میرا ماہی آ گیا

Junoon’s third studio album, 1996’s Inquilaab begins with a deep voice reciting the following proclamation:

یہ روز و شب کا بے نور حال
اور بکھرے خیالون کا بے نور جال
آو اٹھا دیں سارے پردے
اور گرا دیں سارے بت
آو امید کے گیت گائن

This lightless state of night and day
And this lightless web of scattered thoughts
Let’s lift these barriers
And bring down these false gods
Let’s sing songs of hope

The band then breaks into Mera Mahi – a celebratory announcement of the arrival of a mysterious lover. As much as this song announces the messianic love interest, what it really announces is Junoon’s own arrival.1

Before Inquilaab, Junoon were curious oddities in the landscape of Pakistani pop. Their eponymous first album was the sound of three boys and some friends trying to make a hard rock album without a drum kit. Talaash, their second album, is an indulgent rebellion against the state, against dogma, and against the concept of sleeves. But then Coca-Cola picked up a Junoon anthem as a theme song for the 1996 Cricket World Cup, and Jazba Junoon became the iconic soundtrack to Pakistan cricket – a role it still fulfills twenty years later.

In Qadhafi Stadium and the city around it, through the vehicle of cricket and the drug of patriotism, Junoon took on the consciousness of urban Pakistan.

Jazba Junoon was belatedly tacked on to Inquilaab, which then gripped the country with its big ideas, bravado, and also humor. After the ominous monologue of intent, the album sucks you in with the infectious energy of Mera Mahi. The drums, the bass, the guitar, all gallop towards a crescendo. But the voice, in comparison, seems to be trying very hard to make sure it stays on key. It rises, it falls, but it never really soars.

Ali Azmat, the band’s vocalist, is a Garhi Shahu rebel. At this moment in time he sports a long, curly, dark mane. He is as much Robert Plant as he is a malang that you might encounter at one of Punjab’s shrines. He is in some sense, a gravitas-bearing eastern vocalist translated onto the stage of British rock and roll. Today, many of us know Ali as the master of belting out his vocals. But on Mera Mahi, Ali does none of this. A moment arrives for him to belt, but he cautiously holds the note instead. This a man desperate to hold on to something more than the note. He is holding on to the realization of the rebellion he has been staging his entire life.

Many years before Junoon, Ali could be found in weddings and other inglorious parties across the city of Lahore, running riot on makeshift stages inside flimsy tents erected on unused parks and empty plots of land. You might have heard a noisy recording or two from his band, the Jupiters. He was doing all the things any self-respecting Pakistani youth was not supposed to do. He was a renegade tired of being told what to do, tired of having to be someone, tired of being fed the same propaganda. Respect be damned, Ali was going to make rock music.

Inquilaab took a frantic renegade and made him the emblem of Pakistani youth. Up to this cusp, Ali’s story is of a man trying desperately to break free. But what towards? The story of Ali, and of Junoon at large, is a search for many different things. For God, for self, for identity. For adrenaline, for fame, for girls. For art, for sound, for meaning. But at its core, perhaps like every great rock song and certainly like every great qawwali, it is a search for love.

Inquilaab, the first real inflection point in Junoon’s quest, lays out what it is that Junoon is drawn towards. In it, is celebration (Mera Mahi, Dosti), self- exploration (Rooh Ki Pyaas, Chalay Thay Saath, Mein Kaun Hoon), the beginnings of Junoon’s Sufi fusion (Saeen, Ilteja), some Lahori tongue-in- cheekness (Husn Walon, Khoeey Aankhein) and patriotism of course (Jazba Junoon, and for good measure, the national anthem). It is easy to see that Junoon is drawn foremost to their soil.

To reflect this tendency, and to describe the new texture of their sound, Junoon were labelled the progenitors of ‘Sufi Rock’. This is a reductive term, as the band and journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha (who coined the term) would all likely agree. But at its most sincere, Sufi Rock describes Junoon’s sonic binding of Zeppelin, Lennon, Santana & U2 with Nusrat & Abida Parveen. More than texture, Sufi Rock also describes the combination of Junoon’s mystic introspection, and their aggression towards political and religious hegemonies. At many moments while doing this Junoon risked being quite preachy, and the only reason it all sort of works is because the proselytizing is interspersed with low-culture humor. Junoon’s lyrics are drawn as much from Iqbal and Bulleh Shah as they are from the back of trucks on Ferozpur Road.

If you ever find yourself driving behind one of these trucks that Junoon was likely to find lyrics off of, then listening to Noori’s music while you do it will help you imagine replacing the country’s roads with bullet trains. Listening to the Vital Signs may put you in a fatalistic mood to reflect on the fleeting nature of roads and everyone on them. But Junoon’s music will soundtrack your unbridled joy of overtaking a Prado in a rickshaw. Which is to say that although in many ways Junoon’s big ideas about self, patriotism and God are dreamy, unlike other dreamers they are not escapist. Junoon’s relationship with Pakistan, despite their love for it, is not just of simple adoration. Junoon are frustrated by Pakistan, and are driven to find some way to make a difference. And while it is clear they love Pakistan, they choose to fight it. Since it is only worth fighting what you love, everything else can easily be let go.

