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Cross-cultural healing through music

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Salman Ahmad, of the Pakistani supergroup Junoon, visited Smith on Monday, October 18, 2010.

Smith attracts some pretty exciting people. Most recently, it hosted a talk by Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad, of the band Junoon. Ahmad came to raise awareness about the devastation caused by the recent floods in Pakistan, to tell his own story of musical awakening, and to play some hand-clapping, foot-stomping good tunes.

The talk, entitled "America and Islam through the Lens of Rock and Roll," began with Ahmad's recollections of backyard weddings during his childhood in the newly formed Pakistan. The music at these events was primarily qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music that had an enormous influence on Junoon's musical style. Here Ahmad, wearing a fur hat, tie-dye shirt, and camouflage pants, started to play on his guitar, and then sing, and within a couple of minutes the entire audience was clapping and singing along. No wonder he characterized the music of his childhood as bringing him a "deep sense of joy."

The next stop on our musical tour of Ahmad's life was his adolescence in New York. Having tricked his mother into letting him go to a rock concert—he told her it was a school project—he discovered the music of Led Zeppelin, beginning with, fittingly, the song "Kashmir." Inspired by Jimmy Page, Ahmad worked at a diner until he could afford his own guitar. Once he started to play, he said, "for two, three years I never left my room."

When the family moved back to Pakistan, music was no longer a part of daily life or celebration. The country was now under the military dictatorship of General Zia. The rise of religious extremism had led to a decline in the -- secular to some, profane to others -- delights of the arts. Ahmad, a student in medical school, organized a secret talent show with some classmates, only to be busted by the morality police, who smashed his guitar in the middle of a performance of Van Halen's "Eruption," and threatened to shoot him if he was ever caught with a guitar again.

Eventually, however, upon the death of General Zia and the relaxation of religious control over the state, Ahmad was able to openly pursue his passion for music, and his band Vital Signs created a hit when they won a patriotic song contest. Ahmad went on to found the immensely successful band Junoon (an Arabic word meaning "passion bordering on madness"), referred to by the New York Times as "the U2 of Pakistan." Ahmad recalled a visit to India during which the band members, nervous about visiting a country hostile to their own, were delighted to discover that the Bollywood stars whose autographs they coveted were in fact fans of the band.

Ahmad touched on a more serious note, however, when asked how he sees the Muslim world today. He lamented the return towards extremism that he sees in Pakistan today, especially as it pushes music to the margins. "Politics demonizes what culture humanizes," he said. Although Pakistan still has a vibrant rock scene, it is only accessible through TV or the radio, as the proliferation of suicide bombing has made public assembly impossible. Ahmad resents the extremist refrain that music is not a part of faith. "They fear it," he said, "because it allows expression, it takes people's minds off the afterlife and puts it on this life. But I think there is a place for rock and roll in Islam, and that's my jihad."

That controversial word graces the title of his recently published autobiography, "Rock & Roll Jihad." Ahmad wants to claim the original meaning of the word, "struggle," back from its current militarized context. The Muslim world, he says, does not deserve its current reputation as extremist and violent. "The 9/11 hijackers didn't just hijack those planes, they hijacked an entire culture and 1.5 billion people. What they say now represents Islam." But Ahmad's Islam is much more about peace and brotherhood than about terror. As well as being a UN Goodwill Ambassador, he runs an NGO with his wife, Samina, known as the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative (SSGWI). His most recent humanitarian act was the recording of a song, with Peter Gabriel and A Fine Frenzy, proceeds from which will benefit those Pakistanis affected by the flood.

The last song Ahmad played for his Smith audience was John Lennon's "Imagine." His listeners sang along with teary eyes. "To me," said Ahmad, "this, too, is a Sufi song."

To see the flier advertising the event, click here (PDF).