In the autumn of 1997, a song captured the angst and restlessness of the Pakistani youth of the Nineties, who had been watching their country grapple with one political crisis after another. “Sayonee was about longing, freedom and the pain of separation,” says Salman Ahmad, founder and guitarist of Junoon, Pakistan’s most famous band in an email from Karachi. It also became a rage in India.
Written by Ahmad and Sabir Zafar, Sayonee was part of a 12-track album, Azadi (EMI, 1997) — Junoon’s fourth since their inception in 1991. But it was their first international outing, especially in India. “I had no idea that it would become so big and remain in people’s playlists even after 18 years,” says Ahmad, who labels Junoon’s music as Sufi rock. “The aim was to make something different from the crass materialism I saw at that time,” he says. Other songs in the album included Allama Iqbal’s famous poem Khudi, a Pashtun patriotic number called Loshay loshay, and an instrumental piece called Heer — a tribute to the popular love story of Heer Ranjha, celebrated in India and Pakistan alike.
“The compositions in Azadi were heavily influenced by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s work with Peter Gabriel. Their music inspired me to create a sound that was earthier, both acoustic as well as electric; and accompanied with ecstatic love poetry and traditional tabla and dholak rhythms,” says Ahmad. Before it broke up in 2009, Junoon cut seven studio albums, one soundtrack, two live albums, four video albums, and five compilations. Now a one-member band, it completes 25 years this month.
Junoon began in Tappan, New York, where Ahmad went to school with bassist Brian O’Connell. The two were in a garage band together, bonding over their exasperation at General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law. “After school, I was given two choices for a career by my parents: doctor or doctor. So while in King Edward Medical college, I felt a yearning to express myself musically. I’ve always been a rebel. To defy the ban on pop and rock music by General Zia ul Haq, I’d started seven underground bands in Lahore. Out of this came Vital Signs and later Junoon,” says Ahmad, who finished college and returned to a Pakistan where “murders had more respect than musicians”.
In the early 1990s, Ali Azmat was Ahmad’s neighbour in Lahore, a vocalist in a band called Jupiters. The two became friends soon. Ahmad needed a bass player and called O’Connell from New York. “We were all just friends and decided to take the plunge,” says Ahmad, who felt that music could transcend religion and politics. “Most of Junoon’s songs have always been about freedom, love and social justice,” says Ahmad.
Junoon’s popularity was unprecedented. In 1998, they won the MTV India award for the Best International Group and embarked on their first India tour. But when the band returned home, they were banned — first by the Benazir Bhutto government, and then by the Nawaz Sharif government. Junoon had sung about peace and harmony between the two nations; this had turned them into a target. “Culture humanises what politics demonises,” says Ahmad. There were death threats, phone taps by intelligence agencies and no live shows for more than seven years. The band’s music was becoming a subversive force, a threat to the government. Ahmad then wrote a song called Ehtesab (accountability), which was promptly banned by the government. “Even now, the song remains the soundtrack to youthful rebellion in Pakistan. Imran Khan still plays Junoon songs at his marches and rallies to motivate the present generation of Pakistanis,” says Ahmad.
Junoon was also the first rock band to perform at the UN General Assembly in 2001. “UN diplomats were whirling like dervishes instead of giving long speeches,” says Ahmad. Earlier this year, in February, at Junoon’s recent concert in Delhi for UNESCO, an Indian mother brought her teenage daughter, to the show. She told Ahmad that she had named her daughter Sayonee. “She told me she’d ‘OD’d’ on Junoon’s music in the ’90s. Sayonee told me that she is now learning to play the guitar. That is the power of music across generations and borders,” says Ahmad.
And though Junoon split in 2009 and only has Ahmad at the helm now, a new album will be released this month. Junoon 25 (Universal Music) features 14 songs, including guest appearances by singer Ali Zafar, English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel and Dutch band Outlandish.
The album does not feature Azmat or O’Connell — Ahmad is not in touch with them. Repeated attempts to get in touch with both have failed. In an old interview, Azmat had said that “Junoon died its own death”.
“If you don’t evolve, you die. Junoon is about the music not the artiste. The journey is the destination,” says Ahmad. He understands that Ali followed his heart to become a solo artist. “There are no hard feelings between us anymore,” he says.