The commoners’ tale of love is that the search for love is an angsty, gut-wrenching struggle that must, or at least should, end in personal salvation. That you must cross a mountain to reach a valley of tranquility. When your parents and their many friends, siblings, and others completely out of their place are telling you that you should get married and ‘settle down’, it is easy to begin thinking of love as a way to halt your life, to stop and slowly move towards death while in the peaceful embrace of your mahi and your nice house by the river (or in a nice plot in Defence). But great love is not about settling at all, great love is about flight. It is about finding a place from where you can let yourself bloom, finding a home where you can put down your things so you can explore the world unburdened and know you have a place to come back to. At its best, love should not trap you into peaceful bliss, it should free you to seek more adrenaline. It is the desire for this freedom that led Ali to music, and to the creation of Junoon. It manifested in the search for a Downtown Princess.


اک چھپا ہوا خواب جنم لیتا ہے، سحراؤں میں آواز آتی ہے، میں کون ہوں

Junoon’s first album is an unpolished, garish exercise in distortion. And this is largely because of Salman Ahmad’s obsession with loud rock music.

Salman grew up in an immigrant Pakistani family in New York just around the peak of what is known in the music world as the ‘British Invasion’. Which is the time in the sixties and seventies when British bands led by the Beatles, followed by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and returning compatriot Jimi Hendrix took over American pop culture. Watching Zeppelin live for the first time gave Salman two things: a phenomenal scare when the crowd chanted ‘Kashmir!’ (he didn’t realize they were referring to the song), and an unshakeable dream to sound as badass as Jimmy Page. After high school, where Salman exercised these visions playing in a band, he (like all good Pakistani boys) was shipped to Lahore to become a doctor. Unwilling to let go of this naive aspiration to be a rockstar, Salman asked his parents to give him one year to play music. If he failed, he’d go back to trying to become a doctor.

So Salman joined the Vital Signs, who made it pretty big with their first album. He wanted more space than the band was willing to give him however, distortion wise. He was allowed some indulgence in Vital Signs 1’s Do Pal Ka Jeevan, and he certainly had his moments in other songs, but there was no real room for big riffs in the Signs. Two years after the Vital Signs’ debut in 1989, Salman released Junoon’s debut with Ali (who lived close by) & Nusrat Hussain (who was their only friend with a drum machine). The album’s tracklist, as Salman describes, is Vital Signs rejects; it’s not hard to see why they were treated as such.

The album has two gems: Neend Ati Nahin – a sweet declaration of intractable love – and Khwab – a youth’s insistence to himself that it is okay to dream. It is perfectly acceptable to like these songs. The problem is when you realize that you like this album because of Chori Chori Aja, and its English evil-twin Down Town Princess. Both songs masquerade pointless love tropes as lyrics, the drums (like in the rest of the album) are fake and uninspired, and the guitar solos exist for the sake of existing. But the main riff is catchy, the guitar sound isn’t so bad, and Ali’s vocal, though unrefined, has a boyish earnestness. It is visible now that these songs are the precursors to Junoon’s risque humor later. Not because these songs were meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but because their shameless and utterly sincere lack of quality gives Junoon the boldness to try every other crazy thing they would try. And while the album is not very good, it is this trait that makes it quite charming in retrospect.

1993’s Talaash is better. Good, even. The English songs are definite improvements over their kin from the first album, but are still a little bit ridiculous. The instrumentals have interesting parts but in total are somewhat weird and forgettable. Salman turns down the distortion a little bit, and moves towards the characteristic “Page-meets-Edge” style, in NFP’s words, that would become his signature. But this album is really in our hearts because of Heeray and Talaash, Salman’s first iconic riffs. Heeray captures the spirit of Lahori humor like nothing ever has. And Talaash is the first crystallization of Junoon’s political commentary: a broad lyrical attack on the state of political ignorance interspersed with news snippets narrating the deaths of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Zia ul Haq and Indira Gandhi.

In the history of Pakistani rock Talaash stands out for raw energy more than pioneering sound. And while edgy for mainstream Pakistani pop, energy was no longer novel in the nineties. Which means that Talaash, like the debut album Junoon, has no real musical legacy. But it is an important moment in the development of the band. Evidenced by tighter songwriting, the presence of an actual drummer, and most importantly the arrival of bassist Brian O’Connell.

Salman and Brian played together in a band during their time at Tappan Zee High School in New York. What prompted Brian to move to Pakistan to play in a fledging rock band will probably forever remain beyond all of us. Salman jokingly told a group of my colleagues and I a few months ago that Brian’s father, who was worried about his son’s future and was under the impression that Salman had become a big, influential rock star, thought having Brian join Salman might help him make something of his life. Salman, in retrospect, influenced many people, but to think Salman had this kind of power was, to put it lightly, ridiculous. That we owe the groove of many anthems to this flight of fancy is an endless source of hope that the countless stupid things we do every day may also give birth to great legacies. Hope, like Brian’s father, being gleefully, and thankfully, irrational.

But the sad truth is that we know very little about Brian’s arrival and Junoon in general. Junoon are, by far, the most well documented and extensively discussed act in all of Pakistani pop, yet we know next to nothing about the band’s formation, their process, or the inspiration behind individual songs. That the band was discussed stems largely from the fact that Junoon was interesting to audiences outside Pakistan. And this says as much about the context of Junoon as it does about the lives of every Pakistani that is likely to read this essay.

