A Rock and Roll Jihad: Pakistani Pop Goes Global

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Many musicians have declared that Rock & Roll will save the world. Few, it seems, have as much resting on that gamble as Pakistani rocker Salman Ahmad, founder of South Asia’s hottest rock band, Junoon. Ahmad, who goes by the nickname Sufi Sal, has struggled for year to showcase his peculiar brand of Sufi-inflected rock outside of South Asia. He may now be getting his chance. Pakistan’s Express Tribune reports that Ahmad’s catchy “Natchoon Gi” has been selected to feature on a new music compilation by David Lynch, and that he is also talking with Peter Gabriel about recording a new album. He just met with director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) to discuss music for her next film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s novel about a Pakistani living in post 9/11 New York.

In his thought-provoking  2010 memoir, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution, Ahmad struggles to reclaim Islam from the fundamentalists that he accuses of hijacking his religion. It is through the power of his music, he says, that it became his life’s goal “to wage a cultural jihad and kick-start a revolution to take back [Pakistan’s] Sufi roots of coexistence, acceptance and mutual ecstasy.”  That quest brought Ahmad face to face with angry mullahs, furious politicians (his music and videos were banned by both Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif) and even Sufi practitioners annoyed that he made their poetry popular among the youth by putting it to a contemporary beat. One of his first hits, a song featuring an electric guitar solo evoking the Muslim call to prayer, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s take on the Star Spangled Banner, earned him both accolades and death threats. Still, he persevered, eventually touring in India to sold out crowds, the first Pakistani rock musician ever to do so. Rolling Stone Magazine once called him the “Bono of South Asia.”

Post 9/11, Ahmad’s junoon, —obsessive passion in his native language, Urdu—morphed into something even more urgent: greater understanding between Islam and the West. If the refrain from John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” echoes through the book, it is not by chance. Ahmad spent his early teenage years in New York, his outsider status assuaged by a steady diet of rock and roll classics, from the Beatles to Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones and ACDC. On the eve of his return to Pakistan to attend medical school, John Lennon was assassinated. Ahmad made a detour to lay flowers at the Dakota before he left the country. It was his early indoctrination into the school of rock, says Ahmad, which gave him his life’s mission. “I didn’t see a Pakistani, an American, or a Muslim, or anyone who fit into a single label or category. I just imagined myself standing onstage, playing my guitar and making people happy. And that was all I wanted.”

An entertaining read, Rock & Roll Jihad riffs on Pakistani politics, Sufi mysticism, U.S. – Muslim relations, cricket, moderate vs. extremist Islam, and of course, how his version of Sufi Rock will save the world. Standout solos include an amusing account of Ahmad’s impromptu tour of Lahore’s red light district with the Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger, and a frightening encounter with a mob of female Pashtun fans – and their angry brothers (Ahmad describes the experience as something like an early Beatles movie, but directed by Quentin Tarantino). The only thing missing is the soundtrack, which any true classic rock aficionado with a well-stocked ipod and access to YouTube can easily provide.

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