World’s top Muslim rock star Salman Ahmad also humanitarian
Nov 02, 2007 04:30 AM
When Salman Ahmad – a.k.a. the Bono of South Asia – performs at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies in Oslo next month, it will be the zenith of his life’s work, combining music with a social message and humanitarian efforts.
So how does a kid, born in Lahore, Pakistan, raised in New York, become arguably the world’s most successful Muslim rock musician?
“Actually, I’m writing a book about it,” chuckles Ahmad, 43, over the phone from Tappan, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and three sons.
As lead singer of Junoon, with more than 25 million albums sold worldwide, Ahmad performs in Toronto Sunday at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the sold-out Mystical Journey concert.
With stops in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal, and featuring 60 musicians and dancers from various parts of the Muslim world, the concert marks the golden jubilee of His Highness Prince Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.
“It’s a showcase for Muslim musicians seeking the divine through their music,” says Toronto organizer Sheherazade Hirji. It’s also an attempt to build bridges post-9/11 by planting seeds of understanding about Islam, she adds.
That’s also Ahmad’s mission.
The Urdu and Punjabi singer is the subject of several documentaries: It’s My Country Too, a 2005 BBC film about Muslims in the U.S.; a 2003 PBS film, the Rock Star and the Mullahs, and a 2001 VH1 production, Islamabad Rock City, hosted by Susan Sarandon. He’s also a UN goodwill ambassador raising awareness of HIV/AIDS on the Indian subcontinent.
Ahmad knew nothing about rock music when he arrived in New York at age 11 but was hooked after seeing Led Zeppelin in concert at Madison Square Garden.
“I saw Jimmy Page onstage with a double-headed guitar with dragons painted on his pants playing `Stairway to Heaven.’ I was blown away.”
He started a garage band and dreamed of being a musician but went to medical school in Lahore, following his parents’ wishes.
A chance meeting with legendary qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at a rehearsal for a charity fundraiser changed his life.
Guitar in hand, Ahmad asked Khan what he should play. “He told me, `Do whatever your heart tells you to do.’ It was great personal as well as professional advice,” recalls Ahmad.
He went on to a three-year apprenticeship with Khan and formed Junoon (which means passion or obsession) in 1990.
It shot to fame tackling issues such as government corruption, nuclear testing and tensions between Pakistan and India, with music inspired by classical Sufi poets.
“Sufism is about celebrating cultural diversity, tolerance and peace. The Sufis are the anti-Taliban,” says Ahmad. “What modern Muslims need to do is talk about Islam from a cultural perspective: the poetry, the music. Otherwise the extremists who strap on bombs and blow themselves (up) get covered in the media and the other side of Islam doesn’t have a voice.”
Ahmad’s music is also influenced by seeing the suffering of the poor at Pakistan’s government hospitals during medical school. “I made a mental note that whatever I do through music has to have a social component to it,” he says.
Though he finished medical school, he never did tell his parents that he wasn’t going to practise medicine.
“I think over the years it dawned upon them that I pulled a fast one,” he laughs.