Maybe it was the 13-hour time difference. Maybe it was arriving at 6 a.m., after two nearly sleepless nights in coach, at an airport that had recently been attacked by terrorists, where—at least at the arrival lounge—it seemed that hardly anyone spoke a language I could understand. Or the fact that from all the news reports, conversations with friends, and even the tension on the plane, it was clear that Pakistan was entering another one of those violent periods that have defined its short history.
Landing in Islamabad, I was literally on the opposite side of the Earth, as my five year old son Alessandro pointed out to me a few days before I left when he traced the longitudinal line from California over the North Pole and down (roughly) to Pakistan. Even Iraq, a far more violent and depressing place today than Pakistan—as of early 2008—somehow felt more familiar to me. At least I could speak Arabic. Pakistan was definitely not in my cultural and historical comfort zone. Yet the Himalayas were only a couple of hours away; for all I knew, the Buddha had walked not too far from where I was standing. And quite probably, so had Osama bin Laden.
I had come to Pakistan on the trail of a friend and kindred spirit, Salman Ahmed of the Pakistani supergroup Junoon. Salman was home in upstate New York preparing for a stint as Artist in Residence at Queens College. My journey was to find out how and why Salman, and Junoon bandmates Ali Azmat (vocals) and American Brian O’Connell (bass), managed to do what few artists I’ve met in the Muslim world—or anywhere else for that matter—have done in quite a long time: create a powerful, truly ground breaking new form of rock ‘n roll , and use their fame to offer a direct challenge to a corrupt and despotic political and economic system.
It depresses Salman to no end that Pakistan today is in even worse shape than when Junoon first made its musical stand against the system in the mid-1990s. Indeed, the country seems to be more frayed than any time since the eastern half of the country split off to form Bangladesh almost two generations ago. A generation before, in 1947, the establishment of Pakistan had been accompanied by great bloodshed between Indian Muslims and Hindus and one of the greatest population transfers in world history. It also saw the creation of a country out of four regions—Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (part of Kashmir is also under Pakistani control)—that had very little in common culturally and linguistically.
At the root of the push to create a separate Muslim state for the Muslims of India was the belief by the community’s leaders that Muslims would never be more than second class citizens in a Hindu-dominated state. Creating a “spiritually pure” (Pak) Muslim country (stan) that could link together the various ethnic groups of Northwestern and Eastern India was considered the best answer to this problem by the majority of India’s Muslim elite. Offering a cultural alternative to the materialism of the Western culture bequeathed to India was also an important consideration for Pakistan’s founders.
The drive to create a unique culture also provided a political and spiritual foundation for contemporary Pakistani music. In fact, the ideology behind “Pakistan” was far more successful as a catalyst for developing Pakistani music than it was in uniting the country’s disparate peoples into a coherent nation. A semi-feudal economic system, ethnic discrimination, and rampant corruption led the Bengali province of East Pakistan to split off from the more powerful western half of the country and establish Bangladesh in 1971. Similar problems have continued to plague the country since then, whether under the dictatorships of Zia ul-Haq or Pervez Musharraf, or the more “democratic” regimes of Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir, and her rival Nawaz Sharif.
The Passion of Pakistani Rock
Pakistan’s corrupt and violent rulers did produce one good thing, albeit inadvertently: Pakistani rock. Rock ‘n roll in its various forms has flourished in Pakistan despite official prohibitions against the music (whether through censoring albums or prohibiting concerts) during the 1970s through early 1990s. Even today, musicians find it difficult to find forums in which to play, especially bands that play the harder styles of rock and metal. Hotels, university halls, a few public theaters, and army bases (which are supposed to be free of the conservative religious sentiment that is opposed to rock music) remain the only venues where most metal bands can perform.
Yet out of this difficult soil a large and vibrant music scene has grown. In a reversal of the standard practice in the United States or Europe, in Pakistan bands tend to record their own music in home studios, then follow up by recording inexpensive, but thanks to digital technology, professional-quality videos. These are sent to MTV Pakistan, The Musik, or upwards of a dozen other music video channels. Based on viewer response the video might make it into heavy rotation, at which point a record company will pay a flat fee for the rights to sell the band’s album. This leads to more frequent and bigger concerts, and, if everything works out just right, tours across Pakistan, India, the Persian Gulf, and the U.K. (It’s worth noting that Western rockers have recently picked up on this idea. As Cheryl Crow explains, “It’s an interesting time because you used to make a video for a million dollars with a great director. Now, you spend $10,000, if that, with no hair and make-up, and do it completely guerrilla style… It’s really really exciting to just go out and shoot, like how Bob Dylan shot ‘Don’t Look Back’ — it’s just a guy with a camera and you’re performing the song.”
Rock ‘n roll would never have taken root, at least in its present form, without Junoon. The band is everywhere, despite being more or less split up as of the time of writing. Junoon remain the gods of Pakistani pop music. The band’s name is spoken of by other rock musicians in Pakistan with the kind of reverence—and occasionally jealousy—that was once inspired by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Junoon created a style of music, known as “Sufi rock,” which mixes hard driving guitar riffs with traditional melodies. In Arabic, Persian, and Urdu junoon means “passion” or “obsession.” The name was chosen to reflect the band members’ objective of using music to confront the repressive political, social, and economic realities of the Zia and then Bhutto governments. “The band was a specific counter to the legacy of the dictatorship,” Ali Azmat explained to me. “The first political statement that I made was to get a rock band together. I wanted to sing about the social disparity and violence in society and articulate those issues through music.” In short, the members of Junoon saw themselves as “musical guerrillas,” and in response the government did its best to stop the band, banning it for a time, following members, and tapping their phones.
Salman, the band’s co-founder, was born in Pakistan, but he lived in upstate New York from the ages of 11 to 18, during which time he was lucky enough to see Led Zeppelin perform during its last U.S. tour, in 1977. When Jimmy Page came on stage through a haze of smoke wearing a white satin dragon suit and playing a double-neck guitar, Salman knew his future: to take the power and dynamism of Zeppelin’s music and blend it with the beauty and spiritual heights of the qawwali and Sufi music of his homeland to produce a style of music that the world had never heard before.
Salman’s teenage years were spent literally bleeding into his guitar (that’s what happens when you practice up to a dozen hours a day for months on end). And so it wasn’t surprising that when his parents convinced him to return to Pakistan to study medicine, he spent as much time jamming and playing in talent shows as he did studying anatomy. “My guitar became my stethoscope and music became my medicine,” he says. It wasn’t easy to heal the nation, however, given the ban against rock albums and concerts. Making matters worse, militants regularly destroyed the band’s equipment at gigs, and even threatened to shoot its members.
Despite the numerous obstacles, by the mid-1990s Junoon was attracting 20,000 or more screaming fans to their shows, the majority of them women. In the process, the band became the first Pakistani group to win the MTV India awards for best rock band, beating out Sting and Def Leopard. But Junoon were always more than just a musical group. With fame came a more urgent sense of mission, which saw them step—literally, in front of a throng of Pakistani and Indian media—over the border between Pakistan and India to promote peace between the two countries. They also took on the nuclear arms race, arguing that Pakistan should be pursuing “cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion.”