Junoon were interesting to the West because they ethnicized a rock sound and picked visible fights with political and religious leadership. This is often why any Pakistani band is interesting to the West. And that any of this is needed to get any international attention is an indictment of both global culture, and the failure of Pakistan’s informational infrastructure to find a voice. Junoon, through their political relevance, found a place next to Nusrat (and sometimes Abida Parveen) in the ‘World Music’ sections of stores across the West, where they would be defined by the ‘Sufi Rock’ label. While this term described a real innovation in the sound of rock music, it pigeonholed Junoon into a narrative that only considered them Muslim freedom fighters. The Pakistani media, which often finds its own stories in Western sources, only ever talked about ‘Sufi Rock’ or Junoon’s eventual breakup. This would wear down the band, but more on that later. The result of it all, is that we understand only a mirage of Junoon’s influence, their songwriting, and what it was like to see them live.

That I am writing this from the other side of the world in reference to where Junoon operated, in English, and the politics, economics and sociology this represents is not lost on me. I first started writing this piece five years ago in college, and then I was attempting to situate Junoon in a Western academic dialogue. This seemed relevant and necessary. Of course my own incompetence prevented this going too far, but now as I try to make something of this writing I realize I’m not sure who I’m addressing it to. It is necessary to engage Junoon with Western audiences and to comment on the nuance of Junoon’s canon and influence. And in Pakistan we deserve to know more about the songs that shaped our childhood. We must have the ability to narrate the experience of seeing Junoon live to our children. Perhaps I am just writing to myself. My own identity now split between the cities that I have lived in, many of which have influenced Junoon in some way. Junoon has influenced me, and I am now here trying to complete the circle of life.

I remember seeing Junoon live once, during the period where Mekaal Hasan had replaced Brian on the bass. From the Junoon entourage I have talked only to Salman (who I have met on three occasions) and his wife Samina (who was alongside him during two of these meetings). The first two of these meetings were in Princeton, New Jersey, around the release of Salman’s book Rock & Roll Jihad, where he narrated many of the stories from the book. The third meeting was at Salman’s house in Lahore, where we recorded our conversation for a podcast on Patari. This third time I reminded Salman of our previous interactions, he nodded to indicate he remembered, and then quickly looked away giving away that he probably didn’t. I have lost much hair on my head and gained some on my face during this time so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Salman is a more imposing physical figure in reality than what you imagine. He is taller, his shoulders are broader, he wears more eyeliner. My first meeting with him was after he began to dress seemingly perpetually in flowing uncollared shirts and some sort of hat – a look that seems designed to appear mystical. Salman now splits his time between Lahore and New York, where he is on a crusade to present an alternate Islamic narrative to the radicalized Islam many Americans fear. The question that inevitably arises when Salman speaks in America in the sort of gatherings I first met him in, is how does Salman connect his two identities, his two home towns, his two traditions? How can he be Muslim and American, Pakistani and living in America, Rock and Roller and Jihadi at the same time? Usually the answers to these questions are long, circular, and predictable. But on one of these occasions someone asked Salman a simpler question by focusing it on the music: how did eastern aesthetics define the tonality of Salman’s playing?

He didn’t say much when he was asked the question, but I learned later that the answer was much more complex. On leaving the Vital Signs, Salman spent a few months rehearsing and performing with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Salman had an in through Rahat, Nusrat’s nephew (they were similar ages), and also Imran Khan (who Salman knew from his days as an amateur professional cricketer). Nusrat was wonderfully open in his outlook to the musical world. He came in with no prescriptions of moral superiority or aesthetic elitism, and this led to some of Nusrat’s most influential and prized innovations: bringing classical systematics to Qawwali, opening Qawwali to the world of Western popular music, and reinvigorating an interest in the history of the subcontinent. Nusrat would tell Salman to “just play what your heart says”. Salman struggled, but soon he began to learn the rhythms and modes of Qawwali. He began to see that the modal roots of Qawwali’s tonality were present in the blues, and in folk across the world. Blues and Celtic folk would be where another band found its tonality – Led Zeppelin.

There are no recordings of Salman’s time with Nusrat. One wonders whether at some discrete point during it the connection between Jimmy Page and Nusrat becomes obvious to Salman. Certainly the years between this time and the first of Junoon’s work that reflected this link indicate that it took some time for this sound to take shape. But there is one point at which it is obvious that the threshold is breached, and Nusrat himself acknowledges that Salman is on to something. On Inquilaab, is the song where hard rock first meets qawwali. The song that Salman plays in response to the question in New Jersey: Saeen.


میری نس نس میں تو، میرے انگ انگ میں تو، وحدہُ، وحدہُ، لا شریکَ لہُ

Saeen starts with a few notes on an electric guitar with lots of reverb, lots of sustain, and of course, a little bit of distortion. These notes are from a scale that azaans are often in – a move that is a clear indication of what the song is meant to do: claim that Islam can be talked about somewhere new.

Islam and music are not easy bedfellows. Many orthodox religious authorities cite doctrine that declares music to be unlawful. Musicologists in the West are, for good reason, perplexed by this. The azaan, they say, is sung. It is made up of notes that are mostly in scale for aesthetic purposes – it is the literal definition of music. As of course, are naats and hamds that are part of Muslim devotional traditions, even orthodox ones. And for that matter, the recitation of the Quran in every mosque in every prayer across the Muslim world. How is this music different?

Scientifically, there is no difference. Muslim scholars will often delineate lawful music with strange, seemingly arbitrary boundaries to the outside observer: only music containing the human voice, or the playing of one-handed percussion for example. These laws will derive from historical examples of the playing of music from the time of Prophet Muhammad. But the historical accounts and the logic derived from them are often suspect and largely unconvincing. The real delineation, though it’s never said this way is that music in its unlawful form is defined not by the scientific components of the sound it contains, but by the setting it is performed in. It is purely a question of interpretive frame. The general conception of music, popular music especially, in the circles of Islamic jurisprudence is of frivolous, raucous, often obscene entertainment. And this make more sense to be categorized as haram than halal.

