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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
The arrangements and chord progressions of Junoon songs are straight ahead rock and roll, and would sound at home on any American radio station. But the lyrics are inspired by, and sometimes directly taken from, the poetry of great Sufi mystics like Jalaluddin Rumi and Bulleh Shah. Ahmad even set a verse from the Koran to a melody accompanied by acoustic guitar. Salman Ahmad’s vocal style may remind Westerners of Rod Stewart or Bruce Springsteen. But it actually comes from two years of careful study with qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He has also collaborated and performed with the great Islamic sacred singer Abida Parveen. One Junoon song is played on rock instruments, but based on the same scale as the Islamic call to prayer. Even the name Junoon comes from the qawwali tradition, referring to the state of ecstasy produced by spiritual singing and praying.
“When I was growing up in Pakistan we used to have qawwali singers come and perform in our house whenever there was an important occasion,” says Ahmad. “For me, this music had the same emotional intensity as American gospel or blues. It was ecstatic and yearning all at the same time. That’s why Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was able to perform with Western rock musicians like Peter Gabriel and members of Pearl Jam. Rock and roll spoke to that same kind of yearning in teenagers when I was growing up in Pakistan. Because there was no other outlet for entertainment or personal expression, the guitar and the drums took us to a whole other world. What I tried to do was put a message in the lyrics that would ground that yearning back in our culture.”
Although Ahmad could see the connection between rock and roll and spirituality, many of his countrymen did not. He spent his high-school years in New York, where he first discovered musical groups like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. When he came back to Pakistan to study at King Edward Medical College, there was a talent show on campus. Some of his friends were telling jokes, others were juggling, and he saw no reason that he shouldn’t play a Van Halen song on his electric guitar. Unfortunately, students from a local madrasa (traditional Islamic school) rushed angrily on the stage, declaring his music was blasphemous (although it seems unlikely that there are condemnations of electric amplifiers in either the Koran or the Hadith). “They smashed my guitar and the drum set of the guy who was playing with me,” says Ahmad. “I was very upset, because I had planned on doing that myself at the end of the performance.”
This first encounter did not deter the young Ahmad from playing rock and roll. He did get his M.D., but between classes he formed Pakistan’s first pop band, Vital Signs. Their debut album sold one million copies and featured the megahit anthem “Dil, dil Pakistan.” In 1990, he left Vital Signs and formed Junoon, which took Pakistani rock into new directions, not only spiritually but also politically.
Junoon took many courageous actions that got them into trouble. They produced a music video mocking the corruption of the Pakistani government. This got their music banned on Pakistani radio and television. They were interrogated, wiretapped, and received threatening phone calls from the police. However, their music became more popular than ever, eventually producing sales of over 25 million albums in India as well as Pakistan.
They were voted best international group by Indian MTV, beating Western groups like the Back Street Boys and Prodigy. “When a Pakistani group had that kind of success in India, it was rather like the British invasion of America by the Beatles—except that America and Britain were not at war with each other,” said Ahmad. When they went to India to accept the award, Junoon spoke out against the nuclear bomb programs of both countries. (“There should be cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion.”) The Pakistani government accused them of treason, a charge Ahmad angrily denied. “I told them to bring every statement we made in the newspapers, and put it on Pakistani television. If the people of Pakistan decide that we are traitors, we’re willing to be hung for that.”
A military coup in Pakistan soon made the charges irrelevant. Pakistan’s new leader, military strongman Musharraf, turned out to be an enthusiastic Junoon fan, and a critic of the Islamic extremism which had kept Junoon’s music illegal for seven years.
Unfortunately, Islamic extremism also got a huge boost from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Religious parties never got more than 5 percent of the vote in Pakistan until 9/11. After Afghanistan and Iraq, they’ve gotten support because of fear tactics saying, ‘There’s a war against Islam, and only we can protect you.’”
Ahmad realized that only moderates on both sides could combat the inflammatory rhetoric of the extremists on both sides. He organized a benefit concert for the victims of 9/11, and was criticized by many fans who were angered by stories of hate crimes committed against Muslims in the United States. He appeared on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect talk show, trying to clear up American misconceptions about Islam. “Those planes were not the only thing those terrorists hijacked on 9/11. They also hijacked my religion. They call themselves Muslims, but they only bow to the gods of hate, fanaticism, and bigotry.”