Needless to say, a public challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear program was bound to cause problems at home. But whatever the backlash they endured was mild compared to the reaction of the government to the band’s 1997 hit “Ehtesab,” which chronicled the corruption of the democratically-elected Bhutto government (which had replaced the military regime of Zia al-Huq after the latter’s death in 1988). One of Bhutto’s aids called and asked Salman if he was looking to commit suicide by doing such a song. His reply was the perfect synthesis of heavy metal and rebellious activism: “Fuck you, motherfucker”—with two middle fingers added for emphasis. The risks Junoon was taking with their music and politics were clear.
If there could be no Pakistani rock without Junoon, there would be no Junoon without Led Zeppelin, and Salman Ahmed’s hero, Jimmy Page. The influence is obvious when you listen to riffs on Junoon songs such as “Ghoom,” “Meri Awaaz Suno,” and “Saeein.” All are innovative blends of hard driving riffs, “secret” Jimmy Page tunings (although I’m not sure how he learned them, since Page hadn’t revealed them when Salman recorded the songs), and qawwali melodies Salman had learned as a student of the great Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The band’s powerful, no frills performances also resembled the classic Zeppelin shows of the early 1970s. Yet listening to Junoon, what stands out, paradoxically, are not the hard rock riffs. Instead, there is a softness to Pakistani metal, and rock more broadly, that is quite unique. Not soft in the sense of lacking power. Rather, soft in the sense in which a Tai Chi master speaks of softness as the key to deploying far more power than is possible when the body is rigid.
Most metal bands I’ve discussed in this book, even the Gnawa-inflected scales of “Marockan roll,” stick close to the traditional foundations of metal in their focus on the down beat (even at ridiculously high speeds) and riffs whose melodies stay within the melodic parameters of traditional European minor scales. Junoon and other Pakistani bands such as Karavan, Mizraab, and Aaroh are too deeply grounded in the more fluid and tonally flexible music of the Subcontinent to be limited by these structures. They don’t have the Iranian koron as a tonal or political inspiration, but they do have the complex scales of classical Indian music, which offer twenty-two intervals to choose from in constructing the that or raga—scale—of a particular song).
You can hear the deep Subcontinental roots of the band in songs like one of Junoon’s biggest hit, “Sayonee,” which features a catchy acoustic guitar rhythm driven by a tabla groove and funky bass line, over which Ali Azmat and Salman Ahmed alternate haunting Urdu vocals and a fiery rock guitar solo. Perhaps most famous is the song “Ghoom,” in which Salman plays a Jimmy Page-style red Gibson doubleneck guitar in an homage to Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” with the addition of a hard-edged riff at the bridge. Such eclecticness might make Junoon’s metal credentials suspect to hardcore metalheads, but it’s what gives Pakistan one of the most interesting music scenes in the world.
Metal Rules in the Abode of Islam
Until a month or so before I arrived, Pakistan’s capitol, Islamabad (“Abode of Peace”) was considered a refuge for the country’s Westernized elite to work and play. Then terrorists struck one of the city’s poshest hotels, followed a few months later by a siege of the famed “Red Mosque,” which left scores of militantly religious students, and police dead.
Islamabad’s wide and relatively clean boulevards and grid-like pattern, common to the newly established capitals of developing countries in the post-war era, were intended to symbolize the efficiency of modern Pakistan, as was the division of the city into different sectors and zones (commercial, educational, residential, industrial, and diplomatic). Poor people get around on small, beat-up motorcycles. Women have to ride side saddle behind their husbands; it isn’t uncommon for for them to fall off as the bikes make their way through the country’s pot-hole infested streets, especially if they’re old or carrying young children. Most of the wealthier inhabitants of the residential, diplomatic and “defense” zones—the gated communities in most of Pakistan’s major cities—have drivers to ensure that their wives and children can move around Islamabad, or Pakistan’s other major cities, in the relative safety of their SUVs (the drivers often double as shot-gun toting home guards at night).
A few of the more flamboyant residents apparently also travel around in dune buggies. At least, that was what was parked next to the half dozen soldiers guarding a party being thrown by the son of one of the country’s wealthiest families. I had come to the party on the invitation of Arieb Azhar, the leader of an emerging generation of Sufi-rock singers who are grounded in Sufism as a spiritual practice and not merely as a source of lyrical and vocal inspiration. Arieb started out as a rock singer when the scene in Pakistan was in its infancy. The difficulty in getting gigs and making a career in the country prompted him to leave for Croatia, where he spent thirteen years studying and working, including the civil war and its aftermath. “When I arrived I was a Marxist, and I sang revolutionary songs with a very harsh voice. Then I moved on to singing Irish and country music because that’s what was popular at the time. Now I’m trying to lose all the harshness, trying to become more of a human being as a singer. That’s where the Sufism comes in, because being a Sufi forces you to focus on your own humanity and those of everyone around you as the core of being a spiritual person.”
The party took place in the backyard of the family’s home, which was the largest on a pleasant, tree-lined block of elaborate villas in Islamabad’s swank “F-8 Sector.” The entire yard was tented, with hand-woven oriental carpets on the grass, and was ringed by spotless white couches and tables. There was a delicious, fully catered buffet and barbecue. For entertainment there was a stage with a lighting and sound system, upon which half a dozen young rock and metal bands performed their best Guns N’ Roses impersonations along with Pakistani hits. A professional cameraman and photographer recorded the evening, which as far as we could tell was in celebration of little more than the wealth and fabulousness of the young hosts and his guests.
The party goers were slightly younger versions of the glamorous Pakistanis who inhabit the country’s film, television, and music video industries. Tall, thin, with fine features and skin tones light enough to make their Subcontinental exoticism seem almost safely European, the guests ranged in age from 17 to about 24 years old. All were dressed in the peculiarly Pakistani fashion style that combines Armani A/X chic and the neo-traditional fashions of rock star turned television preacher and fashion designer, Junaid Jamshed. The young men looked like their lives were comfortably and enviably laid out before them with no bumps on the horizon. The women perfectly fit the image of them on TV: modern, secular, yet ultimately there to be the objects, and servants, of men’s desires.
Alcohol was being consumed in good quantities, although not openly. So were any number of illegal drugs. Most disturbingly for the half-dozen or so guards—their discomfort was clear—the young men and women were behaving towards each other in ways that, to say the least, were not traditionally acceptable. You could feel the sex in the air. But however un-Islamic the gathering, for the parents of these kids such parties are a convenient, “modern” way to ensure that their children wind up marrying socially and economically acceptable partners.
The guests either didn’t notice or didn’t care, but it was pretty clear to me that the heavily armed guards (AK-47s and shotguns) were not to happy with the behavior of their charges. The scowls on their faces made it perfectly clear what they thought of the kids they were protecting. I couldn’t blame them, honestly, since the guests were treating them with a kind of condescension and even contempt that was frightening considering the fire power at the guards’ disposal. Within the space of three minutes, Arieb and I each turned to his friend Tamur, a veteran of the metal scene, and half-joked that one day a guard was going to snap and mow down the next generation of Pakistan’s leaders.
