Salman Ahmad has earned his swagger. Founder of South Asia’s longest-lasting band Junoon, he has a worldwide following of “Junoonis,” and has performed in recent years with the likes of Alicia Keys, Sting, Melissa Etheridge and Wyclef Jean.
Yet when Ahmad answers the phone from his home in Rockland County, N.Y., there is little of that rock star attitude. He is gracious, opinionated and says “thank you” half a dozen times through the interview.
That might be because Ahmad is more than just another rock star. In his recently published autobiography Rock & Roll Jihad, he outlines his journey from musician to his modern role as humanitarian, interfaith dialogue advocate and, almost by default, a spokesman for a religion that he says “has become hijacked by extremists and terrorists.” It’s no wonder he is frequently dubbed the “Bono of Pakistan” — a moniker that could apply both to his political activism and his band’s rock-anthem sound. (The U2 singer himself is an Ahmad fan.)
“So much of the media scrutinizes anyone who comes from the Muslim world after 9/11. A lot of artists don’t talk about it. I talk about it specifically, because not enough is being said to define true Islam,” says Ahmad, who performs a free solo show Saturday at the CNE Bandshell as part of the 10th Masala Mehndi Masti festival. “I have spoken against suicide bombings, against killing of innocents, which is prohibited in Islam.”
He does it not because he wants to, but because he feels he has to.
“Junoon played at Times Square on Earth Day. A week later, Faisal Shahzad tried to blow it up,” he said, referring to the Pakistani-American who attempted to detonate a car bomb on May 1. “The questions just come with the territory.”
It’s a political reality Ahmad has seen before. A young medical student in Lahore in the 1980s, Ahmad grew up during the repressive military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. It was during a concert at his university, when religious extremists got on stage and trashed his guitar, that his passion — or junoon — to pursue rock ’n’ roll was triggered.
His story is one many young Pakistanis relate to. Coming from a middle-class background, Ahmad was driven towards a career in medicine by his parents. Yet, even as he trudged through his medical degree, he gravitated towards a rarely considered path in music.
“There weren’t any pop or rock bands making music in Pakistan. You couldn’t play the music on the radio, you couldn’t play rock music on TV,” he says. “So we did secret gigs as college students in Lahore . . . and from word of mouth, there was a counterculture music movement that began.”
In the mid-’80s he became part of Pakistan’s first pop group Vital Signs, and went on the produce the song “Dil Dil Pakistan,” a nationalistic tune considered by many to be the country’s unofficial anthem.
“We had no idea it would become so big. It was recorded at home on a four-track recorder, and we didn’t have a studio, so bathroom tiles were used for echo.”
Three years later, he left the pop group due to creative differences, eager to find a band where he could mesh his love for more guitar-based rock music, the subcontinent’s musical legacy and Sufi poetry. That’s when he founded Junoon, with vocalist Ali Azmat, and American bass player Brian O’Connell.
As the group’s popularity grew internationally, so did the controversies around them in their homeland. The group faced threats from politicians, numerous attempts by the Pakistani government to shut them down, and even accusations of treason.
But they kept on playing, paving the way for other Pakistani artists who would follow in their footsteps.
“We were the first Pakistani band to tour India, and we opened the doors for the rest of the pop and rock artists to start to go into India, which now has become a trend.”
Now, almost 20 years later, Junoon is still around, although the group has ventured into solo careers. Despite his initial successes, it is what Ahmad has done in recent years that gives him the most pride: playing the first-ever rock concert in the disputed region of Kashmir, hosting a concert at the UN for Pakistani refugees, and playing at the UN after 9/11.
“My highlights are all related to those musical achievements where people are being helped, and you are not just promoting yourself, but you are contributing as a global citizen,” he says.
Source: The Star