Salman Ahmad is a popular musician and United Nations goodwill ambassador. One of the founders of the seminal Pakistani Rock music band Vital Signs, he later formed and led the band Junoon, perhaps South Asia’s most celebrated popular music band. He popularized a fusion of Rock music with Islamic music that has been called “Sufi Rock” and that has been hailed as a cultural bridge within South Asia and between the East and West. With his wife, Samina, he has launched an NGO called the Salman & Samina Global Wellness Initiative that focused on interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue, global health and wellness, and music education. Ahmad is also a professor at Queens College in New York where he teaches music and poetry from the Muslim culture.
-BOOK LAUNCH: Rock and Roll Jihad by Salman Ahmed of Junoon
-Closing ceremony concert
This is your first time at the Karachi Literature Festival. How does it feel to finally be a part of an event that seems to be getting bigger and better with each passing year?
It feels great, and to be honest, I’m not surprised at all by the festival’s success. I know that on the media radar, its mostly current affairs and politics that take more space, or Veena Malik, for that matter! But there’s a lot more to Pakistan than politics and Veena Malik, and we can see that today! At the Karachi Literature Festival, I notice there’s a hunger, real thirst to be connected. I’m also doing this show as well, which is kind of like a fusion concert that we’ve put together for the closing ceremony.
Who were you most looking forward to meeting at the festival?
Everyone, really. I knew that Mohsin Hamid was going to be here, and Ahmed Rasheed and so many others that I’ve read and admire.
You had a book-launch session early in the morning. How did that go for you?
It was great. I mean, I’m glad about the launch of Rock and Roll Jihad’s paperback release here because it’s a book about Pakistan and I want Pakistanis to read it. At my session this morning there were a lot of 20-22 years old Karachi University mass communication students, and they’d read the book and were asking me questions… and the biggest question was how I had gathered the courage to convince my parents to switch from medicine to music. And I think that’s a common chord. Young people in Pakistan want to do different things. When I was growing up I had 2 choices: doctor, and doctor. I told them that the period from 2012 to 2022 is perhaps the most important 10 years in the history of Pakistan thus far. These 10 years are going to determine the future of their generation.
It’s very reassuring to know that you’re optimistic about Pakistan and its youths and the years to come…
Not just being optimistic. Because I’ve lived through Zia’s time and been through this whole era of political upheaval and conflict, and have come at this end where I see that young people in Pakistan really want to take control of their destiny. So I feel really inspired by that. 2012-2022 I think, will turn out to be a time of cultural renaissance for us.
Since you’ve been to Jaipur Literature Festival twice, how would you compare it with the Karachi Literature Festival?
Yes, I’ve been to the Jaipur festival twice but being here is different; it’s more of a celebrity fest: Oprah will show up. Salman Rushdie won’t turn up… KLF, I feel, is possibly a creative spark, a catalyst.
Coming back to your book and all the criticism it’s received since its launch two years ago, tell me, has something been said or written that really got to you as a first time author?
Well, I think that if as an author if you don’t receive criticism, you haven’t done your job! The criticism for my book has been diverse, but it’s all very constructive. Most of the curiosity or criticism has been that it’s not Muslim enough or too Muslim. The secular audience has said you’ve mentioned God and spirituality too much, to which my answer is yes, because my anchor is my faith and spirituality. It’s the engine that made me do all the things that I did. So what wouldn’t I talk about my faith? My Pakistani, which is my identity? On the other hand, the religious audience has found it too liberal a book.
But the book is doing very well in the West. You landed your teaching job because of it and I believe Rock and Roll jihad has also been made compulsory reading in some American universities?
The book is required reading at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Queen’s College, where I teach as well. Lots of universities that I was invited to speak at have made it a part of their curriculum in International Studies and South Asian Studies. In December, I was invited to speak to 50 US State Department officials about the book. Everybody finds Pakistan fascinating, yet undefinable. The book is an artist’s journey; it allows curious people to get to understand the nuances of Pakistan better.