Qawwali exists on an awkward precipice of this delineation. It is definitely music, performed with percussion that requires more than one hand and often an accompanying harmonium. Successful qawwali gatherings will often have members of an audience losing sense of self as they reach a state of ecstasy, dancing and singing along to devotional poetry. They will at times be lubricated with some alcohol. But the main point of the music is to further a spiritual connection to God. By losing yourself in the music and in the environment so as to escape from the rational trappings of the earthly world towards a freedom in meeting the ultimate beloved, your Creator. This is of course, by the standards of orthodox Islam, heresy. But it is often performed in shrines, that double as mosques, free food is given out to the poor, and attendees are at the core of it talking about God. So is it right? No. But it’s not quite as haram as rock music. Rock music, and the sex and the drugs, are most definitely haram.

Ali and Salman emerge from college in Lahore at a time when political Islam is making a strong appearance on campuses – the aftertaste of the Zia regime was in full view. There is a strong college music scene during this period – one that would spit out the Vital Signs and countless other acts – that is influenced by British and American pop and prog rock. This of course did not play well with religious parties on college campuses. Salman often complains about an experience at an underground gig, where an activist rampaged on to the stage and rammed Salman’s guitar into pieces: “I thought rock stars break their own guitars.”

Junoon’s anger derives from not being given the chance to do so. Salman’s departure from the Vital Signs was not just about distortion. The Signs, and their predecessors Nazia & Zoheb Hasan, made non-violent, pleasant pop. This music was emotionally sincere, in that it wrote about love and loss. But the coloring of these emotions was so universal and removed from the grime of the Pakistani everyday that it was arguably meaningless. Salman wanted to be something more than just a pop star. Junoon’s debut album toys with the idea that maybe being a loud, gritty rock band would present some fulfillment over just the kitsch of pop. It didn’t really. By the release of Talaash, Salman & Ali couldn’t hold back from commenting on the politics that pissed them off. In parallel, the time Salman had spent with Nusrat was still grounding his brain in the musical traditions of the subcontinent. Salman knew that his music had to do something new, and eventually it became clear that this would come from qawwali. Except, when it all finally connected, the mullahs raised havoc.

In itself, Saeen asks no questions of the religious clergy. The song is addressed to God, and it is more than anything a statement of complete devotion. This is unlike Ilteja, another song on Inquilaab, which is more contemplative and doubtful, questioning the silence of God and the ultimate loneliness of humanity. But Ilteja too, resolves in a sincere devotion to the concept and majesty of God as the ultimate protector and destiny. What bothers the mullahs about Saeen is that rock stars decided to talk overtly about Islam. Hard rock’s representation of the West, the West’s symbolism as the counterweight to Islamic morality, and the sheer gall that pop musicians could realistically think it was their right at all to lay claim to any space in mainstream religious discourse was what pissed of the Mullahs.

This reaction to Saeen was stereotypical, in Junoon’s eyes, of the problems with college campuses, and television and the state. The power given to orthodox religious clergy in the eighties had made them overbearing, violent, and suffocating. As representatives of the angst of the kids that wanted to live their life in peace, Junoon represents a frustration with the Mullahs’ belief that everything fun is haraam.

In the 2003 documentary The Rock Star and the Mullahs, Salman travels to Peshawar where the Islamist Muttahida Majlis e Amal had banned music with a provincial government doctrine. He visits defunct music stores, sings with people on a bus, and talks to clerics while he plays some Islamic text on a guitar. This makes people uneasy, and he asks them why music is haram. If music affects my soul and gives me peace he says, why is that problematic for Islam? The responses he receives are feelingless rote memorizations, and this only riles him up more. Stranger still, is that the mindless religious argument is counterweighted by the genuine warmth that Salman receives from everyone, religious clergy or not, as he visits them.

At one point in the film, Salman goes to see Maulana Bijli – who is known as such for the electrifying nature of his sermons. The Maulana, an influential religious figure, decries global political structures as being in ultimate servitude to America (America of course, being in ultimate servitude to Satan), declares that the enforcement of Quranic law is the only solution to the degeneration of the Muslim world (of which Pakistan is the worst of the worst), and that Salman should give up music for a more godly profession. The Maulana’s declarations of all non-Muslims, and Muslims, as self-interested sons of pigs leaves Salman dejected. Salman’s pleas of the participation of hundreds of thousands in protests against the American invasion of Iraq are curtly dismissed as acts of insincerity. As Salman looks to leave, dispirited, the Maulana holds him back and asks:

“Are you angry with me?”
“How can I be angry with you, I’m the one that came to see you”
“I would like that you come and see me from time to time”
“You want to see me?”
“This is from the heart”
“Me, the sinner?”
The Maulana smiles and shakes his head.
“You’ve even declared my shoes to be sinful!”.
Both pause – Salman despondent, the Maulana hopeful.
“I’ll come, God willing”, Salman dismisses and looks away.

Maulana starts singing. “Sing this in London”, he says. And then breaks into song about the supreme nature of Medina, of the spirit of true believers, and of their ultimate entrance into the land of God.

