Pakistani Rock Star's Roots in U.S. Metal Musician Salman Ahmad was born in Pakistan but grew up in suburban America listening to bands like Van Halen. When his family returned to Pakistan so he could study to be a doctor, Ahmad took along his guitar. His music shocked Pakistan, and Pakistan shocked him.
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Pakistani Rock Star's Roots in U.S. Metal

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Pakistani Rock Star's Roots in U.S. Metal

Pakistani Rock Star's Roots in U.S. Metal

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week's reporting from the city of Karachi has reminded us of one of one of the realities of traveling abroad. When you're in America, Pakistan seems very far away. When you're in Pakistan, America seems very near.

Visit the poorest neighborhood in the most remote part of town and somebody will have an opinion about American policies. More affluent Pakistanis travel back and forth to the U.S., and one of Pakistan's biggest music stars grew up in America.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SALMAN AHMAD (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Salman Ahmad leads the group Junoon. You're hearing their music now. His father moved around as an employee of Pakistan International Airlines.

Mr. AHMAD: I mean think about this. I was 11 years old when I came to New York, you know, like millions of other kids who were growing up on Zepplin and Aerosmith. You know, I wanted to be a rock star. And then to be taken from that place and moved to Pakistan, which was alien to me now.

INSKEEP: You went back to Pakistan after high school?

Mr. AHMAD: Well, I joined a garage band called Eclipse, and I started playing the guitar 14 hours a day, and my mother, who like all South-Asian mothers, freaked out, and she realized that her dream of seeing her son as a doctor was going to dissipate unless she...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AHMAD: Sent me back to Pakistan. You know, in the middle of a military dictatorship of General Zia, I studied at King Edward Medical College. Pakistan had changed significantly from the '70s, and I landed in the middle of that nightmare.

INSKEEP: Salman Ahmad and his friends went to medical school at a time when Pakistan's military government was imposing a more conservative view of Islam.

Mr. AHMAD: There was a bunch of us, about 60 of us, who decided that hell with these mullahs. So we decided to hold a talent show, like a "Gong Show" - you remember that show?

INSKEEP: Sure.

Mr. AHMAD: So - and we kept it very secret. I got up, and the thing I knew how to play was Van Halen's "Eruption."

(Soundbite of song, "Eruption")

Mr. AHMAD: And I closed my eyes and I heard this almighty roar, and I thought these kids are loving it, but what had happened was that the jihadis had found out that there was this place of obscenity and vulgarity, where girls and guys were sitting together. So they came, covered the girls with burkas and (unintelligible), and one of them came up on stage, and he grabbed my cheap copy of my Les Paul, my first guitar I ever had, and he smashed it on the ground. And first of all, I thought, wait a minute, I was supposed to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AHMAD: And so it made me think: If music bothers these guys so much, I should do more of it, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: I don't see lyrics that are overtly political, even though you have become in some sense a political figure or at least someone who stands for something.

Mr. AHMAD: During that time, those five years I was in medical school, I dove into the poetry of the Sufi poets like Rumi and from, you know, the South Asia, (unintelligible), and he wrote his first poem, which was "Who Am I?" - where he says, if I translate the Punjabi: I'm no believer in a mosque. I have no pagan ways. I'm not pure. I'm not vile. I'm no Moses. I'm no pharaoh. Who am I?

INSKEEP: You turned that into a song, didn't you?

Mr. AHMAD: Yeah, yeah. It's on our album, "Parvaaz" - "The Flight."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AHMAD: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. AHMAD: That was a big turning point for me, but I wasn't thinking ever of a political, you know - it just became political because we got really big.

INSKEEP: Did living in Karachi make you or force you to be more political?

Mr. AHMAD: Well, you know, Steve, you just couldn't escape it. You know, you saw such tremendous poverty plus the violence of Karachi, the day-to-day violence, the sectarian violence, the political violence. I remember when we were doing our album, (unintelligible), which means revolution, we'd go to the studio, which is on the other side of town, and you know, I saw, you know, a political murder in front of my eyes.

Mr. AHMAD: Salman Ahmad said he was threatened too, by members of the MQM. That's the political party that runs Karachi. Its leader is a man we met on this program earlier this week, Altaf Hussain.

Mr. AHMAD: It went like this. One of their activists, he called up and he said that our leader, Altaf Hussain, loves your music, and he would like for you to come and perform at his wedding. And I told him, I said very nicely that I don't, you know, go and play at people's weddings, especially political leaders who are corrupt like your leader.

And so he lost it, and he said, you know, if you want to live in Karachi, you have to deal with the MQM, and by a stroke of good luck for me, ill luck for him, this guy got wiped out by the other faction of the MQM, you know? So you know, he didn't live long enough to carry out that threat, but that's happened many, many times. That impacted the music in a big way.

INSKEEP: In what way?

Mr. AHMAD: Well, it made me think, what do I want to say in the music that we sing? And you know, there's a song called "Talash(ph)," which is on our second album, which is an overtly political song. I mean, the lyrics basically that, if I could translate (speaking foreign language) - under a burning sun, there's a search for shade (speaking foreign language) - and this is difficult to translate, but literally it says once we get over the fighting, we'll find our identity.

(Soundbite of song, "Talash")

Mr. AHMAD: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: You know, I'm just thinking about cities that I love, and if I think about New York City, it has also been a very violent place, and a grim and unhappy place in many ways, and yet I love the city. Is there something about Karachi that transcends the poverty and the violence that is so obvious there?

Mr. AHMAD: Oh yeah. I mean, there's a spirit of resilience in the city, in the people. You know, you say, well, you know, we're going to face this no matter what, and we're going to carry on with our lives: parties, weddings, you know, because there's no - you're not going to say, well, we'll wait for the violence to end so that we can get on with our life. No, it has to go on at the same time.

INSKEEP: That's Salman Ahmad, front man to the Pakistani rock band, Junoon. You can find all the stories in our Urban Frontier series at NPR.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Karachi, Pakistan.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West, and Steve will be back home in Washington next week.

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