This Sufi rocker’s autobiography makes you want to air-guitar your way along as you read.
Either it had happened in a flash already, the holocaust to come, or my head needed to be examined anyway, right here on earth… for hearing things, seeing sounds, feeling fuzzy and stuff. That’s what I thought the first time I heard the opening strains of Sayonee: the harp, santoor, rubab or whatever. Guitar, it turned out: Salman Ahmad’s. It was 1998, a cloudy year of neurotic hype and a hypnotic mike: Junoon’s. “We want cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion,” the Sufi rock band’s leader would say after rocking Chandigarh, and his music would soon have the sort of impact Mash had a generation ago. Only, with Kufic honeycombs stretching out in place of peace a la pie-chart symbols of yore.
Not that shapes matter much around here. If there’s something Junoon has striven against, it’s the tyranny of either-or-ism. To get a grip of this obsession, read Salman Ahmad’s Rock & Roll Jihad, an autobiography of such rhythm, lyricism and delirium that one feels like air-guitaring along right from its opening riff. Salman’s story of rock stardom begins as a teenager, a US-returned guitarist yearning for some heavy metal action in Lahore. At one fine college show, he lets it rip with a Van Halen guitar sequence, eyes shut, fingers electrified, strings awail, amplifier maxed, and adrenalin spurt by an eruption of youthful screams closing in… only to find the squeals are those of horror, the mobs storming his stage furious, and his equipment wrecked beyond repair. ‘My first thought was that if anybody was going to smash my guitar, it should’ve been me,’ he writes, ‘Not these show stealing thugs!’
That shock is enough to spark off Salman’s jihad, his struggle, against the thugs who won’t let anyone rock. In large part, it’s a story of guts more than glory. In his search for musical relief, he spots his ‘soulmate’ Samina with equal comic vitality, toys with cricket as a career option, hits early success with a band called Vital Signs, discovers headbangers among burkha-clad girls, cites Lennon in heady response (‘just imagine’), turns frank enough to go his own way, regroups with an old buddy (and new) to start Junoon, finds Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a ‘star instructor’ in his ‘self guided’ search for inspiration, starts tripping more and more on qawwali, gets a curvaceous camp curler in Coca-Cola, and sways his head into a poetic trance of self actualisation. The result is Junoon’s Azadi, the world’s ultimate Sufi rock album. It’s about freedom… of music, thought, emotion and convergence.
Providence admittedly plays a bigger role in Salman’s story than rational reflection might allow. Also, for all his frankness, oddly, he lets no word slip of his opinion of Taqwacore music. Otherwise, this book rocks. It is written for a wide readership, mainly Western, some might suspect. On the travails of that other Salman famous for penning verses, Rushdie, for example, he tries to explain why folk ‘completely lose their minds’ at the slightest attempt to freeze-frame or force the Prophet of Islam’s memory through a distortion box: ‘It’s like telling a Jew that the Holocaust never happened, or using the N-word for an African-American’!
Not to be constrained, this book ends aptly with Junoon’s 2008 concert in Kashmir, a seasoned effort amid tulips, guns and roses. Warp time and weft space, it may not have. Open the universe a little, hey, you never know.