The Maulana’s disgust with global political structures, and with music is sincere. You may question its validity, but it is harder to doubt its sincerity. Just as it is hard to ignore the sincerity in the Maulana’s genuine endearment of Salman. Of his desire to establish a human connection, of maybe conversing with him again, and perhaps of saving him from his ways. The Maulana’s gesture is proof that the lines that he and his colleagues draw are not clear cut. The clergy must define rules that are clear enough to be followed, but their own human side often lets through that they do not write off people as easily as they sometimes claim. The anger they show when their rules are challenged is in some sense, a defense mechanism. Cynically, it is a defense of power – of losing the ability to control the discourse. Optimistically however, it sources from a genuine moral trepidation that they may be letting down their entire belief system. And with it failing in their roles as the protectors of divine doctrine in Muslim society. Which doesn’t seem like a chance worth taking.

You could ask similar questions of Junoon. Did they really believe in the sort of Sufi Islam they seemed to preach? Was the foray into Sufism just a gimmick to sell music? Which is analogous to asking if someone who wrote a love song was genuinely in love at the time. At which point it becomes clear that it might not really matter as long as it makes you feel something. Surely the drawing of Sufi imagery and philosophy made Junoon relevant and popular. But these were also genuine responses to forces of the time. More important to me, is not the question of if Junoon were really Sufi, but why they would pick a public fight with religious orthodoxy at all.

The killing of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011 identifies the real risks of this fight. And just recently, the murder of Amjad Sabri, despite motives behind the murder still being debated, is another reminder that popular musicians are not safe in the streets of Pakistan. Granted, by 2011, levels of intolerance and violence in Pakistan were much higher than in the late nineties or even early two-thousands. And even in 2011 Taseer’s murder was an unexpected wake up call. But the seeds of the intolerance that would kill Taseer and Sabri were laid many years before their murders, and years before Junoon. Which puts into context the audacity of Junoon’s decision not just to sing Saeein, but to continue an aggressive fight to lay claim to Islamic public discourse. Why would they put themselves in this position?

Saeein, one can imagine, may have begun life as sonic exercise more than a political statement. But upon its release it became clear that if Junoon went down this route at all, they were very much in the heat with religious orthodoxy. In Salman’s head, the sonic union of Nusrat and Page made so much sense that this backlash was almost incomprehensible. It proved the beliefs Ali and Salman forged in college: everything happy was haram to the mullahs. It showed also, that conversations about religion were central to the fabric of Pakistan. That to make any commentary on Pakistani society, Junoon would have to ask themselves questions of religion. Could rock stars be devout Muslims? Could music make God unholy? Could Salman ever connect the heritages of New York and Lahore?

This was as much a campaign as it was introspection. Salman’s crusade to mean something suddenly turned its head and became a fight to reshape what it meant to be Muslim. Ali’s indiscriminate rebellion shaped into an astute struggle for intellectual freedom. And Brian’s transplantation into Pakistan morphed into an exploration of the shared warmth and humanity between the Christianity he grew up with and the Islam he now danced to. Junoon settled into more of themselves, which gave them the freedom to imagine Pakistan with a new lens. Because a sense of self is a prerequisite to any good relationship.

The final destination of every qawwali is spiritual transcendence towards a union with the Divine. The resolution of the love between believer and Creator culminates in them becoming one. Both share the core of life – one the giver the other the receiver. But contrary to a caricature of Sufi belief, humanity and God are not one to begin with. Humanity can only identify God if it acknowledges that they are different. Which is to say, you cannot love something without knowing who you are. And to begin to love, and to fight Pakistan, Junoon had to figure out what they were. Then, they could start. And what is the best way to pick a fight with Pakistan? Serenading India.


زندگی کچھ نہیں، بندگی کچھ نہیں، پیار بنا

Junoon arrive in India with 1997’s Sayonee – a song about lost love, and lost ways. It is the lament of a directionless passion – philosophical, yet populist; defeatist, yet hopeful. Sayonee is a song of unmatched affection facing insurmountable obstacles. It is the perfect metaphor for a Pakistani band to woo India with. Sayonee, and the release of Junoon’s fourth album Azadi, suddenly made Junoon the best selling artists in the subcontinent. Salman now compares Junoon’s arrival in India with the Beatles’ invasion of the United States. Except, he points out, Britain and America weren’t at war.

While in India, Junoon spoke against the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent, which was hitting its peak at the time. Predictably, this did not go down well with the Pakistani establishment. In the press Junoon were labelled traitors and accused of treason. The government demanded a response, and in true rockstar fashion Junoon defiantly asked they be judged by the Pakistani people on national television. To borrow Nadeem Paracha’s argument the problem that the Pakistani state had was not really with Junoon’s tirades against nuclear arms, the problem was that Junoon had broken a barrier and made it big in India.

Really, it seems that Junoon derived a sort of sadistic pleasure from messing with the Pakistani government. It started with 1996’s Ehtesaab – a blunt, outrageous criticism of the corruption of Benazir Bhutto’s government.2 Ehtesaab’s video, directed by Shoaib Mansoor, juxtaposes the plight of street children with the excesses of Pakistani government officials, such as stewards waiting on Asif Zardari’s polo horses as they feast on a lavish banquet. The video was soon forced off the air. After Junoon’s remarks in India, they were banned from television and radio entirely. By 2002, in eleven years of Junoon’s existence, Junoon had been censored in some form for seven of them. Soon after all this, Ali claims, Junoon were followed by intelligence agencies, their phones tapped, guards sent to beat them up. The government argued that Junoon were guilty of sedition. To Junoon it was jubilant mutiny against an entrenched structure of corruption, propaganda, and broad injustice.

