Perfect Sound Forever

Mystical Musical Anarchy

by Chitra Parayath (Sept 2002)

After some uncertain baby steps in their early days of fame, Junoon seem to have taken a giant leap to the top of the South Asian pop music scene and landed them the moniker 'U2 of Pakistan' (though thankfully without the matching ego).

Guitarist Salman Ahmed grew up in Tappan, NY and then moved to Pakistan when he was 17 to enroll in Medical School, even becoming a U.N. good-will ambassador in the campaign against AIDS*. Still, his heart was set on a career in rock and roll, and in 1990 he formed the band Junoon with his neighbor, vocalist Ali Azmat. He later persuaded his friend from New York, bassist Brian O'Connell, to join the band and later added Jay Dittamo on drums and Ashiq Ali on South Asian hand drums (the tabla and dholak).

Challenging the hegemony of the religious orthodoxy and crusading against communal and national divisions, Junoon (meaning Frenzy in Urdu) urges a whole generation of Indians and Pakistanis to practice a form of personal and musical piety. Their songs are rants against meaningless ritualism and religious extremism.

Junoon's music is an eclectic mixture of western rock and traditional Punjabi and Urdu folk melodies. Sufi ghazals (Urdu poems) set to rocking rhythms inspired by Hendrix and Zeppelin convey lofty aspirations of world peace and universal brotherhood. The message is based on mystic harmony that is the cornerstone of Sufism, a Muslim philosophical and literary movement dating back to the 10th century. It requires that adherents make a direct connection with the divine, often through poetry or through music. Sufis believe that no word uttered is ever lost, that the sound reverberates into the cosmos infinitely, according to the spirit put into it.

Taking bold political stands, Junoon's rhetoric has often landed them in hot water in their native Pakistan. An early song ("Ehtesab") about corruption in high places and about accountability saw the band banned from Pakistani television and from performing in public. Nevertheless, he band has maintained its credibility with an unrelenting ethical rectitude.

Their albums have all been received well, with audiences seemingly enticed by their offering of traditional Sufi messages set to a Western style. Their angst driven, fiery albums Talaash, Inquilab, Azadi, Parvez, Ishq and the recent Daur- e -Junoon have all been embraced by music lovers the world over. Junoon has played in Central Park in New York, at the UN, at the Roskilde festival near Copenhagen, London, Tokyo and Paris among other places.

Of his role as musician and the band's version of rock, Salman Ahmed says "It's a different kind of rebellion. In the West, the music is seen as a force of rebellion, our music is seen as a force of unity in Pakistan. It has really played a role for national reconstruction."

Shehryar Ahmed, Salman's brother and the band's fervent promoter and manager echoes his words. "Junoon is about peace, we want to bring the world together through this powerful medium of song. We also want to tell the world about a Pakistan very different from how it is projected the world over. Pakistan, like Islam the, religion practiced by millions is much maligned and we would like to educate the world about the tolerant face of Islam."

Junoon has played to packed halls all over the US on their recent tour " Daur-e-Junoon", the concert for Peace. Evoking responses such as "an Asian answer to Santana"(The New York Times), Junoon is now working on an album of English songs. "I want to introduce Americans to our music" says a confident Brian " I am certain they'll take to it and love it once they sample it."

Junoon played in Boston April 27 and I spoke to Brian O'Connell the following day.

PSF: Tell us about your influences, early and current, what inspires you to make this kind of music?

The great Sufi saints, Bulleh Shah, Rumi, inspire our words. Our music is unique. We are great admirers of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Santana, and Queen...

PSF: You guys are largely responsible for the way a whole generation of folks looks at Islam. You have given a glimpse into this cool tolerant side of an oft misunderstood and maligned religion. When did you set upon doing this? Was it coincidental or did you always want to preach this message of love, peace and tolerance?

Our message is not about Islam alone, we hope it transcends religious and cultural differences, it is for all of humanity. I am a devout Christian and I believe that my music, our music is a vehicle to integrate people. We did not set out to be what we are today, our music has always been honest and from our souls.

PSF: The influence of your music on the intelligentsia is obvious but does the common man, the silent majority the world over, get the message encoded in your music?

Oh absolutely. Our fans are not just the intelligentsia in Pakistan and all over the world. 'Junoonis' are peace lovers and lovers of good music.

PSF: Music is your way to spread this message; do you see other artists, painters, actors etc, using their craft to good use? Are there many social activists like you folks in the present artistic scene in Pakistan?

Not like we do. I'm sure there are many artists who feel the way we do but no one has put their lives, their work on the line like we have. We are the voice of the silent majority in Pakistan. I am an American but I can say proudly that I speak for the Pakistani who yearns for peace more than any thing else. My role is strange. In Pakistan I often find myself defending America, her ways and when I am here I have a responsibility to educate Americans about Pakistan and her people.

PSF: Your rants against the system, in the prevailing political climate have made you many enemies in the past. We have heard though, that General Musharaff is a big fan of your work. Would it have helped if he wasn't? I mean maybe you would've come with more anarchy and disturbing stuff!

Like I said earlier, we did not set out to ruffle feathers or offend anyone. We told the truth, we exposed the underlying corruption of those in power. General Musharaff has done a great deal to rid the country and its politics of corruption. He does like our music and came on stage recently to join us in song.

PSF: I know that you guys are very popular in India, what is it about this special kind of anarchy in your music that draws so much universal appeal?

There is tremendous repression in India, in Pakistan. People want to hear stuff that makes sense. Our music appeals to people because they hear sincerity in our words. We are not hypocritical. This comes from within and folks seem to recognize that.

PSF: Traditionally Pakistan and India are foes, having fought many bloody wars. As we speak, tensions in the region are escalating. Any comments?

We have great love for India. Some of our most loyal fans are Indians. My wish would be for peace and brotherhood between these two great countries.

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* In 2001,The United Nations picked Salman Ahmed to act as a spokesman in the fight against HIV and AIDS. The move to appoint such a popular personality aims to bring mass attention to the effcts wreaked by this deadly disease across Pakistan. The campaign was kicked off by a poster of Salman Ahmed called "I care... do you?" The other big names who have already pledged their support include singer Ricky Martin, actor Danny Glover and Brazilian footballer Ronaldo.

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