Yet it was hard not to be amused at the earnestness with which the bands were playing covers of ’90s metal anthems and Pakistani rock hits—it seems that every rich teenage boy in Islamabad wants to be Slash. It stopped being funny, however, when it was our turn to perform. There was a definite buzz about our hitting the stage since Arieb’s video had been in fairly heavy rotation on MTV and the Musik. But once Arieb started to sing a rocked out adaptation of a Sufi melody, the rugs and couches emptied as everyone headed for the buffet. Clearly the kids weren’t in the mood for anything that smacked of religion, even if it was clothed in metal. To Arieb’s credit, however, he brought most of the crowd back by the second song.
As soon as we finished playing the guests moved inside to begin the “rave” segment of the evening’s festivities. One especially antsy guard, dressed in a uniform that was half gurkha and half colonial era hotel doorman, brusquely directed the partiers inside by pointing his shotgun at them. It was clearly time for us to leave, and we headed to a much quieter musical gathering, this time of devotees of Sufi inspirational music, a few blocks away. Arieb picked up a guitar and was joined by a friend on harmonium. They spent the rest of the night sitting on a small platform in a nice middle class living room lit by aromatic candles, belting out songs of praise to the Prophet, while about a dozen middle aged men and women drowned themselves in Rumi and Stoli.
A few kilometers away, in Islamabad’s downtown, six thousand male and female students from the Jamia Hafsa religious seminary gathered to burn—literally—CDs, video recorders, and even televisions worth tens of thousands of dollars as part of a conference on “the enforcement of Sharia and glory of Jihad.” They also issued warnings to the owners of music shops to shut down their “un-Islamic” businesses within one month or be attacked, a worrying development for the country’s capital, normally considered one of the most liberal cities in the country. These threats were not to be taken lightly. Extremists have killed government ministers with impunity, and have burned down “Western” (in fact, Pakistani owned and operated) fast food restaurants and banks, and have threatened the president of one of the country’s main universities. As he explained to me at a closed forum we both attended that was sponsored by the Council of Islamic Ideology: “A commission I was on wrote a report about education reform and when a conservative mullah read a copy he called me a traitor. That may not mean much in your country, but here if someone like him calls me a traitor someone will shoot me on the street. And if I call him a traitor in return because of his corruption and obscurantism…” “Someone will shoot you on the street?” “Exactly. So we shelved the report and the status quo continues. That’s the way it works here, how religion and politics mix to maintain the current power structure in place.” The extremists feed off the widespread anger at the country’s westernized, secular elite, which in turn uses the threat of the extremists to maintain a semi-police state that ensures their continued dominance of the country’s politics and economy.
Extremists might target fast food restaurants, but most Pakistanis still eat in them if they can afford to. I also sought out the local Pizza Hut after a few days of spicy Pakistani food when I met with the director of one of Pakistan’s oldest private hospitals. He had graciously arranged for a car to take me to Peshawar and the Northwest Frontier Province the next morning, and because he was from the region and had close ties to the tribal areas, I would have no trouble traveling around the otherwise less than hospitable, and potentially dangerous, region.
As we shared a remarkably spicy cheese pizza my dinner companion (who asked that his name not be used) summed up the basic problem facing Pakistan. Quite simply, he explained, Pakistan does not exist. There is, of course, a state, such as it is, and a flag, and until its disastrous performance in the 2007 World Cup in Jamaica, one of the top five cricket teams on earth (no matter where you go in Pakistan, in the middle of rice paddies or garbage dumps, you’ll find young boys and old men playing cricket). But there is no cohesive Pakistani identity. Poverty, inequality and corruption are so rampant few people have faith in the future. And the situation is only getting worse, as he sees first hand as the administrator of a major hospital.
Some Pakistanis blame themselves for the range of problems affecting their country. Others, both religious conservatives and more secular leftists, blame the United States and the West more broadly. And their attacks can be vehement, as I experienced while being interviewed by Talat Hussayn, the country’s most well known news host, who challenged me: “Isn’t it true that the U.S. has been continuously at war for over a century, that it’s invaded dozens of countries?” Displaying the cover of my last book, Why They Don’t Hate Us, on his monitor, he asked, “Why shouldn’t people hate you? Why shouldn’t Pakistanis be angry at America for what you’ve done? Surely you’re being naïve.”
More nuanced and encouraging are the views of the graduate students at the International Islamic University, who are pursuing an innovative curriculum that is combining 1,000 years of Islamic learning with the latest developments in American and European scholarship. The group with whom I spent the most time were all Ph.D. students in comparative religion. I was quite nervous when I was introduced to them as someone who’d lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew—in fact, my stomach sank a bit—especially as their long beards and traditional dress reminded me a lot more of the Taliban than the graduate students with whom I normally spend time.
But as is so often the case, appearances are deceiving. They explained that they were all learning Hebrew, as well as biblical criticism and contemporary approaches to religious studies as part of their course work. They had little time or desire to engage in spirited critiques of the United States or the West; they were much more interested in discussing how to better integrate “Western” and Islamic methodologies for studying history and religion, and more troubling, how to criticize the government “without disappearing” into the dark hole of the Pakistani prison system.
Founding a Scene
Most of the students with whom I met were not Junoon fans (at least not openly), but it was clear that many appreciated the risks the band took to force a national discussion on some of the country’s most distressing social and political problems. It wasn’t Junoon that started the rock scene in Pakistan, however. The seminal band was Vital Signs, founded in 1987 by Junaid Jamshed, who was joined by Salman Ahmed on guitars for a few years before Salman left to form Junoon.
Until the creation of Vital Signs, and for years after, rock music traveled across Pakistan the old-fashioned way, through sharing old rock magazines, pirated tapes, and borrowing music from anyone who already had it. What was missing until Vital Signs arrived was a certifiable hit song. That was provided by the band’s patriotic smash hit “Dil Dil Pakistan,” which in 2003 was voted the third most popular song of all time on BBC World.
What made Vital Signs and Junoon so important to Pakistani culture was that they struck a nerve in Pakistani society, especially among young people. Vital Signs’ videos depicted young men with relatively long hair having fun, driving around, smoking cigarettes, and hanging out with girls in a non-threatening or overly sexualized way. A few years later Junoon would offer an even more direct, positive and uplifting alternative to the dour, oppressive, and violent ultra-conservative, Saudi-sponsored vision of Islam.
From Junoon’s Sufi perspective, religion must function as music does in linking people together rather than tearing them apart. Of course, such a view of religion is not going to be well-received by an authoritarian system that for decades has used religion to divide and rule. And so Junoon was accused by officials of “belittling the concept of the ideology of Pakistan” and disagreeing with “national opinion” just for suggesting that their Pakistani and Indian fans were more alike than their national differences would suggest.