Ehtesaab is a focal point of Junoon’s political critique. But as they progressed the direct confrontations with the Pakistani state became wars of words outside of the actual music. On their recordings Junoon concentrated on more philosophical ideas of self-determination, belonging and attachment laid out over analogously expansive riffs.

Azadi is an existentialist engagement with the texture of Pakistani folk. It is as much about identifying yourself, as it is about acknowledging that you are lost. Tablas lead the percussion, the drums are almost invisible. Salman takes center-stage with feverish rhythm guitar playing. His solo work on electric overdubs is more surgical and more melodic than before. Brian provides a probing, forceful, harmonic undertone. Ali’s singing is explorative, like the songs themselves. It is both finding itself and losing itself in the midst of everything around it. Grounded in the soil, the lyrics explore desperate love and an intellectual openness. And while the words do not name Pakistan, it is clear that they are meant to imagine a pluralistic, open national identity.

1997’s Parvaaz is Junoon’s finest, most refined work. The drums come back as equal partners with the tabla. Salman steps back from the persistent acoustic rhythms and develops an ambient, charging riffing ability that provides the entire album a sense of immense depth and movement. Brian and Ali are given more room to breathe. Brian uses this to play more daring bass lines. Ali takes his soul searching into a new vista of warmth. Parvaaz is more measured than Azadi. It is expresses more doubt, but it comes from a band that is more sure of itself, and the result is an album that asks its audience to awaken with the band. The songs are less desperate, and there is a sense of hope even in the confusion of lost love and disappearing identity.

Junoon fought with the Pakistani state on corruption and nuclear arms. Much of this was off stage. But their love for Pakistan manifested truly in their engagement with the sound of Pakistani traditions. Their sound, the kurtas on their album covers, the deserts in their music videos helped a new urban Pakistan put a face to itself. Their true contribution is not the engagement with the Pakistani state, but with Pakistan the idea. Junoon’s portrayal of Pakistani identity is a cosmopolitan amalgam descending from Rumi and Bulleh Shah as well as Iqbal. And embedded within it is the argument that the delineation of India and Pakistan is arbitrary. That we are all human; and that surely being Pakistani means more than not being Indian; and that part of the answer to the question of what it meant to be Pakistani, was answered by what Junoon was outside of Pakistan – what it meant to be big in India, but also what it meant to be American. Because if India defined Junoon’s rise, it was America that defined Junoon’s fall.

In some ways Junoon is as American as it is Pakistani. Salman and Brian grew up in the United States, as did John Alec, their producer, and Jay Dittamo, their drummer. Albums were processed in New York, and at points there was even talk of an English album to cater to a Western audience.

When Salman returned to New York after 9/11, Pakistani audiences considered this escapist. Pakistan consistently feels abandoned, and a stubborn anti-American sentiment colors public opinion. The position of Brian however, upends all this negativity.

Brian was American through and through, and yet Junoon was never even a little bit an American band. It was always Pakistani. In the summer of 2011, on a Shadman balcony, I was talking to the members of underground band Moen Jo Daro about bass players on the local circuit. And they concluded that Brian was the one ‘Pakistani’ bassist with real groove. Brian never took the limelight like Ali or Salman, and that’s partly why his Americanness falls under the radar. But the primary reason Brian is accepted by Pakistan is because Pakistanis see Brian as open to embracing their culture. Brian commands respect because he offered some himself. The same can likely be said about John Alec and Jay Dittamo.

But this begs the question we started with, why would Brian leave everything behind for Pakistan? The answer becomes clearer the more you think about Azadi and Parvaaz. As Junoon become more confident in their identity, and at the peak of their engagement with the dream of Pakistan, their albums express the most overt doubt. In the service of ideas bigger than themselves, on their best work, Junoon give themselves away. For all this time that we have thought that Junoon were on this boyish quest to change the world, what they were really after was something they would happily give their lives for. They were in a search for personal tranquility.

What we all really chase is not a lover, but the feeling of being in love. And the reason we do is because love begets devotion, and when surrounded by people we love it becomes very clear what it is we have to do. Everyone else, everything else, anything that at some point may have gnawed at us fades away in the service of helping of someone we love. Life becomes easier, in a way. The entrapment of love frees us from the devastating liberty of our own minds. Ali, Salman and Brian are smart men with many ideas. At times artists need some imposed restriction to channel their thoughts. And Junoon chose to put themselves in the restrictive heat of Pakistan. It seems contradictory to chase tranquility with an effusive political struggle. But there is no peace without thrill. No belonging without escape. No declaration without doubt. And perhaps there is no love, without loss.


چین اک پل نہیں، اور کوئ حل نہیں

9/11 is the symbolic end of Junoon.

New York is Ali’s “spiritual hometown”. It was of course more than that to Brian and Salman. Brian’s brother in law, a fire fighter, lost many colleagues on 9/11. Salman, his identity split between Lahore and New York, was left homeless. His faith now an enemy in New York but his heart bleeding at the pain of his hometown. 9/11 left Junoon very much in pain. This is on display at a memorial concert, where Junoon performed Mitti, a humbling lament into the fleeting nature of life, of feeling, of songs. It is a tearful, heart-jerking rendition.