Rock and Roll Jihad is a very interesting and catchy title. Did you come up with it yourself?
Actually, there’s a very interesting story attached to the tittle of the book! My American publisher, Simon and Schuster asked me to take the word “jihad” out from the title. They were afraid that the word “jihad” would most probably scare off the consumer because it describes Al Qaeda and Taliban. I said I’ve defined it in my book as the struggle – to overcome my ego, to bring a change to my life, to follow my passion—that’s all “jihad”, and I refused to change it.
Here, people said “jihad” is fine, but why the “Rock and Roll”? That these are contaminated words; rock and roll is Western, vulgar and obscene – why would anybody from Pakistan want to talk about it?
The title is a good conversation starter though, don’t you think?
How has your teaching experience been? While growing up, did you ever see yourself as a professor?
It’s been incredible journey, really. I’ve been teaching music at Queen’s College once a week for about five years now. It was unreal when I was asked to be a university professor in 2007. I mean, I used to be a backbencher! Teaching is a lot like theatre and acting, in the sense that you learn the script and then narrate it. It’s easier because I’ve been given carte blanche. My subject is Music and Poetry for Muslim Culture and I cover everything from Rumi to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; from Qawwali to Naat, and even Azaan! I have the largest class in Queen’s college. Jews, Christians, Muslims; blacks and whites, desis… I have all sorts of students!
You also performed at Imran Khan’s famous rally in December last year and it was an absolute treat for your fans. Was it a friendly favour, or should we read into it and expect your name to officially start being associated with PTI soon?
Look, when Imran Khan called me and told me about his unity jam and asked me to come and perform, I told him I have no interest in politics. An artist like me can’t be part of a political movement—we’re free spirits, we can’t even stay with our band! But we do gravitate towards passion, and that excites us. I had seen Imran’s rally in Lahore, and I wished I was there because something big was happening in Pakistan. So, when “Tsunami” called me, I said yes and it was great!
And how did the Salman Ahmed-Junaid Jamshed YouTube video come about? What was your reaction when it went viral within hours of first being uploaded?
Junaid had come to my place and we were just talking about Pakistan when suddenly he asked me if I had a guitar. I said to him: dude, that’s what I do. man! As I started playing Dil Dil Pakistan, my teenage son started recording with his cell phone camera. Slowly Maulana Sahib also got into the right mood and began singing. We sat together till 4 in the morning and he sang the entire Vital Signs and Junoon catalog that night! The next morning, I saw the video and it gave me goose bumps because the last time I’s sat with him with a guitar was 15 years ago! I thought it was amazing and we should share it with the world. I thought the only way people would accept it was that we sat down on December 25 for Quaid-e-Azam’s birthday and did this for unity. So I uploaded it to YouTube, and went on to get 70,000 hits within 24 hours. I got called Shaitaan for that, for dragging people’s spiritual leader back into this dirty business! At the same time there were people also appreciating how two musical icons brought people together with a short video.
Lastly, tell me about Junoon’s 20th Anniversary Album. How did it all come together and how did you enjoy working with the current, younger generation of Pakistani musicians?
Well, the idea for that actually took root on Twitter. Somebody sent me a YouTube video of Neend Aati Nahin, which was of the first time Junoon had been on PTV. I retweeted that, and within the next couple of days, I got several hundred tweets from people asking what I was planning to do for Junoon’s 20th anniversary. What most bands do is put together their greatest hits and release it. I thought it would be awesome if the younger generation reinterpreted our songs. Bilal Khan, Usman Riaz, Laal, Aag. Then there’s this Danish band called Outlandish. I’d also worked with Peter Gabriel. I thought this would be cool – have classic Junoon tracks sung by other people. I love their versions of it, because they’re all so different. There’s a 19 year old who did a Goth version of Sajna. There’s another volume coming as well and I’m sure if you were a Junoon fan, you’d love it.