When Salman started receiving death threats for daring to play a supposedly secular style of music, he decided to tackle the issue head-on with a documentary film, “The Rock Star and the Mullahs,” that trailed him as he traveled through Pakistan speaking with religious leaders. “Unless you confront these critics directly, there’s always going to be a sense that music is haram [forbidden]. With little regard for his personal safety, Salman actually brought a guitar into conservative madrasas and mosques and sang verses from the Qur’an.
What convinced Salman that his position on music was right was not the response the viewers see on camera, which depicted the Taliban telling him he’d burn in hell for putting the Qur’an to music, regardless of the purity of his intentions. Rather it was what happened once the cameras were off: teachers and students asked him for his autographs and admitted that they knew the words to all his songs. One mullah even started to sing beautifully. “He was clearly afraid of losing his gig! The mullahs are just hungry for an audience. They want people to listen to them, not to the musicians. But music can bridge the gap between religion and the people; that’s why it’s the soundtrack to peace.”
The Final Frontier is Inside Us
Driving into Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), there is a sign on the road that welcomes you to “the land of hospitality.” This is not what I expected to find on my way to Peshawar, gateway to the region of the country controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding.
In the U.S., and even in Pakistan, the NWFP is known almost exclusively as a haven for terrorists, ultra-traditionalists, and drugs and arms smugglers. No doubt it has many of those, but it also has the ancient valley of Swat, the “Switzerland of Pakistan” (at least until the Taliban overran it in the fall of 2007) because of its well-known ski resorts. The region is also home to some of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist statues in the world. And until Saudi-style extremism invaded the region—courtesy of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, which during the Afghan war turned the NWFP into the staging area for mujahidin activities in neighboring Afghanistan—the region was popular with adventurous Americans, from Texan gun enthusiasts, who flocked to the famed gunsmiths of Peshawar, to Robert DeNiro, whose visit to the Khyber Pass is memorialized by photos of him hanging in local restaurants.
When you arrive into Peshawar Road signs point to the “Imaginarium Institute for American Studies.” Yet the U.S. Consulate’s American Club changed its name for security reasons. The gates leading into the tribal areas warn, “No Foreigners Allowed,” yet Peshawar is awash in foreign money and people, its “smugglers’ bazaar” awash equally in weapons, drugs, pornography and cheap Chinese electronics. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, USAID, European NGOs, the Taliban—all have staked a claim to a city that has been at the crossroads of empire since Alexander the Great crossed the nearby Khyber Pass.
So has Sajid & Zeesha, Pakistan’s best rock duo, whose improbably beautiful album One Light Year at Snail Speed, filled with songs driven by acoustic guitars and keyboards, was recorded almost entirely in the home studio of the band’s keyboard player, Zeeshan Parwez, using old synthesizers and guitars bought for a song at the smugglers’ bazaar. The duo’s music, which features lush vocals that flow over techno and house beats, acoustic guitars, and vintage synth sounds, symbolizes the the contradictions of living on the frontier of Pakistani society and identity.
The day I arrived an article about the band appeared on the front page of Dawn, the country’s most important English-language newspaper: “Peshawar is not a place known for being very music savvy, and the idea of a band coming from there was surprising for many music enthusiasts.” In fact, as the duo explained to me, Peshawarians are called “walnuts” by other Pakistanis because they are supposedly “hard-headed or stupid. When we tour in other Pakistani cities people actually ask us if we live in mud huts.”
Such ignorance stems from the fact that so few Pakistanis from outside the region go to Peshawar these days, since the city and the surrounding tribal areas have become identified with the Taliban and reckless violence. Yet the rock scene there is almost two decades old. Sajid Ghafoor, the duo’s singer and guitarist, was one of its founders, and from the start has been determined to show Pakistanis that Peshawar has a vibrant, creative, cultural scene at the forefront of Pakistani society.
He looks like someone straight out of the 1970s. His straight, longish dirty brown hair, pleasant face, and thin build remind me of Jackson Browne, a perception that was reinforced by his singing style, which is heavily influenced by 1970s California acoustic rock, Neil Young and, more recently, Counting Crows. When he’s not playing guitar, Sajid is an international and environmental Law Professor at Peshawar University with degrees from Hull University in the U.K. and the University of Oslo. Of the two professions, however, his haunting voice and catchy songs are what define him.
If Sajid writes most of the band’s songs, Zeeshan, who’s shorter, heavier, and a bit less stylish, is the duo’s foundation. An MBA and a strong talent for computer technology allowed him to build a professional music and video production studio out of the musical detritus available at the smugglers’ bazaar. When he’s not recording albums, Zeeshan is shooting videos for many of Pakistan’s biggest bands, and hosting the MTV Pakistan show “On the Fringe.” Neither Sajid and Zeeshan would leave Peshawar, which they regard as a refuge from the crass materialism and lack of social solidarity that pervades the country. As Sajid explained, “Peshawar might be light years behind other cities, yet we don’t deviate from our traditions and culture. People still look out for each other. Even if we party we respect tradition.”
Not that either of them have the chance to party that much. It’s nearly impossible to perform in Peshawar since the last election put the ultra conservative Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Party in power and the government turned control of the NWFP over to local leaders in the vain hope that in return they’d curtail Taliban violence. “The only places one could play since then is at nearby army camps, or at the American Consulate’s American Club,” which in good colonial fashion doesn’t allow Pakistanis inside unless they’re working there. Alternatively, there are private parties, of a kind more discreet than the one I attended in Islamabad, in the burgeoning elite neighborhoods and suburbs of Peshawar. But it’s hard to make a career of such infrequent gigs.
Sajid has deep roots in Peshawar (over lunch at Peshawar’s best restaurant, Shiraz, Zeeshan bragged that his partner is a descendant of Genghis Khan as Sajid smiled sheepishly), but his musical tastes range far more broadly than the traditional music of the NWFP. “One record shop here got the best music before shops in the big cities. And the coolest was metal. We grew up on metal. Megadeath, Metallica, Rush, Rage Against the Machine, and of course Floyd and Zeppelin; the sound just related to our feelings of aggression living in a dictatorship, and helped us get out the anger in a healthy way.”
“There used to be so much culture here, especially music” Zeeshan lamented. “Junoon used to play here. We could play for crowds of thousands. But once Musharraf handed over control of the NWFP to the religious parties that all changed.” Zeeshan explained this as we headed toward the tribal areas. Neither of them were prepared to make a trip of it, and the armed guards standing next to the sign reading “no foreigners allowed” led me to agree, although I was well aware that if I entered under the “protection” of someone from the region I would be all but untouchable by local custom.
But Sajid and Zeeshan also know that this tradition is under threat, and they are despondent about the growing extremism of Pakistani Islam and its intersection with government corruption—a combination that led the duo to record its first Pashto-language song, “Lambay,” soon after my visit. Echoing the description by Moe Hamzeh of Lebanon’s increasing religious-secular divide, Sajid said, “When I was in school I had religious friends. We respected them and they respected us. My brother is one of the most famous guitarists and producers in Pakistan, but prays five times a day. What you have to understand is that the Islamists who are against music are against it not because a fatwa has told them it’s wrong, but because music opens minds and allows people to express themselves. They use Islam to stop others for political or economic reasons. But that’s not Islam.”
