white part of Prince William County, idolizing American bands such as the White Stripes, playing keyboards wired to computers and scoring video games to digital music.

Sulaiman has composed songs for three of his music technology class's albums -- the most recent was released on iTunes -- and has boosted his popularity with regular gigs at St. Elmo's in Alexandria and the Woodbridge Coffeehouse. He wants to score music for films, commercials, even video games. "The whole process of accomplishment is very important to me," he said.

With graduation looming, Sulaiman spends his days composing songs for his upcoming album and school assignments. He plans to attend Northern Virginia Community College this fall -- where, as it happens, his father enrolled after immigrating to the United States.

One recent night, Sulaiman sat in his writing studio and discussed his conflicting emotions about incorporating ideas about his ancestral home into his music. "About four months ago, I was listening to some Hendrix. He talked about his Native American background, and I realized I should talk or sing about something of Afghanistan -- sand?" he said, his guitar resting on his legs. "I could use so many Middle Eastern instruments."

Then, he pondered Afghanistan's political turbulence as potential material. "It's something I would never incorporate into my music. I'm not going to say everyone is corrupt," he said of the current Afghan government. "But I'm also just not going to say no one is corrupt. I write love songs."

That apolitical stance also defined his father and several other Afghan national singers in the early 1980s who fled the Soviet-occupied nation because they did not want to be coerced into promoting the Communist Party or have their religious freedoms suppressed. Many Afghans found asylum in the United States under President Ronald Reagan.

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