Sufi Rocker, Campus Troubadour
A Cultural Conversation with Salman Ahmad
The Wall Street Journal
August 21, 2007
PIERMONT, N.Y. Early last winter, Salman Ahmad Pakistani rock star, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS, proud Muslim could have been playing his highly popular music in any big city in the U.S. or beyond. As the founder of the wildly popular "Sufi rock" group Junoon, Mr. Ahmad has performed with his former bandmates or solo in locales as diverse as New York's Central Park, New Delhi's Old Fort and even before the U.N. General Assembly. But for four days in November, he found himself belting out his Urdu- and Punjabi-language songs in front of altogether different kinds of audiences: university students and local residents in Kansas and Missouri. Dubbed the "Heart of America" tour, the gigs were as uplifting for Mr. Ahmad and enlightening for the crowds as they were unlikely.
"I met people who probably never set foot outside of Kansas City," recalled Mr. Ahmad over lunch recently in Piermont, close to his home in Tappan, where he lives these days with his wife and three sons. "Wherever this music has been played, you get these converts," he says. "A lot of people don't know the words to it, but it just makes them feel good."
His nascent American listening base is joining a bulging fold. With more than 25 million Junoon albums sold, Mr. Ahmad sometimes called the Bono of South Asia may be the most successful Muslim rock musician you've never heard of.
Then again, maybe you have. The Lahore-born guitarist and singer is the subject of a 2003 PBS documentary, "The Rock Star and the Mullahs," as well as a 2005 BBC film about Muslims in America called "It's My Country Too." Junoon (meaning "obsession" or "passion") was also featured in VH1's 2001 production "Islamabad Rock City," hosted by actress Susan Sarandon. And in addition to his ambassadorial work, Mr. Ahmad, 43, speaks at forums around the U.S. about culture and Islam and is an honorary committee member of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, a concert series founded in memory of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter (who was reportedly a Junoon listener). This fall, for the second time, he'll be teaching a class at New York's Queens College, about South Asian music and poetry.
"My job is to plant seeds" as a musician, teacher and sometime-documentary subject, Mr. Ahmad says. "There's a goodness in the universe and you're on earth for little time, and your job is just to preserve that goodness."
Musical seed-planting in the U.S. is a second act of sorts for Mr. Ahmad, who in 2002 moved back to Tappan where he'd lived in middle school and high school, thanks to his father's job in part to escape from his celebrity status in Pakistan. During one of his early years in New York, he was invited to what he first thought might be "a circus" at Madison Square Garden. But Led Zeppelin were no clowns, and seeing the band's legendary guitarist bend the strings on his Les Paul changed the Pakistani kid's life forever.
"Looking at Jimmy Page at that time, it was mesmerizing," he recalls. Another turn-on to the rock 'n' roll life was watching "A Hard Day's Night" on late-night television. "Seeing the Beatles running around being chased by girls, those two things, I think, that sold me completely."
Mr. Ahmad formed Junoon after moving back to Pakistan, where he studied to become a doctor. Instead of a healer, he became an alchemist. Junoon's music, and Mr. Ahmad's solo work, is a powerful combination of the pump-your-fist hard rock of Led Zeppelin or Santana and traditional South Asian percussion like tabla and dholak. (Check out, for example, "Yaar Bina" meaning "without my love" from Junoon's album "Azadi.") Lyrically, too, it's almost as if Van Morrison had slipped into a salwar kameez. Mr. Ahmad is a devotee of Sufism, Islam's mystical tradition, and many of his songs are inspired by or quote outright such classical poets as Baba Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain. "It's the experiential Islam," he says of Sufism. Citing the poet Rumi, he says Sufism is about the "oneness of God and oneness of humanity. And the other big thing is that it loves diversity."
It's that sort of diversity that Mr. Ahmad is peddling in his new role as an Islamic troubadour-about-campus at Queens College and during his Midwestern and other gigs. "My aim, really, is to give the students as wide a picture of Muslim cultural expression as I can," he says of his college course, Islamic Music and Culture of South Asia. To that end, he and his pupils dissect everything from traditional qawwali (devotional Sufi music) to Islamic rock and hip-hop bands like Iran's Hypernova and Denmark's Outlandish.
But for the man who has said he came back to the U.S. partly to "build bridges" after 9/11, making cultural connections between Islam and the West hasn't always been easy.
There was "a lot of skepticism," he says, about his representation of Islam in the U.S. heartland when he performed and screened documentaries at the request of the universities.
"In the q-and-a's, you get these incredulous sort of questions about, 'but wait a minute, the Islam that we see [in] the media, in the CNN and Fox TV isn't this, so, are you for real?'"
But, he says, "you would see that melt in the evening when the music would begin, because the music has a power to just dissolve all barriers."
Mr. Ahmad is used to doubt, and worse. Junoon saw the song and video of its politically satirical tune "Ehtesaab" ("Accountability") banned from Pakistani state TV in 1996; two years later, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif kicked the band off the air entirely after Mr. Ahmad criticized nuclear testing while on tour in India. (The ban has since been lifted.) Mr. Ahmad has argued with clergy in Pakistan over whether Islam forbids or allows music a topic that still riles him today. "Nowhere in the Quran does it say that music is prohibited," he told me.
Six years after the terrorist attacks, Mr. Ahmad feels there's still a hunger for knowledge about Islam in America. It's a craving that he appears only too happy to feed, even as he works through the 60-some song ideas he has for the album he's doing next, in which he says Junoon will be reincarnated as a group with different members.
"I know that I'm gigging a lot and for the last two to three years, I've been going across colleges all across the United States, everywhere from state universities to the Harvards and the Stanfords and the Princetons, and there's a great interest in qawwali, you know, because there's a great interest in Islam. And the best way that I can illuminate Islam is through the music and the poetry."
That music apparently remains in demand: Mr. Ahmad is slated to play at Ohio's Oberlin College in October and at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in December. (He'll also tour in Turkey, Syria, Berlin and elsewhere in the fall.)
Meanwhile, America is continuing to reflect back at him, in the form of the blues, a favored genre he's currently exploring as he composes his latest tunes. And during our nearly two-hour conversation over Cokes and clam chowder, Mr. Ahmad talks excitedly about the Illumination Band, a Philadelphia bluegrass outfit that sings translated Rumi verses. He may do a song with them, he says. He's already collaborated with former Eurythmics member Dave Stewart and says his wish list of studio partners includes Carlos Santana, Sting and Peter Gabriel. He doesn't rule out singing songs in English (Junoon recorded a handful of English-language songs including "No More") but says that whatever form his music takes, "the key is, does it have an emotional intensity?"
Watching news of the latest al Qaeda-linked plot or seeing angry Muslim protesters overseas denounce Salman Rushdie's knighthood, one can forgive Mr. Ahmad's Midwestern audiences for wondering: Who actually speaks for Islam? Is it the guitarist (who was wearing a black fedora and camouflage pants on the day I met him) or the intolerant extremists? Or someone else? To be sure, they share the same faith and read the same holy book. But that faith, says the rocker who once termed the "Arabized" version of Islam "very sort of fascist in a way," is as debatable and adaptable as it is widespread.
"Within Islam, there is such a difference of opinion of what Islam is," he says. "People make the mistake of taking this broad brush stroke of saying 'the Islamic world.'"
Misnomer or not, that "world," thanks in part to Mr. Ahmad, includes kick-butt anthems about divine love, leather clothing and thousands of kids screaming not for holy war but simply for the next song.