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?"
In It's My Country Too Ahmad sets his sights on America, specifically, the post-9/11 lives of American Muslims. Ahmad traveled the country talking to American Muslims, including a few stand-up comedians who use humor to bridge the gap between Islam and American secularism, and also his aunt Seeme Hasan, the Webmaster of the Internet site Muslims for Bush and a staunch defender of Bush's invasion of Iraq. (It's My Country Too has yet to air here, though it was on the BBC last year.)
"Ghoom Tana" is the most ambitious music video he has made to date -- a mini-epic about his prominent family shot amid the ruins of what had been their estate in India before the partitioning from Pakistan. For the shoot Ahmad traveled to Patiala, the Indian region where his family had lived, and he enlisted the talents of Bollywood acting legends Naseeruddin Shah and Nandita Das and Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal. "The song and the video are about the friendship, basically, between Pakistan and India," says Ishaq. "The people are friends; it's the politicians who get in the way."
"We live in chaotic, polarized times," Ahmad told a Pakistani newspaper, "and by having Shubha sing with me, I've tried to make it a unified plea for peace."
Bono himself couldn't have said it better.
Junoon appears Saturday, April 16, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 281-235-8573. Local Pakistani rock band Mauj opens. KILE's Naya Andaz program is Saturdays 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Most of it is in Urdu, though some is in English.
(Local) Artist's Choice
As some of you caffeine-heads already no doubt know, for the past few years Starbucks has been contacting music superstars and asking them to rattle off their favorite songs of all time and then pressing up and selling the CDs as their Artist's Choice series. Over the years, the coffee giant has enlisted such names as the Rolling Stones, Norah Jones and Ray Charles for the program, and this year already has seen or soon will see the release of new volumes by Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. I thought it would be fun to give local artists a chance to play this game too, so when space permits I'll run a list of a local artist's favorite tunes ever. And as it happens, we have space this week, so here is our inaugural installment of Bayou City Best Evers. (If you're a local artist and you want to play, e-mail a list of ten to 15 of your favorite songs ever, along with as much or as little accompanying explanatory text as you would like Houston to see, to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This week's mixmeister is Moses Guest front man Graham Guest, whom I also talked to in this week's cover story.
Graham Guest's Favorite Songs of All Time
1. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder
2. "Kid Charlemagne" by Steely Dan
3. "Should've Come Over" by Jeff Buckley
4. "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
5. "One Love Stand" by Little Feat
6. "All That You Dream" by Little Feat
7. "Old Folks Boogie" by Little Feat
8. "Althea" by the Grateful Dead
9. "Estimated Prophet" by the Grateful Dead
10. "Whippin' Post" by the Allman Brothers
11. "Blue Sky" by the Allman Brothers
12. "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" by the Allman Brothers
13. "Ramblin' Man" by the Allman Brothers
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14. "Angel from Montgomery" by John Prine
15. "Hotel California" by the Eagles
The Music Awards Are Coming!
Hard to believe, but it's almost that time again: time to start girding our loins for the annual Houston Press Music Awards. This week we're running the nomination ballot, so be sure you vote for your favorite bands. Once, people. Vote-stuffers -- and after years and years of doing this, we always know who you are -- will be ignored with extreme prejudice. And if you don't trust the U.S. Mail or just want to have a good time, you can hand in your ballot in person at our nomination punkorama May 7 at the Meridian, at which Bowling For Soup, American Hi-Fi and the Riddlin Kids will perform.