Nepali Times
Songs of Freedom


Oh what do you call a band that has been weaned on Santana, Led Zeppelin and Queen, described as the "biggest crossover success since the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan", and play a heady mix of Sindhi-Punjabi folk, hard rock and mystic Sufi music? Junoon, Urdu for passion.

South Asia's biggest band, hailing from Karachi, is essentially a blend of ancient Sufi lyric and modern expression. The stage is set now for their maiden performance in Nepal. Never has a band of this stature and popularity come to this country, and the band's intensity in performance and the uniquenesss of their genre is a potent mix that is sure to transport Kathmanduites into a magical world that can heighten and liberate their sense of music.

Salman Ahmad, Ali Azmat and Brian O'Connell form Junoon. The word might mean passion and obsession in easy English, but this Urdu noun is a complex gem-one has to explore the mystical to ferret out its depth. Or even better, be at a Junoon concert.

Junoon, excuse me, is just not your regular band. True, they too sing of mysticism, passion and love. They too are prophets of freedom, much like the Sufi sants. But these times are difficult; in the Pakistan they live, they have had to stand up for their rights to be even allowed to sing. "You see, as long as you kiss the govern-ment's ass you'll be on TV. Basically, that's what it is about," that's what song writer and 'spokesman' Salman Ahmad said in an interview when the band was banned on Pakistan Television (PTV).

Junoon's lyrics come from the Sufi poets of the 12th century who were your original romantics and gypsy minstrels. What Junoon does is to fuse these traditional prayer-songs of love with rock, folk and qawwali, and for which they have had their share of flak. Salman Ahmad says: "When I compose, it's natural for us to see these elements coming into our melodies and then the rhythm comes automatically. The dholak and tabla reflect Punjabi and Sindhi rhythms and they are already in our sub-consciousness. It is the same with our listeners."

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was (is) a great influence on the group and the band's popular Azadi album is dedicated to the late maestro. It was Nusrat who experimented and proved that something traditional could be adapted into the modern context. But, like Nusrat, Junoon's middle class boys too faced scorn for doing the musically blasphemous -fusion.

When you have young men suddenly being seen as rebellious mystics, then they are up for it from the orthodoxy and the political establishment. The band has been banned, their phones tapped, their homes searched by the police and they have received death threats. The Benazir Bhutto-led government in 1990 completely banished them from the state airwaves. The boys held on, with a conviction largely derived from the stuff they were doing, and from the love the Junoonis (the fans) had for them. And so, three days after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998, you have Junoon performing to a hysterical crowd of around 50,000, in all places, New Delhi. One banner there, they particularly liked: "Cultural Fusion, not Nuclear Fusion". Back home, another ban.

Their first big hit-Jazba-e-Junoon (spirit of passion) became the official song of the 1996 World Cup Cricket jointly hosted by India and Pakistan. The song later featured in the Inquilaab (revolution) album the same year, pushing Junoon into the mainstream where their existence was both welcomed and rubbished. In December 1996, the song Ehtesaab (accountability), which mocked at corruption and the Pakistani political culture, was banned by PTV on the pretext that it might destabilise a country already on the brink of elections.

Salman, in one of his interviews, remembers how songs like Talash (search) that had lines like: "Under the hot sun we are seeking shelter/ once the dust of prejudice settles we'll find our identity" did not raise people's concern. But when Benazir Bhutto's government fell a month later after the Ehtesaab release, the public fell back on Junoon who were still performing and speaking rebellion. PTV banned them for the next six months, until Sayonee came to their rescue. It is said that PTV was compelled to show the video, as it was rocking the Subcontinent and much else.

The most acclaimed album, Azadi, is a 1997 release that opened with the hit song Sayonee. The band believes each song in Azadi is like a chapter in a book. In an interview with Connect, Salman says: "All the songs have to deal with freedom of the soul.Brian is a Christian as is our drummer Malcolm. Ali and I are Muslims. The people in India are Hindus but we all come from the same source. The Sufi realm is all about transcending religion since that is all dogma and a barrier. So Sayonee could be about humanity talking to God, asking Him to relieve us of the madness around us and free our spirit. I think what people are trying to define is inner spirituality of the music that is in the melody and the poetry, and a lot in the new album Azadi deals with metaphysics. Now a lot of people tried to push that into the Islamic realm. I don't think it has to do with any religion, the spirit is the common denominator and that's how people from different cultures relate to us."

In 1998, the band was awarded the Best International Group Award at the Channel V Musical Awards in New Delhi. The next year the UN recognised them for fostering peace in South Asia. And while all the plaudits came along, they also got to play along with Western big names like Sting and Def Leppard. Before the Nepal trip, Junoon has toured Denmark, Japan, India, US, West Asia and Bangladesh.

Let's welcome the Junoon men to town. We need some music.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)