They Rock Pakistan

From a distance, it looked like any other New York City rock concert. A mass of jumping, singing, sweating kids swarmed in front of the stage. Girls in baby T-shirts bounced on the shoulders of boys with gelled hair. The lead singer pranced back and forth with a mike.

But if you got somewhat closer, things looked a little different. To the left of the drummer, a man sat on a rug playing tablas and dholak--traditional Muslim hand drums. Further out from the stage was a more conservative set of fans: some women wore saris and older men donned sports jackets. You also realized that just about everyone was South Asian.

Welcome to the world of Junoon, a Pakistani rock band that entertains the kids abroad-and enrages the mullahs back home.

The band, the subject of a Nov. 29 VH1 documentary called "Islamabad Rock City," has been together since 1990. Its members include founder Salman Ahmad, a Sunni Muslim (guitar); Brian O'Connell, an American and born-again Christian (bass); and Ali Azmat, a Shia Muslim (lead vocals). Despite their diverse backgrounds, they actually sound like an electrified The Dave Matthews Band. And in Pakistan, they're about that big, too.

The group's roots go back to 1975, when Ahmad's family moved from Pakistan to New York. At 12 years old, Ahmad's life changed--like so many Americans of his generation--at a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden. "Here I was this Muslim, a Punjabi boy from Pakistan," recalls Ahmad, who speaks English with a gentle Urdu accent. "To see Jimmy Page on stage, that blew my mind." It wasn't long before Ahmad bought his first guitar.

After high school, he went back to Pakistan to study medicine. It was the height of the Soviet-Afghan war, which spread Islamic fundamentalism throughout the country, and AK-47s were present on every street corner. Pop music wasn't outlawed, but the culture was depressed and fractured. "There was no music there," Ahmad remembers.

Meanwhile, 1980's synthesizer pop was taking over airwaves in Europe and America. Ahmad, whose first love remained music, kept an eye on trends in the West. Then in 1987, Pakistan held a nationwide patriotic songwriting contest. Inspired, Ahmad and some friends wrote an entry, "We Love Pakistan," which had a light, Western touch a la Duran Duran. "It was rock-based melody, but because it was a patriotic song, it went on television without the mullahs making a big fuss," he says.

In a sea of traditional, somber devotional music, the song stood out and became an enormous hit. That year, "sixty million kids in Pakistan heard rock music for the first time," Ahmad says. He forgot about medicine for good.

In 1990, Ahmad formed Junoon (Urdu for "passion"). He called Brian O'Connell, a friend from his school days in New York, and asked if he'd come to Pakistan to help cut an album. O'Connell--a devout Christian--became the band's bass player. A neighbor of Ahmad's, Ali Azmat, joined and took the job of lead vocalist.

Their first album came out--then another. Neither were successful. But on record No. 3, the trio finally got it right. The group found its voice when it began combining Sufi lyrics and rhythms with guitar-rock chords. Sufism's main message, says Ahmad, "is that there are no sects: no Catholics, no Protestants, no Shiites, no Sunnis." Whereas most popular musicians find chords first and melody second, Ahmad starts with a Sufi melody and "then you dress it up."

Junoon's first hit single, "Spirit of Passion," was a song in which they substituted tablas and dholak for standard drums. It was such a humongous hit that Pakistan's cricket World Cup team used it as its anthem.

The band's fourth album, released in 1996, broke all records in South Asia. But within months, "it all went sour," said Sherry Ahmed, the band's manager. The band had shot a video for their song "Accountability." It addressed corruption and waste in a country with a massive underclass. When Junoon submitted it to the state-run television station PTV, they were laughed at. "Poets and musicians don't question the government," says the manager. The aide of prime minister of Pakistan called Saman with "friendly advice" that they should worry about entertaining people. Soon the band found itself banned from TV and radio. The government even tried to ban Junoon concerts, though they inventually backed off due to bad publicity.

In May of 1998, Junoon--who by now were massive in other countries in their region--found themselves on tour in India when New Delhi tested its first atomic bomb. The band called for the peace and redistribution of dollars from defense to feeding the poor. The Pakistani government accused them of treason. Things only grew friendlier when Gen. Pervez Musharraf took control of Pakistan in Oct. 1999. Junoon was able to perform again--and "Accountability" even ran on TV.

For the last couple of years, Junoon has been playing the world. They've gigged in Japan, China, Nepal--even sold out the legendary Wembley Arena in England. This year, the UN asked Ahmad to be a representative in the campaign against AIDS in Afghanistan.

They were home in Pakistan on September 11. While that day did change everything, the band vehemently asserts that they have nothing new to say--just a new audience. "We were singing about extremism way before 9-11 happened," Ahmad says. "Not just violence, but religious extremism and intolerance in society."

Meanwhile, bassist O'Connell has become "the most visible American in Pakistan," says Ahmad. When asked how it feels to bear that title while Pakistani mullahs are yelling for the death of America, O'Connell scoffs. "I've made Pakistan my home for ten years, and I have absolutely no intention of running away from anything that would strike fear in other people." Did the mullahs ever single him out? "The conservative elements scream as loud as they can and they bang as loud as they can," he says. "But our amplifiers are louder."