When the Pakistani city of Peshawar banned all music as unIslamic, Ahmad traveled there to argue with the mullahs over their interpretations of scripture. He was accompanied by a film crew, who produced a PBS documentary about his journey called The Rock Star and the Mullahs.
“I may look like a longhaired musician, but I know Islamic logic. I studied the Koran as a child, and I continue to go back to it as a source of inspiration for my music. There is absolutely nothing in the Koran that forbids music. On the contrary, the Koran says that the prophet David was given the gift of singing and that when he sang the mountains swayed. Why would God give a prophet such a gift if it were evil? And the Hadith they cite as banning music criticizes things like ‘idle talk,’ which obviously only refers to gossip, not music. I researched and studied this topic and spent two-and-a-half hours discussing it with the most prominent mullah in Peshawar. But instead of responding to my arguments, he just fell back on apocalyptic imagery. I saw through him, but I still treated him respectfully. In fact, he ended our discussion by entreating me ‘from the heart’ not to be angry with him, and asking me to come and see him again. Then he sang a song to me, and asked me to perform it at my next concert. After two-and-a-half hours of saying music was sinful, he was standing there singing to me.
“The fact is, these mullahs don’t really believe what they are saying. They’re attacking music because they are afraid of losing their gig. They see a longhaired musician getting 30,000 people at a concert, and they see us as intruding on their market share. In Pakistan, 50 percent of the population is under 25, and they are the ones who are attracted to rock music and videos. When I starting interviewing the students at the madrasas, all they wanted to talk about was Junoon’s music. They knew all the songs, and were asking for my autograph. But once the cameras came on, they all mouthed the same preprogrammed commentary, saying that music was forbidden.
“The kids say what they say because they’re poor and they get free food and education from the madrasas. Their parents leave them there and say, ‘raise them.’ There’s no other social safety net, so the kids have no choice but to echo the party line. But when the mullahs aren’t watching, they watch satellite TV, discuss cricket matches, and do all the other things that normal kids do. If they were provided with any other economic opportunities, they wouldn’t be there. Even though all music is banned in Peshawar, there are three or four rock bands from there that have made videos that are running on satellite music channels in Pakistan. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t be sure, but I think the mullahs are losing.”
Nevertheless, Ahmad strongly believes that a defeat for the extremists will result in a rejuvenation of Islam at its best.
“They are trying to recreate seventh-century Arabia in our time, and they are not even recreating it accurately. They say that women shouldn’t work outside the home. But the Prophet Muhammad was married to a working businesswoman who was 15 years older than he was. And she proposed to him.
“They try to avenge any action they think is disrespectful of Islam. But here is a story that all Muslim children hear from their mothers. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, first began to preach his message, there were many people who reacted hostilely. There was a woman who used to see Muhammad walk by her house every day, and she always dumped garbage on him from her window. Not once did he protest this, or try to get revenge. One day he walked by and she didn’t dump garbage on him. So he went up to see her, and discovered that she was sick. He stayed with her, nursed her back to health, and eventually she converted to Islam. He used persuasion and gentleness, not anger and force. He knew that the only way to win over people is through truth, humility, and compassion. There are so many stories in which his followers wanted him to act aggressively, and he would say that the truth will prevail, as long as we’re true to ourselves. The self-appointed spokesmen for Islam who claim they want to emulate Muhammad’s character erase this whole side of his story.
“Being a good Muslim is having faith in a higher power. Once you have that faith, it strengthens you against the fear of humiliation, poverty, and death. The Koran says only God has the power to exalt you. No one else has ultimate control over when you die or how much financial success you have. Once you accept this, it frees you from all the mind games we play with ourselves. It’s an empowerment which comes from submission. We think of submission as implying weakness, but it really means tuning in with the frequency of the universe. Once you’re in harmony with that frequency, then you can imagine your own destiny.
“Strength of faith is not in veils or beards or trouser length, it’s a matter of the heart. This was perfectly expressed in a poem by Bulleh Shah, which I used as the lyric for my song ‘Masjid/Mandir’ (the mosque and the temple):
Destroy the mosque
tear down the temple
break all that can be broken
but don’t ever break anyone’s heart
that’s the true house of God.
Information about Junoon recordings and concerts can be found at www.junoon.com
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.