“Cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion”

Interview with Junoon's Salman Ahmad

Sangeeta Lama and Khalid Ansari interviewed Salman Ahmed of the group Junoon about their music, their Sufism, the controversy surrounding their tour of India and their ban on Pakistan Television (PTV).

  • How did the show go for you in Delhi?

The Delhi audience gave us the biggest roar there. They were very enthusiastic. Unbelievably enthusiastic. In fact, when we were playing "Sayonee" on stage they were kind of singing louder than us (laughs). Fifty thousand people sort of singing "Sayonee" at you is…

  • You seem to be more popular in India than here in Pakistan.

No, I think it's wrong to say that. Among the people of Pakistan I think we're loved, it's just the government that doesn't like us (laughs).

  • So what's the deal with concerts and so on, will you try to perform in Pakistan?

Definitely. A lot of people realise that speaking against the nuclear explosion is making sense now. We spoke about it when they did it, when there was a lot of obvious sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan. But now look at the condition of the economy, what has the bomb got us? My question is, what did the bomb do for us?

  • Was there a similar reaction in India to your anti-bomb stance?

We were touring India three days after the [Indian] blasts. We played a concert in New Delhi and there were 50,000 kids there, ok. And we are supposed to be from this enemy country, and there were these banners 1 swear was really cool, kids holding up these banners saying "We want cultural fusion, not nuclear fusion". Their kids are just as cynical about their leaders as we are over here.

  • Is it difficult without the government on your side?

We have done this without any support from the government. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan did this without any support from the government.

  • But his music was more acceptable to the government, wasn't it?

Yes, his was more traditional. Yet the government really didn't support him either. Yeah. you know when he died I think the most shameful thing was that Nusrat Fateh Ali, an artiste of his calibre dies and the whole world is mourning his death and [it] is front page news in all the countries in the world, and our own country, they mentioned just passingly that 'and Ustad Nustrat Fateh Ali Khan passed away" which  is, I think, a huge slap on the face for artistes.

You see, as long as you kiss the government's ass you'll be on television, basically that's what it's about.

  • So there is no artistic merit involved…

Not to say that all the people who have gone on television don't have artistic merit. It's like this Mughal court culture mentality. Unfortunately, even after getting our freedom, we still have this court culture mentality where they think we have to say "Nawaz Sharif, we bow down to you" or "Benazir Bhutto, we bow down to you".

  • Maybe you should have a nice song about Nawaz Sharif in your next album?

Actually he wanted us to write a song for the karz utaro, mulk sambhalo, and we said "No". We said we are individual artistes, not the arm of the government.

  • The government has accused you of treason. Why?

We were sent this piece of paper which said that while we were in India ouminds were being subverted by the Indian government. In fact, one of the guys said that because at the Zee Cine Awards, you had Kajol and these Indian actresses sort of dancing to your songs, this was all a pre-planned plot to get you to say good things about India. I was like wow…their point was that you aren't actually that good.

  • Junoon is influenced by Sufi poetry. Is that your main inspiration?

I think how it happened was that back in '91, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan invited me to play at a concert tour. And when 1 was playing with him I felt a much deeper emotion on stage than you know this normal everyday rock music does. I just didn't know what happened, but all there was, was something very deeper than that. So I started reading a lot of books on Mulan Humi, Bhule Shah, a lot of his poetry. And Sufiism, I read and read and read for a couple of years. I just sort of wanted to know more and more about it. And 1 found out really that the Sufi message is essentially a message of love, it's the essence of Islam and it doesn't have to do with scaring people into believing or beating them up or how…

  • It's also very personal…

Ya, it's a personal connection with the Almighty. And all these Sufi poets if you read their poetry, you know they believe in harmony, in mystic harmony, which I think [is] what religion is supposed to do, to bring people together, but unfortunately we're using religion to divide people. So it made a lot of sense to me. And this song "Saeein", which was our first outwardly spiritual song, it was on "Inquilab", our last album, I just thought the whole band really had to feel it. It doesn't divide you, you don't have to be a Muslim to believe in it, no? I mean, Brian is a Christian.

  • Your group is also accused of destroying tradition and Sufi mysticism.

I think one of our songs "Sayonee", PTV refused to run it and they gave us a piece of paper which said that you are offending the sensibility of the Sufis, making fun of religious places. You've seen the video, have you seen the video, "Sayonee"? They said that this video is, and the song is offending Sufism. So I went to a lawyer and I asked which aspect of this song is offending Sufism. So he sent a legal notice to PTV and they said the line "chhod mere kata, tu to pagal nahin" which means, "forgive me you are not insane like me". So PTV, they translated that as you're saying to God that you're not crazy like me.

I was like, wait a minute, number one we're not saying that you're insane, we're saying you're not insane like me, and they asked us to change the line to say, "ru to gafil nahin hen", gafil means "ignorant". So I said what you're saying is don't say to God that you're insane, but you can say that he is ignorant, you know.

  • How does religion and spirituality fit into your music?

Spirituality is something that I am a student [of]. We read so much about the poets of the 13th and 14th centuries because they were way ahead in their thinking. Even Allama Iqbal, I think he was so way ahead in the thinking. Unfortunately, all these rulers, they were afraid of freeing people. You know, if people understand their rights, they won't have any control over them. So they just wanted to keep these poets away, and I think [that's] why they don't want these songs running on PTV.

  • What about "Ehtasab", would you say that was the most overtly confrontational song?

That was the song which was directly attacking the political culture. The video and the words and the song, yeah. Look, for 50 years we have had freedom in this country, but nobody is free. In a democracy you should be allowed to speak out against the government if you want to, it's your right. But they wanted to teach us a lesson, I think that's what they want to do even now. They feel that if they ban us on PTV and then that will be the end of us. But you know love has a way of finding its way out.

  • Was "Ehtasab" shown on PTV?

(Laughing) No, no. It was shown on BBC.

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