Ishq, Junoon’s sixth studio album, was released nine months before 9/11, and is Junoon’s first album to be predominantly put together in New York. It is a fine enough collection of songs from a first time group. But for Junoon, and after their last three records, Ishq is an empty exercise in the stereotype of Junoon themselves. There are interesting moments in the album, but alas it is a underproduced collection of first drafts. Clearly trapped by the constant framing of ‘Sufi Rock’ Junoon claimed Ishq was a conscious departure from it. But given that the video to the album’s lead single features whirling dervishes, it becomes clear that Junoon not only feel trapped, but are trapped in their own image.

Given its timing, Ishq is not impacted by the aftermath of 9/11. But the album’s failures can likely be written down to processes in the band’s working that began before 9/11, and only intensified after. Salman was increasingly pulled towards New York in this time, and on meeting him a few years after it was clear that he felt his purpose was to defend Islam in America. Salman was always on some sort of intellectual crusade. He left New York fighting, and he came back fighting.

Salman’s crusade meant that Junoon’s seventh album Dewaar, like Ishq, would be written asyncronously across contents. He would write his parts in New York, Ali and Brian would contribute from wherever possible. But the mechanics of this relationship were making Junoon untenable. Ali was growing into an accomplished song writer, but as Salman took the composition process with him a few thousand miles away, Ali remained unheard. Brian had to mediate the growing divide between Ali and Salman. And this, combined with the devolution of his marriage left him hollow.

Alongside the band’s internal struggles, the rise of General Musharraf made Junoon politically irrelevant. Musharraf’s coup of Nawaz Sharif’s government – which like Benazir’s before it did not get along with Junoon – left Musharraf as an ironic hope for liberation. Musharraf’s (and his family’s) adoration of Junoon, and his attempts to further ‘enlightened moderation’ with a more tolerant image of Islam meant that Junoon were no longer guerrillas but PR stooges.

In the midst of all of this, 2003’s Dewaar is a last ditch effort to reimagine Junoon – a valiant attempt at new sound, varied songwriting, and refreshed corporate sponsorship. At this point questions about Junoon’s end were imminent but the band was inclined to keep it together somehow, in deference to the adoration of the band itself and also to the many livelihoods attached to the band in the form of their support staff. Salman’s new production aesthetic is more electronic, has less Brian and less tabla. An unnecessary reprise and a pretty good Coke jingle sneaked into the album. Pappu Yaar and Ghoom Tana are vintage Junoon in many ways. But the album is pillared by Taara Jala and Garaj Baras, Ali’s two songs on the album. They are existentialist, desperate, powerful. But Dewaar’s real poignance is in its foreshadowing of the bands’ lives thereon.

Brian’s muted presence on Dewaar dwindled further after the album’s release. His personal state of depression temporarily drowning the tenderness he brought to the band. Ultimately he was asked to take a break. Ali continued to perform with Salman, but nearing the release of his debut album was issued a cease and desist notice arguing that the release of his solo album would harm Junoon. Disgruntled and unfulfilled, Ali too departed from the live act. Leaving Salman, who to this day lays claim to and continues to use the Junoon label for his work and his live act. The departure of Brian, and then Ali, is the end of Junoon as we knew it.

After Dewaar the warmth of Junoon had disappeared for Brian. But Brian was never going to be far away from the warmth he exuded. He subsequently became a music teacher in New York, and one can imagine there is perhaps no better man suited to teach people music than a man who upended his life to live in an alien culture and then became their rock god.

Salman had to fight his new fight in New York. He saw no other way. This meant, unfortunately, that he could no longer play to the audience that had made him a star. And more painfully, that same audience would malign him for fighting the good fight in America. They often see him now as detached, deluded and stuck in the past of Junoon. But to Salman, the answers to all of America’s Islamophobia already exist in the music he’d been playing his entire adult life. He had solved this problem, and only needed people to see. With his teaching and writing, Salman’s role in America is to sketch the nature of a modern Islamic freedom fighter in the age of the War on Terror. The old, Pakistani Junoon had to make way for an even bigger fight.

Salman’s solo music after Junoon explores Sufi Rock further. His first album Infiniti is brave. It takes Dewaar’s electronica, a more self-assured and self- aware vocal performance, and an overall enterprising direction to accompany familiar Sufi text. The songs are more delirious, the rhythms have more vigor, the melodies are more ambient. But it becomes clear soon that the point of Salman music now is no longer to explore tonality, but to frame debates about Islam and about Pakistan. His second album Rock & Roll Jihad, disparate singles and anniversary Junoon albums are hence attempts at modernizing the Junoon sound.

In contrast, Ali is grounded still in Pakistan. He is tired of the Junoon sound, mistrusting it for its hubris after having been squashed by it for many years. Brimming with ideas, more than ever Ali is searching for an intellectual outlet. This unchanneled energy makes his political work more problematic than Salman’s. His partnership with Zaid Hamid, and painful sympathy for conspiracy theories about the targeting of the Muslim world read of a bright man being pushed to madness by the struggle of staying honest.

Ali’s musical work after Junoon, however, is revelatory. His first album, Social Circus, is a fatalistic exploration of self and companionship. His vocals display more textural range than they are ever allowed in Junoon. Guitars, bass and drums weave tightly with synth overdubs and multi-tracked vocals. Klashinfolk is a similar exercise in existentialism, but its sounds more free and celebratory. If Social Circus is a weighted escape from the sound of Azadi, Klashinfolk is a spirited, flighted exhibition of Ali’s music dexterity, and of the development of his band – Omran Shafique, Kamran Zafar and Louis John Pinto – who would inspire and join Rohail Hyatt in his production of Coke Studio. Junoon had become too big to escape what what they had become. And Sufi Rock would be forever their identity. Ali’s musical contributions were to expand Pakistani pop into a new renaissance of art-rock, all of which had to exist away from Junoon’s shadow.

