Understanding Pakistan, By Way Of Its Pop Idols

Junoon i i

Guitarist Salman Ahmad is among the biggest names in Pakistani music, having performed with the pop group Vital Signs before moving on to form his own Sufi rock band, Junoon. Sonny Tumbelaka hide caption

itoggle caption Sonny Tumbelaka
Junoon

Guitarist Salman Ahmad is among the biggest names in Pakistani music, having performed with the pop group Vital Signs before moving on to form his own Sufi rock band, Junoon.

Sonny Tumbelaka

"Disco Deewane" means "disco crazy" in Urdu. It's also the name of a song by the brother-sister duo Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, a hit in Pakistan in 1981.

But its words spurred religious tension as Pakistan's government became even more conservative. Pakistani-born writer Kamila Shamsie remembers the music video, in which government censors wouldn't let cameras film the sensuous Nazia from the waist down.

"You had this woman and this man, who were sort of out there talking about the craziness of disco," Shamsie says, "and about a certain kind of social liberation that went away."

Many Muslims in Pakistan practice variations of Sufism, a less rigid form of Islam that's very open to music and dance. Facing waning popularity in the late 1970s, then-dictator Muhammad Zia-ul Haq ushered a more extreme Islam into the law and culture of the country.

Pop music managed to prevail. Despite heavy government censorship in 1987, Pakistani television held a competition for its viewers to come up with a patriotic song. The winning track was "Dil Dil Pakistan" from the pop group Vital Signs. It became an instant hit.

"It felt really refreshing and it felt subversive, which is ridiculous if you actually look at the lyrics," Shamsie says.

Two prominent members of Vital Signs parted ways with the group in the early 1990s, taking different directions in both music and religion. Salman Ahmad formed Junoon, a Sufi rock group that achieved widespread popularity in Southeast Asia in 1997 with its chart-topping hit "Sayonee." Meanwhile, frontman Junaid Jamshed began singing religious music and denounced pop as "un-Islamic."

Shamsie says the split reflects the shifts in Pakistan's Muslim community.

"There are so many different variations of Islam," she says. "I think within the music and the stories of Salman Ahmad and Junaid Jamshed, you can see two of the more dramatic ways in which that search for religious belief can play out."

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