With a corrupt and authoritarian regime on one side, and the Taliban literally a few villages away, there’s not that much space for Sajid and Zeeshan to stake out the kind of directly political positions that made Junoon famous a decade ago. Instead, they use their work to educate people and get them to question authority. Perhaps the most political song Sajid & Zeeshan has written is “Free Style Dive.” Zeeshan’s animated video of the song depicts a husband, whose wife has left him because he worked in a fast food restaurant, fantasizing about robbing a bank. The clip shows him shooting several people before being arrested, at which point it becomes clear that he’s imagining the scene, because it rewinds to his putting on his uniform and heading out to another dreary day. After clocking out at the end of his shift, the man spends the evening sitting on a bench at Khyber Park staring despondently at the Pass. We drove by the park soon after I had watched the video. It has a spectacular view. But a bit outside the “frame” (of the scene in front of us, and of its video representation) are the luxury villas of the city’s wealthy smugglers and the makeshift tents of Afghan refugees who’ve settled outside their gates. Between smugglers, refugees, Taliban and corrupt government officials, the seeming futility of trying to transform Pakistan was hard to let go of.
Finding Pakistan’s most Globalized Music in its Imperial Capital
Soon after I first met Zeeshan he told me about an incredible guitarist he’d worked with in Lahore, Mekaal Hassan, who played heavy metal and progressive jazz with equal fire and precision. Before I could even say that I’d like to meet him Zeeshan dialed his number on his mobile and handed me the phone. Luckily Mekaal was in town for the next few days so we agreed to get together once I arrived in Lahore. “Enjoy the drive,” he exclaimed before hanging up. I wasn’t sure whether that was meant truthfully or as a veiled warning, but Zeeshan explained that the first part of the drive passes through some of the most beautiful valleys in the country, which turned out to be true, especially the Kalar Kahar valley.
Lahore, however, is one of the more intense cities I’ve ever been to, a teeming city of nearly 10 million, and the cultural heart of Pakistan. The streets overflow with people, cars, and rickshaws and donkeys and the occasional truck that has been whittled away to little more than a frame and four tires yet still manages to navigate through the unmanageable traffic. Peshawar and the surrounding tribal areas are often described as lawless and chaotic, but they are the epitome of order compared with the chaos and extremes of wealth and poverty that coexist in Lahore. The city feels like a crumbling former imperial capital, except that Lahore had already faded from glory before the British arrived almost two centuries ago.
Certainly the potent mix of poverty and spirituality shaped the music that came out of Lahore, including, most famously, Junoon. “My environment growing up in Lahore was a mix of poverty, violence and religious extremism,” explained Salman about his childhood in Lahore. “Because of this situation the songs I wrote naturally yearned to express freedom, love and hope.” Not everyone responds to poverty and violence with love and hope, however, as the Taliban’s growing power demonstrates. But it’s undeniable that Junoon inspired many Pakistanis to look to the best of their culture and religion as the way to climb out of difficult circumstances.
I met one of the Junoon-inspired young Pakistanis the evening I arrived in Lahore. Ali Roooh is a young singer with a chic yet ruffian look, and a husky, versatile voice. Yet he’s not a typical musician. Ali completed an MBA and worked as a customer service specialist for multinationals like Shell and Citibank before quitting his job to focus on recording his first album and videos.
“We have no human development here. You can work for decades and not advance a centimeter in your life. And what happens when you can’t get ahead no matter how hard you try? You give up and join al-Qa’eda.” Ali, who comes from a respected religious family, shares Salman Ahmed’s Sufi roots, and like him, he feels strongly that music is the best way to educate and motivate people to demand a better future. “But you have to find the right formula to reach people,” Ali explained, as we listened to some of his new songs in the control room of Mekaal Hassan’s Digital Fidelity Studios. Mekaal, who was producing Ali’s new album, has worked with Junoon, and almost every other major rock group in Pakistan. With a degree from Berklee College of Music and years of recording and touring under his belt, Mekaal is recognized as one of the two or three best guitarists in Pakistan.
As we spoke Mekaal put up a rough mix of Ali’s newest song, “Mehfilay” (Mehfil means any group of people gathered together for a single purpose, like playing music, having fun, or engaging in criminal activity). The song takes on the corruption of his society today in the same way Junoon’s “Ehtesab” did a decade ago. Ali was taking a big risk coming out with a song that strongly criticized the government. But growing up with a single mother who obtained three Masters degrees and rose to the senior ranks of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission, have made him quite determined to do his music his way, even after his mother disowned him for the unforgivable sin of quitting his well-paying job to pursue his musical dreams.
Mekaal has been far luckier getting support from his family for his music. He was a guitar prodigy, which is not surprising since his father, Masood, helped bring jazz to Pakistan in the 1950s after falling in love with it during a stint with the U.S. army in Germany. As a child, Mekaal went to sleep listening to Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn, among others.
Mekaal’s jazz-infused upbringing gave him the perfect fulcrum on which to balance his other two loves, heavy metal and qawwali music. The three have been blended in an inspiringly innovative way in his latest project, the Mekaal Hasan Band. While his guitar playing insured the group an early taste of notoriety, what makes the band truly special is the unique combination of jazz, hard rock and traditional Pakistani melodies, courtesy of the band’s nay (flute) player, Mohd Ahsan Papu, who for years performed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and their vocalist, Javed Bashir, is considered by many to be one of the few singers who can lay claim to being Nusrat’s heir.
As I stood in the studio listening to the band rehearse, the bond between the musicians was infectious. Mekaal’s hyper-distorted sound was somehow balanced by Papu’s flute, while Bashir’s vocals soared up and down in the trademark qawwali style made famous by Nusrat. Mekaal knows how good he and his band are, and he doesn’t suffer fools kindly. His long curly hair and constant smile betray a shrewd businessman and musical entrepreneur. “I could have stayed in the U.S. and made a career there,” he explained as his father nodded in agreement. “But I came back to use music to show that Pakistan isn’t what we imagine it to be.”
As I recounted my time in the NWFP, father and son smiled. “The thing is, things are a lot deeper here than they seem,” Mekaal offered. “That’s why I’m not as pessimistic as other people are about our future. The problem is that we’re educating young people to see 50 Cent and think that he’s the West. We’ve managed to get all the bad values of the west without any of the good ones, which makes it pretty hard to bring the two cultures into harmony.”
“Mark, you’ve seen what Lahore is like,” Ali said, picking up on the same theme. “Traditionally Lahore was a city where everyone helped everyone else. But today everyone—including the Islamists, and don’t let them tell you otherwise—wants to be Western so they go after the money, even if it means ripping off people. I’m modern, but I’m not Western. I’m Eastern because I still believe in honesty and respect.”
