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Conversation: Salman Ahmad, Musician and Author of ‘Rock & Roll Jihad’

Like a lot of teenagers in America, Salman Ahmad wanted to be a rock star. He played in garage bands and listened to Led Zeppelin.

When he graduated from high school, he went back to Pakistan with his family to study medicine and was confronted with a very different and more restrictive society than the one he had just left in America, or even the Pakistan of his childhood. But he had returned with a secret weapon — the love of rock & roll, which he would use to create a unique sound inspired by both countries.

He says he and his friends asked themselves: “We can play Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in The U.S.A.’ and [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ but what’s so unique about our music?” The answer for Ahmad was to combine Western-style pop with the traditions of Sufi love poetry. His band Junoon became the biggest rock act in South Asia, raising the ire of politicians and religious leaders alike.

His new book, ‘Rock & Roll Jihad,’ looks back at his career, challenges the current perception of the politically-charged term “jihad,” and imagines what role rock music could play to bridge the serious gaps in understanding between America and the Muslim world.

A full transcript is after the jump.

Listen to “Sayonee,” the first track off Junoon’s 1997 album Azadi:

Listen to “Meri Awaaz Uno”:

JEFFREY BROWN: Salman Ahmad, nice to talk to you.

SALMAN AHMAD: Honored to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: For those who don’t know your music very well, it is a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and the Sufi tradition, poetry, tell me more.

SALMAN AHMAD: I grew up in Lahore, and as I grew up it was a country at that time, which is a democracy, music, poetry was flourishing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Culturally vibrant.

SALMAN AHMAD: Culturally very vibrant and, you know, you heard diverse sounds, you head, you know, the Shadows, you heard Qawwali music, which is Sufi devotional music, and you also heard Bollywood. So I grew up, you know, with my mother’s records and the sounds around me in the house. But when my family moved when I was like 11 years old to New York, I was exposed to Led Zeppelin and the Beatles,so I got into a garage band and that’s what I wanted to do was to be a rock guitar player.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact you became, I mean, it’s fascinating, you became an American suburban kid.

SALMAN AHMAD: Absolutely. You know it was like, the dream was, you know, to be like Jimmy Page, you know, and I tell it in the book the story the first rock concert is to go see Led Zeppelin and then sort of the cultural transformation that caused. But then my parents, who wanted me to be a doctor, freaked out and they realized…

JEFFREY BROWN: No rock ‘n’ roll, right?

SALMAN AHMAD: No rock ‘n’ roll.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not an American rock ‘n’ roller for our son, right?

SALMAN AHMAD: No. There is term….in India and Pakistan which means you know low class musician, low class dancer, and they say we don’t want any …in this family.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see. So they took you back to Pakistan.

SALMAN AHMAD: They all were moving back. My dad worked in the airlines and he was being stationed back to Pakistan so everybody went back. And there I found myself in another cultural shock, because the country I grew up in had radically transformed into a military dictatorship. Religious extremism was the tone of that government of General Zia-ul-Haq, and it was in that that I searched for an anchor and, you know, rock ‘n’ roll became that anchor.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the rise, you formed a band, Junoon, became hugely popular, but along the way you had to deal with a lot of these changes in the country.

SALMAN AHMAD: It was almost as a collision of culture, history, politics. [Anti-Soviet] Jihad was happening at that time and, you know, there was a gun culture, a drug culture in Pakistan, and so young people, especially my age going to colleg,e were confronted by either, you know, basically giving up and getting into drugs and all other kinds of things or doing something else. So I, along with another bunch of musicians underground, starting playing these secret gigs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Music but with a message speaking to a particular audience.

SALMAN AHMAD: Absolutely. A message of hope. What we were trying to show or have been trying to show through the music is that modernity and tradition, you know, it can live together, it can coexist. And you know all of Junoon’s music reflects that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rock ‘N’ Roll Jihad. Now those are words that don’t usually go together. What’s it mean?

SALMAN AHMAD: Well, when I was thinking of a book title, I thought my passion is rock ‘n’ roll and the struggle to attain, sort of search for that passion is the Jihad and those two words together — passion and struggle — also expand into what’s been happening in the world, you know, in my world. You know on 9/11 Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda hijacked the word Jihad and, you know, made it into another thing completely, which was ugly, you know, dark, fear inspiring, so I’m hoping that through this book journey, people will be able to see, you know, what Jihad means for me and perhaps for a lot of other Muslims as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: That message that you’re talking about is one we don’t see all that much. Or we don’t hear about it. We hear more about clash. What do you see, you go back to Pakistan often now, what do you see happening there? You know, we talk about it on the program all the time with political analysts and politicians, generals sometimes, what do you see?

SALMAN AHMAD: Yeah, well, last year the Taliban circulated a cell phone video of a 17-year-old girl who’s being flogged and, you know, it was a gruesome video and that was in a sense a question being put to the entire Pakistinian population, that this is the vision of Islam that these guys have. Are you good with this? And when that video was run on news channels in Pakistan, there was a moment where there is a general disgust, when people realize you know what these people don’t speak for Islam, they don’t speak for Pakistani culture. If you win the people, you win this war against the extremists. And I think President Obama’s speech in Cairo, that’s a hit song. People say, well, it’s one speech, but you know the thing is words have great power, if he can put action to those words of mutual respect and mutual interest. That needs to be done much more I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your way is through and will continue to be through rock ‘n’ roll.

SALMAN AHMAD: Absolutely. And writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Jihad.” Salman Ahmad, nice to talk to you.

SALMAN AHMAD: Thank you.

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