Brian’s search for warmth, Salman’s search to define Islam, Ali’s search for expression, all were going in the same direction during Inquilaab, Azadi and Parvaaz. But after that time, the configuration of the world meant that they all leaned towards different directions. Calling the end, and acknowledging the end is never easy. Junoon was only but a moment in the lives of Ali, Salman & Brian. They are three individuals on three separate paths, and for a short ephemeral time it made total sense for them to look for what they wanted together. At the end of it they were just holding each other back from what they loved.

The world pulls the people we love in unflinching, agonizing, intolerable directions. And at times the choice we have is between feuding with worldly forces we have no possible hope of moulding in any way, or saving ourselves to create strength that may still save someone we love. It’s always right to save a life.


مرنے سے تو، میں نہ ڈروں، کیسے چناب کو پار کروں

The live section of 2002’s Daur e Junoon begins also, with Mera Mahi. This time the song is preceded by wild applause, and an emcee’s introduction of the band: “Good Evening Los Angeles. Bringing the message of peace, love, unity, Sufi Rock, direct from Karachi, Junoon!” Then the song breaks out into the familiar beat and riff. But there are some differences. The drums are louder, faster even. The bass is more assured. The guitar sound is ruder. The vocals are wilder, to the point of almost being dissonant. But they connect, still, almost stronger than before.

I don’t know if the openings of Inquilaab and Daur e Junoon were meant to be connected in some way. In my head, they work perfectly as a question and answer. Inquilaab’s opening monologue is a heavy, ponderous manifesto. It is a call to question your demons, to escape the darkness of our own ignorance. The introduction on Daur e Junoon is contrastingly light. It is free, unstructured, fettered with joy. It is the acknowledgement of the arrival that Inquilaab promised. I think in 1996 Junoon are brazenly but cautiously toying with the idea that they are on to something. That they are sitting on a sound that will open up the vistas of all rock to blare from the subcontinent hereon. By 2002 the unflinching load of expectation from the weight of their own discovery has lightened. The adoration of audiences in Pakistan, India, America and beyond have given the band the ability to reflect on themselves, and to realize that the time would soon come to fight something else, and to be someone new.

I don’t think it’s entirely random that the words mahi and piya, both titles of Junoon songs, can mean both lover and sea. The sea, or a raging river, are great metaphors for love – vast, majestic, awe-inspiring; yet simultaneously undulating, encompassing, tempestuous. Mahiwal draws on the folk tale of Sohni and her lover from whom the song sources its name. In this telling of the story, Sohni is drowning in the Chenab, wailing to Mahiwal. She asks Mahiwal to help bring her ashore. But she sees no way out of the waves, and begins to foresee death. She is trapped in the middle of the Chenab, and then realizes that the bank she has left and the bank she longs to reach both afterall, contain Mahiwal. And at this point, she’d rather die than continue attempting to get to one of them. She will become one with the Chenab. It is a story of imminent, eventual, certain annihilation.

The Sufi journey is also one of reaching one’s beloved, and also one of annihilation. This path to the divine is often written as a quest across a few broad stages. The story’s protagonist must find within himself a yearning for something big, and he must turn this blind yearning into a true passion. Then he must understand the nature of what he wants, of who is, and what he feels. The escape from worldly dominion requires first understanding the circumstances of worldly dominion, only after which can our protagonist truly detach himself from all the chains holding him down, bask in the true majesty of his beloved, and reach a state of selflessness. This state of selflessness involves losing all measure of what one must do for himself, so as to devote fully to what you love. But in Sufi mythology the selflessness is not just one of emotion but also one of metaphysics. In a state of true love, the true Sufi is not only ready to give himself to what he loves, but becomes one with what he loves. It is an oblivion into God.

There is a metaphor to this in qawwali. A seeker can take a completely worldly construct – the rhythm – and slowly find within it the otherworldly – an escape. After gathering momentum the qawwali becomes feverish, the seeker slowly loses consciousness. Until they have reached a state of total fanaa. Perhaps out of utter coincidence, Junoon’s discography follows something loosely similar. Their first two albums Junoon (passion) and Talaash (search), an encompassing yearning and then a quest for direction. Their next three Inquilaab (revolution), Azadi (freedom) and Parvaaz (flight), the soaring rise of a loving momentum. Ishq (love), a detached, almost delusional lack of self-awareness. Dewaar (wall), the end.

For Sohni, and for Junoon, the story of love is of eventual, inevitable annihilation. There was no way to stop it, but there was perhaps no reason to stop it either. We must all leave who we are to find something we love. It’s just that we never imagined that the flame that would finally consume Junoon would be fueled by their own selves.


Many thanks to Abid Hussain, Hamza Masood, Natasha Japanwala, Thomas Hodgson, Noel Lobley, Saman Khan, Faiza Shah, Ahmer Naqvi & Natasha Noorani who have read this piece as various drafts over the years.

  1. I erroneously noted originally that Mera Mahi first appeared on Kash ma KashKash ma Kash was released in 1996, after Inquilaab, not before in 1993 as I originally thought. 
  2. I also erroneously listed Ehtesaab‘s release date as 1995, instead of 1996. Many thanks to Shahir Ahmed who pointed this out, and helped find the error above as well. He is a priceless resource.