Consciously or not, Ali was channeling the utopian vision of a fully modern yet fully Eastern man made famous by the great Indian-Muslim poet Allama Iqbal almost a century ago. Iqbal is credited by most Pakistanis with being one of the fathers of the nation. Not surprisingly, his words were first set to hard rock by Junoon, a band that Ali worships with the kind of reverence one usually sees in the most devout Zeppelin or Dead heads. But Ali cherishes Iqbal even more, as became clear the next day when the two of us drove around Lahore searching for a good CD store (many shops were closed because of threats from firebrand preachers).
As we drove through the impossibly narrow alleys of Lahore’s old bazaar trying to find a store that would have a good collection of local CDs, I mentioned that I was anxious to see the famed Badshahi mosque, the largest mosque in the Mughal Empire. Ali smiled at my request; I realized why when we entered the mosque complex and came upon Iqbal’s tomb, in front of which Ali stood and silently prayed for at least two minutes. When he was done paying his respects Ali turned around and motioned to the dome of the massive Sikh temple standing right behind the minaret of the mosque. “Look at that. Sikhs and Muslims prayed right next to each other and it made total sense. We all worship the same God. You can’t even imagine such a geography today.”
Iqbal’s poetry beautifully yet trenchantly explored the realities of life in early 20th century British-ruled India. He spared neither Muslims nor the British for the difficulties his people faced. Junoon endeared themselves to Pakistanis by adapting Iqbal’s words (perhaps most famously his poem, “Saqinama”) to their music. For his part, Ali felt that the words to another poem by Iqbal, “Shikwa,” which he planned to record, were even more appropriate today: “You reserve your favours for men of other shades, While you hurl your bolts on the Muslim race. The tragedy is while kafirs [infidels] are with houries actually blest, On vague hopes of houries in heaven the Muslim race is made to rest!”
It’s not surprising that such sentiments would find a home in Pakistan’s small but powerful extreme metal scene. Ali Reza, guitarist of the group Black Warrant, explained it succinctly when Ali Rooh and I met him at a KFC not far from Mekaal’s studio (it was guarded, like most “Western” restaurants, by a shot-gun toting security man). For Ali, this kind of exasperation at the seeming inability of Pakistanis to rasp hold of the future fueled his music. In Black Warrant’s most powerful song, “Corroded Peace,” Ali gives voice to a Pakistan on the verge of imploding. “Bomb those who want freedom/Kill those who say ‘no’/ Love the silence and solace after everyone is dead.” Such depressing lyrics are the standard fare of extreme metal, but when you sing them long enough without seeing any change in your society for the better it’s hard not to burn out, which is why Ali is leaving Pakistan for a freer future in Australia.
Pepsi, Munaqqababes and Metalheads on the Arabian Sea
For most bands in Morocco or Egypt getting a video on MTV is a dream, here it’s a necessity. “I mean, all the guys have videos on TV,” explained Layla al-Zubaidi, who’d met up with me, Mekaal and Ali in Lahore, where she was organizing a conference on women and NGO activism. “Imagine that in Lebanon or Morocco. You can really feel the Indian influence here with the videos and commercialism of the scene. And I’m not sure in the end if, as in Lebanon or America, the videos aren’t going to take over the music, which will really be a shame.”
The commercialism of the Pakistani music scene is in fact more evident in Karachi, the original capital of Pakistan, and its largest city (at over 20,000,000 it is officially the second largest city in the world). So are the extremes of wealth and poverty, secularism and conservatism that increasingly divide Pakistani society. As I moved through the first class cabin to my coach seat on the flight from Lahore to Karachi, I walked past four women, all of them in complete purdah, covered from head to toe in black, including gloves. Even their eyes were covered with large, 1970s-era sun glasses. Each woman had a security tag hanging from her veil; they had been inspected and tagged like carry on luggage.
An hour later I saw them outside the airport in Karachi, and the paradox of their position was clear. A swirling wind blew up their abayas, revealing their clothes underneath. All were wearing expensive designer pants suits, which matched their expensive handbags and luggage. A Land Rover came to fetch them. The tone of their “Urdish” (Urdu mixed with English) conversations on their sleek cell phones confirmed their status as among Pakistan’s young and rich elite—the religious counterparts of the partiers Arieb and I performed for in Islamabad the week before. They were the “munaqqababe” (a woman who wears the niqab is called a munaqqaba) equivalent of the young and fashionable muhajababes of Cairo or Beirut.
“Don’t take a cab in Karachi or you’ll be Daniel Pearled,” the bass player for the Karachi-based band Mizraab warned me. Luckily I was the guest of Amin Hashwami, a scion of one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families, who controls a number of industries: hotels, resorts, tourism, welfare, information technology, oil and gas, minerals, pharmaceuticals, real estate and investments. He had sent a car.
Although he could spend his time either building his family’s empire or living it up with his peers, Amin is more interested in running his new chain of coffee bars, called “Coffee Cafe,” where he sponsors jam sessions for Karachi’s best young rock musicians. Amin is a good friend of Salman Ahmed. He regularly lectures in the United States and is a founder of an international group of young Arab, Muslim, and Israeli business people who meet to discuss pragmatic ways of engaging in mutual recognition and conflict resolution, and he helped set up most of my interviews.
Karachi is home to three bands who together define the past, present and future of metal in Pakistan: Karavan, Aaroh, and Mizraab. Karavan are the godfathers of Pakistani metal. The band was established in 1997, but founder and lead guitarist Assad Ahmed has been on the scene since he played guitar with Vital Signs back in the late 1980s. Considered one of Pakistan’s “supergroups” along side Vital Signs and Junoon, Karavan is one of the few Pakistani bands to sell over 1 million records, based purely on legally purchased (rather than pirated) copies. At one point the band was pulling in so much money, Assad explained, that he thought little of spending $25,000 to charter a plane from London to New York for a weekend of partying with his girlfriend and fifteen of her closest friends. But these days the band is more into saving for retirement than spending their hard-earned money on the usual rock star frivolities (for their upcoming album the band decided to use art students for the video, both to save on production costs and promote young talent). Like most Pakistani rock and metal bands, Karavan’s music is, even at its hardest, more grooving than headbanging. Assad’s influences are more Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jeff Beck than the great sitar or Sarod masters of his country. Yet his sharp riffs sound far different over the band’s languid, if clearly heavy metal grooves than they would over more traditional metal tracks. “That’s for sure,” said Asad. “Just look at the success of our unplugged album, which has already been downloaded over 200,000 times even though it hasn’t been officially released yet.”
