Salman Ahmed is a busy man. He launched his biography, Rock ‘n’ Roll Jihad, last month and is currently caught up with a book tour and holding talks on music, Sufism and jihad. En route to India, he stopped for a very short while in Pakistan, and took time out to answer some questions.
The founder, lead guitarist, (now) solo vocalist and front man for one of the biggest rock outfits to come out of Pakistan’s music industry, Salman Ahmed has come a long way in the 25 years since the band first came into existence. From playing in a friend’s garage in America to becoming a goodwill ambassador for the UN, collaborating with Morten Harket and Mellissa Ethridge on a song, and lecturing at a university in New York, Salman Ahmed’s life has been far from ‘predictable’.
And he’s documented all of it in his biography. ‘It took me four long and lonely years to finish (writing) this book,’ he said, adding that, ‘Through (out) my life people have wondered why I chose passion over profession, music over medicine and led an unconventional lifestyle. I felt that Rock ‘n’ Roll Jihad would set the record straight… at least for now.’
Considering that this is the first book to come out of the mainstream music industry in Pakistan — where proper documented information on the industry itself isn’t readily available — and differences of opinion, regarding facts and/or version of events quoted are bound to happen among the artistes, was he concerned about the kind of feedback he would receive from the community? ‘Not really,’ Salman responded, ‘I’ve always followed my heart and my book tells stories of musical kinship, a spiritual quest and cross-cultural journeys. It’s a wide-angle view of Pakistan, India and America and I’m playing the role of the literary view finder… people can interpret the book as they wish.’
‘So far I’ve gotten some very encouraging responses from diverse people,’ he adds. He mentions Stanley Wolpert (author of Jinnah of Pakistan) and Krist Novoselic (of Nirvana) who ‘has reviewed it for The Seattle Weekly while Deepak Chopra has recommended it on his website.’
The book is also currently available in bookstores in Pakistan. Salman hopes that ‘young people will find the book inspiring, encouraging and uplifting and are encouraged to follow their dreams with an uncompromising passion.’
There were several questions that came to mind when reading the book regarding Salman’s projection of the artistes he has worked with. But when responding he prefers to skirt the specific issue being questioned and gives a very vague response.
For example, in the book he mentions discovering Ali Azmat as a ‘wedding singer’ when the crooner was a part of a band called Jupiters. In the book we are given the impression that Salman mentored Ali but when asked specifically that whether the time Ali spent with Junoon helped him to evolve into the artiste that he is today, Salman responds, ‘God gave us all the opportunity of following our passion for music. I hope that we have all evolved for the better, both as artistes as well as human beings. It’s important to live a holistic and balanced life and be at peace with the world and ourselves.’
Wise words, but they don’t give an indication of what he thinks of the crooner’s artistic capabilities.
Also throughout the book, we only see how Salman helped shape Junoon. Rarely has he credited any of the other band members (Brian O’Connell and Ali Azmat) for doing any of the songwriting or composition for the music the band released. ‘That’s because the memoir isn’t based on Junoon’s story, it’s looking at how music shaped my life and world view,’ responded Salman.
True but around 70 to 80 per cent of the book is about Junoon and follows the band’s evolution and growth along with Salman’s. Keeping that in mind, it seems unfair to push aside the contributions made by his band mates.
Interestingly, while Brian and Ali have not been mentioned with regard to Junoon’s music because the book is based on Salman’s life, they are mentioned when it comes to quoting personal incidents in their lives, especially related to love and marriage.
Salman was also very vague when giving his reasons for parting ways with the first mainstream band that launched his career, the Vital Signs.
While every other incident which led to Salman’s decisions that shaped his career is mentioned in vivid detail, his stint with the Vital Signs is mentioned in roughly four pages and we are given the impression that his departure from the band occurred over not only creative, but also ideological and monetary issues. But unlike other major events quoted in the book, we do not know what particular incident led him to part ways with the band.
When faced with this observation, Salman simply responds, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Jihad tells the stories of key people I came across on my journey — it’s not specific to any individual or group.’
It is common knowledge that Ali and Brian parted ways with Junoon a few years ago, leaving the third member of the band, Salman, on his own. Salman continues to tour and perform as Junoon — but since he started the band he can therefore continue to refer to himself as the band.
Does he intend to incorporate other full-time members in the future? ‘I’ve been performing internationally for years without Ali and Brian,’ says Salman, ‘and (performed) most recently with Samir Chatterjee (tabla), Yale Storm (violin), John Alec and Chris Tarry (bass guitar).’
He adds that these musicians performed with him at the UN General Assembly recently and are featured on his upcoming Sufi and rock album named after his book.
Considering the difficulties that musicians have to face when pursuing music as a full-time profession — piracy, lack of proper infrastructure and socio-political turmoil that affects large-scale concerts — does he feel that musicians today have to wage a jihad in order to follow their profession in Pakistan?
‘All of us have to rescue the word “jihad” from the terrorists and understand its true, positive meaning. Jihad means to strive against our ego and our limitations; to uplift ourselves as well as the poor, needy and downtrodden on our planet. True jihad will help us find our God-given purpose in life.’
These are no doubt words spoken out of sincerity and good intent, but true to form the artiste-turned-writer evades giving an unequivocal answer.