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From Kashmir to Jerusalem...

For someone who is also known as the Bono of South Asia, it was only a matter of time before all that activism transferred from music to life. Malvika Nanda speaks to Junoon's Salman Ahmad.
Hindustan Times | By Malvika Nanda
UPDATED ON JUN 07, 2008 12:07 AM IST

It’s been almost a decade since they hijacked the Indian popularity charts with their first hit Sayonee, but Pakistani band Junoon’s work continues to enthrall music lovers on either side of the border. After performing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and more recently in Kashmir, the band has now been invited by the UN Secretary-general to perform at the Global Insight Summit in the US.

The original line-up of Junoon doesn’t exist anymore: singer Ali Azmat is no longer with the group and the new order includes Salman Ahmad (guitar/vocals) Pandit Samir Chatterjee (tabla and backing vocals), Chris Tarry (bass) and Sunny Jain (drums and percussion). Says Ahmad, “Junoon's been reincarnated many times since the 90s. It’s a musical passion. The current Junoon line-up is an awesome bunch of free wandering spirits.”

Ahmad is particularly excited about the performance in Kashmir, “For me, it [Kashmir] was always the final frontier to perform.” His other ideal destination is apparently “Jerusalem”. But for Kashmir, he feels, that the ideal song would be one of his earliest hits, “Khudi ko kar buland itna… kay har takdeer sey pehlay khuda bandey sey khud poochay bata terey raza kya ha.”

Talking on the Indo-Pak peace process, Ahmad says that peace is long overdue. “India and Pakistan should reap the benefits of this age of connectivity. Culture, economics and the environment are all dependent on human relationships. The governments have to recognise that Indians and Pakistanis complement each other whenever they work together or indulge in healthy competition.” He adds, “When I recorded Ghoom Tana (infiniti) with Shubha Mudgal, the song touched the hearts of millions of South Asians who dream of a peaceful subcontinent.”

At the Nobel Prize ceremony, Ahmad shared stage with the likes of Alicia Keys, Annie Lennox, Katey Tunstall, Earth Wind And Fire and Melissa Etheridge. “It’s these kind of musical interactions which keep pushing you to do your passionate best. It’s a lot more challenging but very rewarding artistically and otherwise,” says the singer, who is also collaborating with Etheridge.

Commenting on it, he says: “It is special because it merges all my influences, both Western and Oriental.” The song, Ring The Bells, will be out by November 2008. He has also launched HIV-AIDS awareness T-shirts with Bono’s company Edun Live, branded Coexistence.

For someone who is also known as the Bono of South Asia, it was only a matter of time before all that activism transferred from music to life. “Junoon as a band always had an opinion to voice and sang politically and socially relevant songs. But the band only exercised this concern in their music. Outside of Junoon, you started to take action not only musically but also on a very basic human level,” says Ahmad, the teacher and artist-in-residence at Queens College.

Ahmad, who is also a qualified doctor, attributes this to his growing up years in Pakistan and America. He says, “Working in a government (Mayo) hospital in Lahore made me aware about the need to write music which heals. It also taught me to publicly speak out against injustice, poverty and violence.” Ahmad will chronicle this story in an upcoming book from the Simon & Schuster stables. The contract has just been signed.

But ask him if the activist will ever turn politician and he rubbishes any such speculation without a moment’s hesitation. He says, “I’m an artiste not a politician. I can better serve as a voice that speaks from the heart.”

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