After spending a decade playing closer to the fluff end of Pakistani pop, Assad worked hard to give Karavan as much substance as possible, and both the band’s lyrics and music. Some songs, like “Gardish” (one of their biggest hits from the album of the same name), mix hard driving riffs with lyrics that tackle the lack of equilibrium in Pakistani society and the dangers facing a culture which seems to be in constant motion but doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the other end of the spectrum is the ballad-like, arpeggio-driven “Yeh zindagi hai,” which describes the campus violence in Karachi during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when thousands of students were killed or disappeared during clashes between secular and religious groups. At a time when violence is again erupting across Pakistan, the song’s admonition to Pakistanis to “break down the walls of hatred and come together as one” is especially relevant. However important the message of “Yeh zindagi hai” and other consciousness raising Pakistani rock songs, the reality is that at least half of the target audience for the song—the militant students willing to use violence to enforce their view of Islam on their classmates—is unlikely ever to hear it. And unless, as Salman Ahmed has done, you’re willing to take your guitar and start traveling to madrasas around Karachi and Lahore, it’s hard to imagine how Karavan’s brand of progressive metal and lyrics will get that audience to change their intolerant position toward the rest of Pakistani society. This doesn’t diminish the power of the group’s music, but it does highlight the fact that even the most powerful music has a hard time moving beyond the larger social networks and relations in which it is embedded.
If Karavan is the gold standard of Pakistani hard rock, two younger Karachi-based bands are producing the most innovative and popular hard rock today: Aaroh and Mizraab. The name Aaroh refers to the ascending part of a scale in classical Indian/Pakistani classical music, and in fact lead singer Farooq Ahmed trained extensively in that style as a child. He used that knowledge for the vocal and melodic foundation of Aaroh.
Aaroh first hit the big time when they won the Pepsi-sponsored Battle of the Bands in 2002 (they came in first out of a field of 171 bands). The Pepsi Battle has in fact launched many of the top rock bands in Pakistan of the last decade, and its importance in the Pakistani music industry reflects the disproportionate importance of major corporations—both foreign and domestic—in Pakistani popular culture. The battle for signing the best young bands has been likened to a “battle of the brands” between giants like Pepsi, who signed up Vital Signs soon after their hit “Dil Dil Pakistan,” and Coke, which became Junoon’s main corporate sponsor after the band hit it big in 1996. Both cola companies had the same goal of building brand awareness among their young customers through music, following the practice perfected in the United States over the last two generations of using the allure and mystique of music to sell otherwise uninteresting products.
Because Pakistani record companies don’t as a rule nurture new music, such sponsorship deals help support artists on tour, pay for video production, and ensure that videos are played regularly on the major music channels (in fact, most good videos are brand, not record label sponsored). Even successful bands need good sponsors because CD piracy greatly limits their income from record sales. “The money from sponsorships is crucial to our survival,” one musician told me. The problem is, at least according to respected rock journalist Nadeem Paracha, Pepsi’s power to shape popular music, and that of other Pakistani companies as well, is starting to resemble Rotana’s, with equally negative results. In the end, he argues, “There is hardly any difference, really, between a cynical corporate exec and a foaming fat mullah.” Of course, corporate execs don’t issue fatwas or declare jihad, but neither do the vast majority of religious figures. From Farooq’s perspective, in Pakistan today both are part of the same system of corruption, intolerance, and oppression. Both stifle creativity, and both stop music from doing what it does best: challenge society’s conservative mores and push it forward towards more openness and tolerance.
Aaroh learned about the power of relying on corporate sponsors the hard way. Band members claim that Pepsi never came through with the money the band was awarded for winning the Battle of the Bands. This left Aaroh in legal and musical limbo until its contract expired, during which time several members of the band left in search of better prospects. Luckily, the band’s two most important members, Farooq and bass player Khalid Khan, remained. Freed of the need to write specifically for Pepsi and its favored demographic, the reformed band began to produce its own music. Since that time Aaroh has become one of the best song-writing hard rock bands on the Subcontinent, with powerful yet catchy riffs, funky drum and bass grooves, and vocally expansive melodies that give Aaroh a sound that is unmatched by any other rock or metal band in Pakistan.
The members of Aaroh, like Karavan, enjoy being rock stars. You can see it the way they walk around, and the care put into presenting themselves to the public, including the rock star style clothes they wear even when just going about town. But for sheer musicianship and drive, the most important guitarist in Karachi is Faraz Anwar, founder of the band Mizraab. “We don’t live in the fancy part of town,” Mizraab’s bass player, Rahail Siddiqui, said mockingly, when we first met at Amin’s Coffee Cafe. Faraz’s house was a half hour away, near to the airport, in a decidedly working class part of town.
Now in his 30s, Faraz looks like a teenager who doesn’t get out in the sun much. This is because he spend most of his time in his small studio working on new material (like Prince—and Mekaal Hasan—Faraz plays all the instruments on his record and acts as his own engineer and producer). “I basically taught myself how to play guitar,” he said. “Mostly through cassette tapes, and then videotapes of my favorite guitarists that I ordered out of guitar magazines.” Those tapes, plus an eight to sixteen hour per day practice regimen served Faraz well. He is known in musicians’ circles as one of the premier guitarists in the country. His first album, An Abstract Point of View, was released by Gnarly Geezer, the boutique record label of his hero, the British progressive jazz virtuoso Allan Holdsworth, who’s known to go out of his way to find the best young talent to expose to his quirky but devoted following. Faraz has done more than any other artist to bring progressive jazz-rock to Pakistan, wrapping it in Pakistani melodies and sheathing it in heavy metal riffs and drums. The eclectic style has yielded several hits, the most popular among them being the song “Ujalon,” which features a catchy chorus and a jazz-rock solo that demonstrates his unique style, placing him in the virtuoso company of Mekaal Hassan and Assad Ahmed.
It’s not just Faraz’s fanatical technique and dedication that separate him from most other musicians in Pakistan’s rock and metal scene. He’s also deeply religious. “He prays five times a day,” Rahail explained, and even many religious Muslims don’t pray the required five times per day. Faraz’s lack of rock ‘n roll narcissism, the absence of themes involving sex in his music (unlike Aaroh’s videos, none of Mizraab’s feature beautiful women in sultry poses), and his religious and working class roots, all offer Mizraab the chance to reach out to precisely the section of the Pakistani population—young, working class and religious, but not under the spell of militant ideologies—who are crucial to uniting the economic, social, and political divisions that have riven Pakistan.
Junaid Jamshed, the founder of Vital Signs, is perhaps the biggest selling artist in Pakistani history. But these days it’s not music that keeps his spirits high. Instead, it’s his faith. If Junoon was the Led Zeppelin of Pakistan, Junaid’s good looks, charismatic personality and powerful voice made Vital Signs The Beatles. But beneath the fabulous life of a mega-celebrity, something wasn’t right. As he recounts it, “It was ten years ago, around 1997 and I was at the peak of my career, almost an icon in my country. I had everything at my feet, but I was unhappy and discontented. Then I met an old school friend, Jhani, who had returned to his faith. He was a very successful businessman, yet he led a peaceful and uncomplicated life with time for friends, family, and charity.
“Jhani never spoke to me about Islam or any ideology; he didn’t preach. But as I spent time with him I began to think that maybe this way of life could give me spiritual material for my albums—new directions—as far as music was concerned. Then I realized the music I had been doing up till then was often without substance. Everyone was doing it. People took from me, just as I had taken from Sting, Genesis, Deep Purple, or Madonna, grabbing elements from here and there, sugar coating them, and putting the result in front of an audience as if it was Junaid. So I started sitting with him and going to the mosque. You know, all the things about gun running and terrorism, that the West and even many in Pakistan relate to mosques and Islam, they had nothing to do with what I was seeing.”
