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‘Peace is the only way forward for the two countries’

Says Salman Ahmad, the founder of the Pakistani Sufi-rock band Junoon

brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 20:29 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times
Junoon,Salman Ahmad,Sufi
Salman Ahmad (left) at one of his performances

A quarter century ago, a medical student in Lahore battled between the doctor dream of his parents and his own dream to start a rock band. His own dream won and the world got Junoon and the amazing song Sayonee.

Junoon released seven albums, but though the band members dispersed, the medical student who founded the band, Salman Ahmad, continued to make music as Junoon.

Now Junoon is 25 years old - and a brand new album is about to release in November, hoping to find brand new fans.

In an email interview, Salman Ahmad, founder of Junoon, tells us about the band’s journey.

25 years is a long time for a band to exist. Did you ever imagine Junoon would last so long?

It seems totally unreal. Junoon actually began with a dream I had soon after I graduated from King Edward Medical College in Lahore. I was being pressured by parents, professors and friends to choose only one career and not “waste my time strumming a tun-tunna”. In the dream, I saw an old man with a white beard, dressed in a long white robe, furiously shake my shoulders and shout “Tumhey Junoon hai, Junoon hai, Junoon hai, Mauseequi ka Junoon hai!”

I woke up with the word ‘Junoon’ echoing in my head and decided to follow my dream and start a rock band. As Paulo Coehlo says in The Alchemist: “When you follow your heart the entire Universe conspires to make you succeed.” Junoon is an infinite rollercoaster ride without seatbelts.

What are the inspirations behind your music?

I grew up in the US; apart from classical rock and pop, I studied Western music theory, arrangement and orchestration, and played in various rock bands before returning to Pakistan to train as a doctor in my home town, Lahore. Although I listen to everything contemporary, at age 13 in New York, I saw Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden playing a Red 12 string double neck guitar. He had long hair and dragons painted on his pants.

Led Zepp and the Beatles inspired me to pick up the guitar. As a songwriter, I studied the classics: Led Zepp, the Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, RD Burman, Naushad sahib, Ghulam Mohammad, Laxmikant Pyarelal to name just a few. I was also very lucky to meet, perform and study qawwali with the legendary Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sahib. I’m also a huge fan of Peter Gabriel and feel blessed to have grown up in the era of great composers and classic bands.

A few of your songs talk about the angst of partition, political games, etc., and also about solidarity between India and Pakistan. How were you affected by Partition?

Music across generations and barbed wire borders has great power and no barriers can stop it. This is illustrated in Junoon’s music video / documentary Ghoom Tana which features my good friends Shubha Mudgal, Naseeruddin Shah and Nandita Das.

My understanding of Partition has been mainly shaped by my maternal grandparents’ childhood stories of growing up in Patiala. Although Partition was an extremely traumatic time for millions of people on both sides of the divide, despite the rancorous politics and violence there still remains great love, friendship and a deep spiritual harmony between our ancestors, friends and the current generations on both sides of the fence.

For example, we shot the Ghoom Tana video in the house that my mother was born in, and I was treated like a lost son by the Patiala royal family, the district administration, and Mr and Mrs Sangha, the current residents of that house on Namdar Khan Road, which was named after my great-great-great-great grandfather who was Maharaja Bhupinder Singh’s Muslim guardian.

I’ve always believed that there should be cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion, between Pakistan and India. I was labeled a traitor for saying this in 1998 but now I’m called a peace ambassador. Junoon is also the first and only Pakistani rock band to have performed in Srinagar (May 2008) at the edge of Dal Lake for thousands of Kashmiri college students and the South Asian leadership. This was one of my most memorable life experiences because it revealed the possibility of peace and harmony in a subcontinent constantly rocked with violence and border tensions. The youth are the future for South Asia and peace is the only way forward for the two nuclear armed neighbours.

The band members of Junoon before it disbanded

What was it like to perform in India for the first time?

The experiences were unforgettable. Our 1998 album, Azadi, and single, Sayonee, were top of the charts; we were awarded the ‘the best international group award’ and were treated like royalty by all the ‘Junoonis’ across India. Even the great Big B (Amitabh Bachchan) congratulated Junoon when we met him and his wife Jayaji (Jaya Bachchan) at the Taj for dinner in Mumbai.

My first ever email contact with an Indian was with the then editor of Teens Today, Vatsala Kaul, who is featured in the Ghoom Tana documentary. At our recent February concert in Delhi for UNESCO, Vatsala brought her teenaged daughter to the show. Her daughter is named Sayonee, she told me, “because mom had OD-d on Junoon’s music during the 90s.” Sayonee told me that she’s now learning to play the guitar.

Do you follow Indian music, especially by bands such as Indian Ocean, Parikrama etc?

I listen to everything that touches my heart. We’ve made a Junoon playlists for Universal Music India too.

What made Sayonee such an iconic number? What made you write that song?

Like Ghoom Tana and Meri Awaz Suno, Sayonee is a song about longing, freedom and the pain of separation. Its opening guitar riff was inspired by the sounds of waves crashing into the rocks on the Karachi shoreline. I had no idea that it would become so big and remain on people’s playlists even after 18 years.

Which are your favourites among all your songs?

Songs are like your children, you love them all :) Bulleya, Khudi, Pyar Bina, Ghoom Tana, Sayonee, Meri Awaaz Suno... Universal Music India will be releasing 27 ‘Best of Junoon’ songs in October.

If the band members were still together, would Junoon still appeal to the current audience?

I don’t know, but earlier this year I went to see Radiohead and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) with my son at Madison Square Garden. Great music is timeless and ageless, it connects with everyone. The music is bigger than the artist.

Bollywood uses a lot of Sufi music and several Pakistani singers are doing very well here. Would you like to be part of the Indian film music industry?

I would love to contribute music sound tracks to films made with diverse themes and not just in the Sufi genre. I’ve just composed a song for an American HBO film called Open Your Eyes which features Peter Gabriel, and have also recorded YARO with Sunidhi Chauhan for the Rhythm soundtrack. Open Your Eyes will appear on Universal’s ‘Junoon 25’ album in November.

It’s been 11 long years since your last studio album. What will the new album be like?

The new album is an unabashed celebration of Junoon music. It features special guest appearances by Ali Zafar, Shubha Mudgal, Peter Gabriel & Outlandish. It’s got 14 songs, including Door, for which a video is in production as we speak.

From HT Brunch, October 8

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First Published: Oct 08, 2016 20:29 IST