Students jumped barbed wire fences, braced the threat of bullets, and risked being caught by the United Jehad Council to see the “Bono of South Asia.” Salman Ahmad’s concert in May 2008 was the first-ever rock concert in the war-torn valley of Kashmir. For a man who hailed from the politically unstable country of Pakistan, the concert was more than a night of musical entertainment. It combined the unique Sufi rock music of Junoon with a human quality rarely experienced in Kashmir and other South Asian countries — tolerance.
As part of the Silk Road Events hosted by the Asian Studies Initiative, Ahmad, founder of Junoon and co-founder of the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative, will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at the Kimball Theater. The Asian Studies Initiative invited Ahmad to perform and discuss his non-profit organization.
Humanities and religious studies professor Tamara Sonn helped arrange the musical performance for the Silk Road Events to promote the Asian and Middle Eastern studies major — the newest field of study at the College.
“A major objective of the new Asian and Middle Eastern studies major is to make our curriculum more closely reflect global realities,” Sonn said. “In fact, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia and East Asia are not disjoint areas but share millennia of history and cultural sharing — this rich mixture is reflected in Junoon’s music. He grew up on Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, but he’s also a devout fan of the deeply spiritual Sufi music of Asia. The combination of the two puts him right in the center of world music.”
To Ahmad, music represents more than an aural experience. He combines the musical and mystical poetry of Sufism with classic rock influences to create a form of Sufi rock that defies the traditional separation of Western and Eastern cultural values.
During his concerts, Ahmad strives to engage the audience with improvisation and dancing.
“The goal is to destroy the wall between performers and the audience,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad’s cultural influence does not stop with his unique form of music; he also promotes tolerance through his work with SSGWI. SSGWI focuses on three different areas: cross-cultural dialogues, global health and music education. Both Ahmad and his wife Samina hold medical degrees, which they use to promote the correlation between health, music and tolerance.
“[SSGWI] looks to build bridges and promote cross-cultural dialogue through arts and culture,” Ahmad said.
Anushya Ramaswamy ’11, a student assistant for the Asian Studies Initiative, recognized Ahmad both as a leader in the political realm of South Asia, and as an influential musician of Sufi rock.
“As a South Asian myself, it’s great to hear about, let alone meet, someone who is actively working toward peace in the South Asian region and using music as a vehicle for that,” Ramaswamy said.
Ahmad began his musical career with the band Vital Signs, one of Pakistan’s first and most successful pop bands. Even from the beginning, Ahmad hoped to combine traditional Eastern music with classic Western rock.
In his book, “Rock and Roll Jihad,” Ahmad describes his encounters with both cultures. As the son of a general manager for Pakistan International Airlines, Ahmad traveled across the world and even attended high school in the United States, but remained true to his Pakistani roots. As a member of Vital Signs, Ahmad questioned the sense in playing solely Western music in a traditionally Eastern society.
“I saw no long-term future in playing American and British pop songs for a small, Westernized Pakistani elite,” Ahmad said in “Rock and Roll Jihad.” “I had always wanted to play original music and saw in music a way of changing the world the way the Beatles had done.”
As the first Pakistani to play for the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, Ahmad combines his junoon, or passion, for music with his junoon for toleration and peace. Even the United Jehad Council could not thwart his mission for music and change.
“Working against violence for social justice through music and other humanitarian efforts is Junoon’s personal ‘jihad’ — which means ‘struggle’ in Arabic,” Sonn said.
The band continues to emphasize its member’s personal struggles for its performance Friday, and Salman will offer a workshop at 11 a.m. Saturday to discuss the work of SSGWI for any interested students.
The concert in Kashmir was a moment of revelation for Ahmad; he saw the power of his mission and the need for a continued effort. But, for that moment, the audience and Junoon reveled in the time of peace, strength and the realization that their mission was a success.
“The concert underlined the truth that arts and culture [are] mightier than the sword, and the guitar is more powerful than the gun,” Ahmad said.