Bob Marley showed that music could transcend man-made frontiers. Until
sprang up in 1996, there was band in the
comparable to Marley's
Redemption songs from an impassioned band
A political edge lifts Junoon above populist entertainment and places it among the world's significant bands, writes Sreeram Chaulia
Paani mein ek aag laga de ishq tera
Dekh mujhe paagal na bana de ishq tera
(Your love has the power to set water on fire,
See how insanity overtakes me in your love)
- Title track of Junooon's Ishq/Andaz (2001)
South Asia's cultural commonalities surpass artificial political boundaries much more than outside observers can reckon. There may be two Kashmirs, two Bengals and two Punjabs, divided on grounds of religion and nationalism, but tastes for life and the arts are remarkably similar for the man on the street, whether he is in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. Nowhere is it truer than with popular music. Lata Mangeshkar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali belong to no individual nation-state because their creativity and golden voices waft across borders like fragrance, unstopped by armies and check-posts.
That music has the power to transcend man-made frontiers, especially when it speaks the language of love, redemption and tolerance, was demonstrated vividly by Bob Marley way back in the 1970s. His call to shed mental slavery and love all humans appealed not only in his native Caribbean but caught on like wild fire in Africa, Europe and South America. Until 1996, South Asia had no equivalent of Marley's Wailers that exclusively sang and performed with the objective of uniting people under the banner of redemption and brotherhood. A storm called Junoon (Obsession/Passion) suddenly sprang up in Pakistan and filled the vacuum, riding on fusion music and 'Sufi-pop' to the top of the sub-continental charts, and more importantly, into the hearts of young people.
Junoon's achievements are unique because they practically invented a new genre of music, mixing spiritual poetry (rendered in mellifluous voices and backed by traditional instruments like the tabla and the dholak) with the electric guitar. Before their arrival on the music scene, pop bands were seen as Western by South Asian audiences. In this region, film soundtracks enjoyed superlative popularity. Junoon brought in a change, with three youthful and exuberant showmen, Ali Azmat, Salman Ahmed and Brian O'Connell, equally at ease on stage and in the recording studios. When a twenty-something Azmat leapt up and down in Yanni-like hairdo and crooned with verve "Yaar bina dil nahin lagta" (life without the beloved is empty), Bollywood songs lost their monopoly grip, and Junoon's adulation spread at an electric pace.
Junoon's first international album, Azadi (1997), sold hundreds of thousands of copies and became an instant hit even in the Middle East. One of the most memorable renditions in Azadi was Allama Iqbal's classic Urdu poem, Khudi ko kar buland itna (Strengthen your being). Purists wailed that the late poet would be turning in his grave at the "rock-music remix" that Junoon had done to his inspirational lyrics. But fans loved it. As an undergraduate in Delhi University, I used to close my eyes, turn on the volume full, and simply lose consciousness as Junoon belted out songs on subjects as varied as mysticism and standing up to oppression.
Traditional numbers like the Punjabi Dama dam mast qalandar (Dance in joy, oh devotee) combined the ardour of a climaxing qawwali with terrific Western beats. I recall dancing in circles like the mad dervish who has found God. So did everyone touched by Junoon, be it just to a tape recording or a live performance by the 'awesome threesome.'
Junoon are heavily influenced in their choice of lyrics by Jalaluddin Rumi, the occult Persian poet of the 13th century. In beauty of nature or in the person of the loved one, Junoon hint at the existence of a higher divine power. For instance, Mahiwaal mere mujhe paar laga can at once be interpreted simply as the love song of Sohni and Mahiwal, the Romeo and Juliet of Punjab, or at a different level, a call by the mortal being to the supernatural to come and guide him across the waters of the world and reach up to the heavens.
Bulle Shah, the 17th century Sufi saint, is another Junoon favourite. Parvaaz (1999) is dedicated to Bulle Shah's life mission of moving beyond religion and loving each human as a fragment of God. Pyaar bina kya bashar kya khuda (Without love, what worth is man or God?) is the track that captured listeners' attention most.
Besides winning accolades and a mountain of awards, Junoon have the distinction of being the first pop group to perform at the headquarters of the United Nations at its Millennium Peace Concert. Guitarist Salman Ahmed is also a UN Goodwill Ambassador assisting awareness campaigns on HIV Aids. More recently, Junoon visited America in a spectacular concert tour that took cities like New York by storm (bassist O'Connell is a native New Yorker). They released their first ever English song -- 'No More' -- a call to purge terrorism from Islam and to mourn the victims of September 11. Azmat sang, "If all that lives is born to die, love remains I wonder why..."
Junoon's views on political issues have drawn a great deal of controversy in conservative Pakistan, with Nawaz Sharif's government slapping a ban on them for allegedly making "anti-Pakistan remarks" on a tour of India. Their overt opposition to Pakistan's nuclear tests and governmental corruption have also irked the powerful. Describing state crackdowns on student activity and on minority Shias, Junoon sang, Had se badhne laga zulm ka silsila (The cycle of repression has gone beyond endurance). Elsewhere, they have championed the causes of minorities by crying, Kaha jo unhon ne sab ne suna, jo ham ne kaha, vo kis ne suna (What the mighty say is aired to everyone, what we say is censored). All the anger and frustration that idealistic South Asians face with insensitive ruling elites is encapsulated in the lilting ditty Meri aawaaz suno, mujhe aazaad karo, insaaf do (Listen to my voice, free me, give me justice). Junoon has also warned politicians and the wealthy from taking the masses for granted: Dharti ke khuda karte hain jafa, inko do saza (Earthly gods oppress us, let them be punished).
Very rarely has music in the subcontinent become a medium for disseminating overt messages of harmony and equity. Junoon's popularity in India is far greater than that of any previous artiste from Pakistan. When they toured India, each of their live concerts was sold out house-full. When they recently performed at Cornell University in Ithaca, I found the majority of the audience Indian. When Azmat broke out, Raasta jo aman ka hain dhoond le hum (Let's search for the road leading to peace), about 500 souls chanted in unison, and I closed my eyes again in awe of the transcendental magic of Junoon. The other day, I saw a television news report about the booming music cassette industry in post-Taliban Kabul and sure enough, Junoon's ever-popular Sayonee was playing loudly onto the streets from a vendor's store! So rapidly has the group made inroads into the South and West Asian market that Junoon fan sites abound on the internet proclaiming they are 'Junoonies' (the obsessed ones).
Western readers might not see a big deal in a pop group attracting shrieking fans and crazy following, but this sort of phenomenon has never occurred in South Asia. Before Junoon, all the mass worshipping used to be the preserve of film stars and cricketers, many of whom positively did not deserve that kind of fawning attention. Drug abuse, match fixing and scandals have taken the sheen off the old icons. The new icons present a contrast with fresh music, which blends the best of East and West, and an accompanying attitude dipped in human values. At a time when South Asians struggle to live free from terrorism, misrule and poverty, Junoon are the purveyors of what biographer Horace Campbell terms was Bob Marley's trade- "emancipatory politics." They sing for peace, redemption and eternal hope of a better tomorrow:
Ye dil kyon tumhaara itna be-yakeen hain
Aisa to nahin hain ke Sanwal nahin raha
(Why is this heart of yours bereft of belief?
After all, love has not ceased to be)
(The author studied history at St Stephen's College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in modern history at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP's foreign policy at the London School of Economics and analysed the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY. He is currently working with the International Rescue Committee in New York. His personal website is accessible at www.sreeramchaulia.com)
Published on 3 February 2003
to the editor