Karachi Rock

Haven't heard of Junoon? They've sold 20 million albums, and they're at the Meridian this week.

Say what you want about rock deities like Bono and Bob Geldof -- call them pretentious and full of themselves and demand to know who the hell they think they are, if you must. But give them credit for this: They have transcended the often trivial world of rock and made real differences in the world.

The same goes for guitarist Salman Ahmad of Junoon, the Pakistani rock band that you could easily describe as the U2 of Asia. Like U2, Junoon comes from a land riven by sectarian and religious strife, and like U2, they have risen above it all in an effort to bring peace to the world. (Unlike U2, the band combines Western blues-rock à la Led Zeppelin with the Sufi Qawwali trance music made most famous here by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Even though most of the lyrics are in Urdu and Punjabi, the stuff is very listenable.)

Just the phrase "to bring peace to the world" seems a little precious to an irony-forged Western writer like Racket, but the truth of it in this case is self-evident. Ahmad's band, which performs April 16 at the Meridian, has sold 20 million records, but there's a lot more to his career than megaplatinum success.

In the late '80s, Ahmad, the son of a Pakistani-born pilot for Kuwaiti Airlines who spent some of his teen years soaking up rock in Virginia and New York State, had returned to Pakistan to attend school. While there, he performed A-Ha's "Take On Me" at his school's talent show, only to watch in horror as fanatical religious paramilitaries burst in and smashed all his instruments. ("And I thought it was the rockers who were supposed to destroy all their instruments," Ahmad likes to quip.)

Years later, after becoming Asia's No. 1 rock band, their satirical song and video "Ehtesaab (Accountability)" poked fun at the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and won Junoon a ban from Pakistani airwaves. In 1998, Junoon toured Pakistan's bitter foe and nuclear rival India, and Ahmad's conciliatory comments -- stuff like "In a region mired with poverty and destitution, with millions of starving souls living in pitiful conditions, can we afford a nuclear arms race?" -- were regarded by some Pakistanis as little better than treason. And once again won them a governmental ban. For his part, Ahmad told The Chicago Tribune in 2002 that both Sharif and Bhutto were simply fascists.

More recently, though, the powers that be have embraced Junoon, whose name means "passion" or "obsession." General Pervez Musharraf even recently joined the band on stage. "That was unheard of," says Zeeshan Ishaq, the promoter of this concert and the advertising and marketing manager of local Pakistani/Indian radio variety show Naya Andaz ("New Styles"), which airs on KILE 1560-AM on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. "What the heck? The president of Pakistan is on the stage? He wasn't dancing, but he was clapping."

It's another cliché, but 9/11 changed everything, no more so in America than in Pakistan, which, after all, borders the Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan. In the minds of some Americans, its physical proximity and a few high-profile terrorist incidents within its borders (such as the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl and repeated U.S. embassy and consulate bombings) have caused some to tar the whole nation with the "terrorists who hate America" brush. This despite the fact that President Bush has named Pakistan one of America's top non-NATO allies.

Junoon has done its part to dispel images of Pakistan as a seething cauldron of anti-Americanism. The band hosted and performed at four New York benefits for the families of the World Trade Center victims -- where they unveiled "No More," their first English-language song in an otherwise Urdu and Punjabi repertoire -- and also were the only Pakistani band to perform at the first Daniel Pearl Day memorial concert in 2002. Ahmad is always quick, though, to point out that he believes that 9/11 and other anti-American acts of terrorism are not the result of Muslims hating our freedom, but instead are the results of American foreign policy.

Today, the Pakistani government sees Junoon as a potentially vital bridge-builder between America and Pakistan, and Junoon returns the favor by cutting Musharraf some slack. Not that they're his toadies. "The establishment has joined us," Ahmad told the BBC World Service after Musharraf's boogaloo.

More recently, Ahmad has turned to making documentaries and other films. As ever with Ahmad, bridge-building is the theme. One of them deals with chasms that need to be spanned in his native country, another with those in America, and a third deals with the gulf between India and Pakistan.

The Rock Star and the Mullahs, which has aired stateside on PBS, finds Ahmad traversing Pakistan's rural tribal areas and confronting the religious leaders about their Talibanesque banning of music. "He went to the Northwest Frontier Province, which is considered as a place full of people with very conservative views," says Ishaq. "The mullahs there banned music in public, so all the video stores and CD stores went out of business. So he went up there with the BBC and started asking people, 'Do you still listen to music?' and they said, 'We still listen to music, but we are hiding it.' And he just asked the mullahs why they were banning music, where it was in the Koran that said music should be banned. People in the Middle East and the Muslim world love music, and Pakistan is a very progressive state, people are very moderate. Why did these people in this province want to do this in that province when it had never been done before?"

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