Junaid’s discussion of his slow return to faith is quite interesting because it has opened him to other faiths in a way that most “born-again” Muslims—like their Christian or Jewish counterparts—are not. “That’s true. For the first time I began to respect Hindus, Christians, Jews and other religions because I realized that everyone is created by the Almighty. Everyone deserves respect because we’re all part of a global family. That helped me musically too, because with a spiritual background I radiated different emotions towards people. My motivation was no longer Jack and Jill songs, but rather the predicament of the whole world. I also learned that if we all want to live happily, we need to give more and expect little in return. The Quran is all about this, and other prophets also had the same message.”
Sadly for most Vital Signs fans, one of the things Junaid decided to stop giving was his music. In talking with many other of Pakistan’s most well known artists who’ve known Junaid from the old days, it seems that like Cat Stevens, he left the music business because the rock ‘n roll life was destroying him and his family. If true, it can help explain why when he openly embraced his religion he decided that all music besides religiously inspired vocals and drum is haram. Such a view follows the same logic behind the prohibition against alcohol in Islam: the potential for abuse outweighs whatever good it can do (Junaid’s renunciation is not unequivocal, however; he performed “Dil Dil Pakistan” to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its release. “I felt strange, but the song is like my child, it’s so beloved by people, so I had to do it”).
Naturally, Salman Ahmed, who is an old friend from their days together in Vital Signs, has had many arguments with Junaid about his belief in the prohibition of music. “I know what Salman says, but the fact is that the Prophet forbade us to use other instruments besides the voice to create music. You can debate it, but that’s the way it is. And even with the music, all those great bands, The Doors, The Beatles, and the rest, all wanted to be against the establishment. But they didn’t have anywhere to take people once they led them away—there was never really an “other side” to break into, rather than just out of. As for me, I still sing, but now I record naats [traditional Pakistani songs in praise of the Prophet, with just vocals accompanied by a traditional drum], which are much purer. The last album I did just won the award for the best selling album in Pakistan last year, and I’m doing naats in English now, which are selling all over the world.”
At the same time, however, Junaid’s spiritual awakening hasn’t led him to turn away from or criticize his old friends in the rock and pop world. “Look, if I just tell society, ‘Don’t do this!’ they will be flabbergasted. ‘What the Hell is this guy talking about?’ ‘Who is he, a musician, to tell me music is haram,’ etc. You must give them a better alternative. If I don’t have a better alternative, I shouldn’t tell them to stop or leave something.”
As we spoke Junaid was getting ready to go out on one of his frequent “dawa,” or conversation tours around Pakistan, in which he travels around preaching his views of Islam to as many people as possible. These frequent trips have brought him close to the grass roots of Pakistani society. “Yes, there’s a lot of pain, suffering and poverty, but I’ll tell you something, I’m optimistic. The other people you mention aren’t optimistic because they don’t have the answer. I do, and the answer is God. We just need to return to Him, and be willing to listen to others, and talk, and the rest will follow. And until then, Pakistan, the U.S., the whole world, will be disintegrating and disgruntled. It’s that simple.”
Junaid has managed to cross the cultural divide while keeping his respect for the world he left behind. But the dialogue he advocates is increasingly difficult to have in Pakistan, just as it is in Lebanon and most of the other countries of the MENA. Pakistanis from the country’s artistic, religious and journalistic elites have all complained to me that the lack of communication, and the loss of young people to extremism it encourages—extreme consumerism as much as extreme religion–“is killing the country.”
I asked Junaid why, since he is so involved in the plight of his people, he hasn’t become more explicitly political. Echoing the view of Orphaned Land that if you preach too hard, people will refuse to listen, he explained that “I’m an artist at the end of the day, and I have to think like one. If you want to tell people something this difficult you have to sugar coat it.”
Although he didn’t participate in it, one example of sugar-coated politics is the 2006 song (and foundation of the same name), “Yeh Hum Naheen,” which means “This is not Us.” The official English title is “Say No to Terrorism.” The song features about a dozen of the biggest pop artists in Pakistan, and sounds like an American-style acoustic guitar-driven pop song, except it’s sung in Urdu, with a background track of qawwali vocal improvisations.
“Yeh Hum Naheen” was written to persuade young Pakistanis that the violent and intolerant Islam they are being fed by so many religious quarters is both wrong and doesn’t represent the true Islam of Pakistan. The lyrics include lines such as “These stamps of death on our forehead are the signs of others” and “The stories being spread in our name are lies.” But while the song reached number one on MTV and the Musik, its Western sound and bevy of secular pop stars seems geared more for the young ravers in Islamabad than for their much poorer and more militant peers in the madrasas. It’s hard to imagine the song encouraging the much needed dialog about both terrorism and the forces that nourish it, even if Junaid Jamshed had sung the chorus.
At heart, according to one senior government-appointed religious figure whom I know, the problem is that Pakistan is divided by vested interests that are beyond the reach of any conceivable medicine to heal, no matter much sugar is added to the spoon. At best, if enough money is thrown into the medicine chest one could hope to produce a strange similacrum of Islamic and Western society, as have evolved in Dubai or Doha, where huge amounts of wealth and an invisible foreign underclass allow a few lucky Arabs to live the “liberal” Muslim dream next door to their expatriate Texan and British neighbors.
Indeed, if you walk through the airports in Lahore or Karachi, you’ll find advertisements for Emaar Pakistan’s latest luxury development, Crescent Bay, along Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. It’s a lovely looking development, with happy looking familiesliving in homes that could easily be in Dubai, or Minnesota for that matter. But only a few Pakistanis will be lucky enough to live there, or even work there as the guards, cooks, gardeners, and drivers that make the lives of Pakistan’s elite liveable. As I walked past the munaqqababes with their tags on their veils, something Ali Roooh said to me as we drove through one of Lahore’s poor and overcrowded markets rang inside my head: “Mark, Pakistan is doomed unless we can return to our traditions of taking care of each other.”
A few months later, as I sat home watching on television the assassination attempt of Benazir Bhutto, followed by Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, I contacted many of my friends in Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi, and asked if they had any plans to join the pro-democracy protests. None had any plans to join, or even write a good song, as Junoon and other artists had done a decade ago. A few laughed at my naivete; “Most of the musicians I know are busy with video shoots and recording,” Ali explained, “or enjoying the show—which mice are going to get which scraps of cheese. Otherwise life goes on as normal, which means people are watching their dreams, and Pakistan, rot in front of them.”
No one knows how bad normal has to get before Pakistani society, including its musicians, takes to the streets. “Inshallah,” Ali, Mekaal and most of my friends said, some sort of miracle will pull the country out of its current mess. But as of early 2008, it seems that Pakistan has gone beyond the point where either music or religion can save it.
Taken from the book: Mark Levine: Heavy Metal Islam. Three Rivers Press. 2008