Thursday, July 9, 2009

Junoon – A Ground Breaking Pakistani Rock Band

Since moving to New York back in 1982, I have tried to explore music, to be open to other types and be a bit eclectic. New musical discoveries are exciting even if the music is not new.

About a year ago, while researching a screenplay about honor killing that I am about to finish with my co-writer Rinde, I clicked on a link that said “Sufi rock”, which, if memory serves, took me to a Wikipedia article about Junoon (which I mentioned and linked a video in my Monday post about Lennon and McCartney).

Intrigued, I decided to look them up on YouTube. I clicked on the video for their song, “Bulleya” and was mesmerized firstly by the sight of what I thought was a Taliban-looking guy in the desert playing a white electric guitar. I was mesmerized secondly by his ability to play that guitar. I did not understand any of the words because it was sung in Urdu, based on a poem by Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh. But I wanted more. And I got it.

Junoon was/is comprised of lead guitarist Salman Ahmad, lead singer, Ali Azmat, and bassist, American Brian O’Connell. They are no longer together, having disbanded in 2003. However, they have done some reunion concerts in Dubai, and in 2007, at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Norway and Srinigar in 2008. You can read more about them here.

Junoon were called the “U2 of Pakistan” by the New York Times. But U2 never had to go through the attempts at repression that Junoon experienced. They were, at times, a political Pakistani rock band who criticized Benazir Bhutto’s corrupt government and held a concert in India at the height of nuclear tensions between Pakistan and India while calling for peace. This got them banned from Pakistan radio and television. Ironically, their ban was lifted by former Pakistani strongman, General Pervez Musharraf.

They were the first rock band ever to play a concert inside the United Nations General Assembly Hall.

Junoon is rooted in Sufi Islam, which is, as Ahmad has explained as “the mystical side of Islam, the anti-Taliban. People who follow Sufism are tolerant and love diversity; they seek knowledge in beauty and truth. I am a seeker of beauty and truth.”

Ahmad did a documentary in 2003 called “The Rock Star and the Mullahs” where he confronted fundamentalist mullahs regarding their insistence on Islam’s perceived prohibition against music. This is the first of six parts. In the last part, even the anti-music mullah sings for Ahmad.

Ahmad’s attitude toward his religion hints at John Lennon’s in his completely misunderstood remarks about being bigger than Jesus.

This is a 20 minute VH-1 documentary about the band, hosted by Susan Sarandon.

I think Bill Maher and Gene Simmons missed Ahmad’s point in the segment from Maher’s show. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding or disapproval on Maher's part of Ahmad’s use of the word “fundamental”.

And I think Maher must not have known enough about Junoon, unless his line about our commonality not solving the problem was taken out of context. If Maher was not fully aware of Junoon or Ahmad before the show, that would easily allow him to miss the point of Junoon entirely regarding "our commonality".

The power of Junoon is not just our commonality, but how Junoon, through Sufi Islam, can have a progressive impact on Islamic youth and challenge fundamentalists by giving Islamic youth something other than fundamentalism to adhere to since all youth need something to belong to. I think even Maher would agree on that. Simmons on the other hand, who cares?

Another one of my favorite Junoon songs, although not political, but which has much humor in the video, is Pappu Yaar. It take it to be a parody of a Pakistani music mogul auditioning the next one-hit wonder.

While all of these songs, and the controversy, are a few years old, the legacy of Junoon and Ahmad is very strong. Junoon has inspired a Pakistani rock scene that still thrives.

In May 2008, Junoon performed in Srinagar, in Kashmir, and invited militants and separatists to join them in song after receiving deaths threats from the militants who attempted to prevent their concert. Obviously, Junoon has resolved to not allow themselves to be intimidated in their pursuit of peace through music.

Recently, Ahmad spoke out against the peace accord Pakistan had made with the Taliban in their attempt to take over and impose Sharia law in northwest Pakistan. In this regard, he embodies Lennon’s legacy of peace through activism and music.

To quote from the Who album, The Who Sell Out—“More music, more music, more music, more music.”