Instep takes a close look at Salman Ahmed`s new book
Salman Ahmad`s – or rather Junoon`s – new song plays in the background as I think about his book: Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star`s Revolution (R&R), and wonder where to begin talking about it. And you would have a hard time too, if you happen to live in Pakistan and have chanced to read this book.
R&R is by no means a terrible book. It`s actually written quiet passably by Salman and a gentleman called Robert Schroeder. If you were ever curious about where Salman`s Junoon for peace, Sufism and all things rainbow and butterflies comes from, this is where to get your answers. And yes, Salman does speak a lot about his Junoon for things, possibly as a clever pun using his band`s name. For a true `Junooni`, fans of the band as they are called, each time the reference is made to their kind, their hearts might explode with love and joy. Although Salman might argue that if you`re truly seeing with your heart, all masks would fall down.
Let`s backtrack a little – all the way back to early February, when Salman had lectured at the Agha Khan University Hospital. One had been fortunate enough to hear a recording of the lecture where Salman basically talked about the book and gave the farm away. Because to read the book is just reliving that talk all over again in print. Did I cherish the experience? I am afraid not. Is the book going to present the coveted `softer image` of Pakistan to everyone outside of Pakistan? Probably. Hence is Salman`s heart in the right place? Yes, it is.
Foreign readers will most likely enjoy the book thoroughly as it takes a walk though the life and times of Pakistan and its many, many political circumstances; all through the eyes and with reference of the then fledgling Pakistani music industry. Plus you get to read about Salman`s childhood as a precocious child who wanted nothing more than to play cricket and clothe poor kids on Eid. It`s compelling stuff. The cynic in oneself is not too happy about placing some part of the softer image campaign in the hands of a man who calls himself Sufi Sal, but what are you going to do?
A Muslim Rock Star`s history
Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star`s Revolution has an introduction written by Melissa Etheridge, famous folk singer. The introduction is glowing, as Melissa and Salman met while the former was performing a sound check at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Salman had approached Etheridge and told her: “I love the vibration you are on”. Etheridge goes on to express her joy at meeting a kindred spirit who wanted more from life just as she did: peace for mankind.
Salman and Melissa have since collaborated on songs and have become close. She describes how Salman`s life experiences “pale” hers in comparison as he made choices that could have killed him. And yes, Salman was a truly courageous man who picked up the guitar at a time when the only thing you could respectfully be was a doctor or an engineer. Incidentally, Salman Ahmad is a doctor.
The first chapter of the book is called The Taliban and The Guitar. That should totally tip you off about the tone this book will take. Actually, the title of R&R does too, but this chapter really does the trick.
Salman recounts a time when he and some other rebels from college had gotten together to have a `talent show` at the Alhamra in Lahore and his guitar got smashed by zealots who ravaged the occasion. That is when Salman decided to be a rock artist for sure. It was possibly one of the signs that he talks about in his book.
Yes, Salman Ahmad in his lifetime has had more signs about the direction his life should take than any other living human being. While Nawaz Sharif had placed a ban on the band in 1998, they had been invited to perform at the MTV India music awards and thus this was a sign for him to not lose heart. To clue in on the other signs, read the book.
This is not to say that there aren`t details in there that might really capture your interest at the core. The times in his life that Salman recounts, like going to his first Led Zeppelin concert dressed like he was ready to attend a desi party, or the times riding in cars with his friends, rocking out to music are all stories that add zest to the book.
The political background he chooses to set his story in is something everybody has read or heard about or actually lived. But what shines through is the recalling of the underground music scene in Pakistan back then. To imagine that during times when pop music was considered taboo, scores of young boys made their own pop/ cover bands which operated out of their living rooms is exciting. But despite all the bans placed on such acts, this was the time that the Vital Signs had formed and become popular for life.
One gets a glimpse into the early days of the Vital Signs and their progress. Then of course comes Junoon, which was Salman`s vision through and through – a means to heal people through music.
The downright ugly
What is not so great about the book is the tone Salman takes about his former band mates sometimes. He speaks of how Rohail Hyatt and Shahzad Hasan were jealous of him and Junaid Jamshed for hogging all the attention. But if one remembers correctly, it was always JJ who had the lion`s share of adulation from the fans. He goes on to talk about Ali Azmat later on, describing him as a boy who wanted to be a rockstar so he could get “money for nothing and chicks for free”.
After their `sufi rock` days, Salman describes Ali as being frustrated as being labeled a sufi rocker rather than the rockstar he had set out to be, before he quit Junoon for good. That might be true, but since then, Ali has carved a neat little solo career for himself and is making great music. In all the later years, Salman Ahmad has replaced Ali as vocalist for the band, which is a sorry fact. Salman Ahmad cannot sing, and should not try. His new single `Love Can You Take Me back` is available on Youtube currently and he doesn`t sound as weak or whimpery as he usually does when singing, so he must be voice training. Good for him.
However, stuff like him critiquing Junaid Jamshed`s choices in life after he had led a `colourful` life leaves a bad taste in one`s mouth. Minus 50 points for Salman for sounding so petty about people he has been friends and worked closely with.
All in all, R&R is not too bad a read, even if annoyingly self-righteous. One wonders why Salman absolutely had to give his book a religious-political connotation, but if, once again, you are one of those rarities, who are curious at all about Salman`s life, give this one a read.
– Salman Ahmed photos by Chris Martinez