Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution by Salman Ahmad was an interesting look into a Pakistani musician's life and career, with particular emphasis on how this played out against the unstable landscape of Pakistan's political shifts over the years. I found it interesting how much this dovetailed with another book I'd recently reviewed (also a dollar store find), but from a wholly different perspective.
I don't know if I should be surprised or not at having never heard of the author here, or of the bands he's been in. While I listen to some “foreign” music, it's not exactly a passion of mine, and this was something that had never come across my radar. However, Ahmad, and his earlier band Vital Signs, and especially his later project Junoon (which translates to “passion” or “obsession”, and blends classic Sufi poetry and accompaniments with Rock sensibilities) appear to be a Very Big Thing (with over 30 million record sales) across the Islamic world, and in South Asia in general.
Frankly, while reading the book, I poked around a bit to see if I could find reasonably priced copies of the various CDs mentioned in it. I was surprised to find most were not even available via Amazon, even though having been released through affiliates of major labels. Poking around a bit more, I found that the band had dissolved (although continuing in name, but pretty much as a solo project, ala Andrew Eldritch's The Sisters of Mercy) in around 2005, with Ahmad continuing touring and recording with various fill-ins.
The fact that this book came out in 2010 makes me wonder if it's something of a “mid-life crisis” look back at the author's life … with Ahmad trying to fit in his “rock star” status with his developing role in various NGOs and charitable projects. Getting ready to crank out this review, I went over to the Junoon.com web site, and was surprised to find that there was an album of the same name, timed to a common release with Rock & Roll Jihad, something that I'd not gotten at all from the book. I also noted that the site itself seems to have been largely abandoned, listing the ability to “pre-order” the eponymous album, due out June 1, 2010 … although there were a handful of more recent “headlines” since then.
Salman Ahmad was born into an educated, mid-to-upper class family in Lahore, Pakistan, in the early 1960's. His father worked for the airlines, and the family moved around quite a bit as he was assigned to various offices worldwide. In the mid-70s they moved to the U.S., settling in to a suburban lifestyle in Tappan, NY, a short drive out of New York City. For the six years they lived there (something like Ahmad's ages 12-18) he absorbed a love of Rock music, learned to play the guitar, and started in with his first bands. The book, being primarily an auto-biography, traces his movements from his Pakistani birth to the US, and back to Pakistan for college.
Once back in Pakistan, his parents expected him to go into a career in medicine, and he attended the appropriate schools, and did, indeed, get graduated and certified as a medical doctor (as did his eventual wife, Samina). His passion for music, however, did not leave him, and he kept coming back to it.
The politics in Pakistan were not particularly amenable to his Rock vision … and he was developing as a person and a musician just about the same time that fundamentalist Islam was gaining following (ala the Taliban). Early on he was playing at a party in a hotel when a Taliban-like group of fanatics burst in and, among other things, destroyed his prized guitar. This set up an attitude he maintained from that point forward, of finding ways to circumvent religious fanaticism when he could, be that in India, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Pakistan (under various regimes), or in post-9/11 America.
Ahmad's career was very much at the mercy of whatever forces were in power at a given time, under some, things blossomed (like when one regime championed Vital Sign's Dil Dil Pakistan), and under others (or even at different points in political rule, such as Benazir Bhutto's first embracing then banning Junoon) they were actively suppressed. One has to note, however, that he was quite lucky in the way that good fortune would eventually come along (such as Coca-Cola choosing one of his songs for the theme of the cricket World Cup), just when it was needed. Ahmad was willing to push the boundaries as well, taking the connections he'd made to create situations where it would be politically difficult to defuse his plans/shows (such as using the head of the local UN delegation to get word out about a concert event that was otherwise being blocked).
He worked these sorts of contacts remarkably well (and with fortuitous timing), getting to perform at the United Nations, and at the events around the Nobel Prize ceremonies, and was even made a UN “goodwill ambassador” for HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. As Junoon developed more into a personal project than a band, he also drifted into doing more charitable work, creating The Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative.
Again, Rock & Roll Jihad is an interesting read, but it does leave one wondering … especially if one takes a look around the web to try to connect the dots from the original Junoon's break-up to the present day … at what he's been up to since putting out the book. This, of course, does not reflect unfavorably on the book (except to make one wonder how much “fictionalization” may have crept in to make the story flow the way it does).
Like many of the books I've picked up at the dollar store, this is still in print, and is available from the on-line big boys at very nearly full cover price (it's presently only 10% off). The new/used vendors, however (as one might expect) have “like new” copies for as little a 1¢ (plus shipping). I don't suppose that this is widely on the shelves of standard book stores (but could be ordered through them), so your best bet (if you can't find it at a DollarTree) would be the used channel.
As I noted, I was surprised that I'd not heard of Salman Ahmad or Junoon before picking up the book, but his is a very interesting story, and I'm likely to still try to find copies of his albums (there are some tracks on Pandora) … I have some friends who were quite enthused when they heard that I was reading the book, so I guess this is something that you might find appealing as well.