Tapestry@25: Sufi rock star Salman Ahmad

Salman Ahmad is a Pakistani-American musician best known for his Sufi rock. He describes his sound as "Led Zeppelin meets Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan."
Salman Ahmad, lead singer of renowned Pakistani rock band Junoon, is shown performing May 25, 2008. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode44:49

Originally published in 2011.

Salman Ahmad chose the title of his book Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution with great care.

For Ahmad, 'rock and roll' symbolized freedom, social justice, passion. He says the word "jihad" has been "hijacked by the extremists, but it means striving effort to rise above the ego. It's also a struggle to lift yourself up along with society."

Throughout his career as a Sufi rock musician, Ahmad has blended passion and struggle, western rock and traditional qawwali musical aesthetics, and social justice values with the tenets of his Muslim faith.

One of his early hits was Dil Dil Pakistan with the band Vital Signs.

"Dil means love. And this song was a freak occurrence. It was a collision of culture with faith and politics at a time where you couldn't script this. I joined a band called Vital Signs who'd done this song recorded on a four track machine with no gadgetry. The bathroom tiles provided the echo and the reverb. Maybe because it was the 80s you could use all these sort of midi instruments you know. But we came together at a time where amazingly General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's military dictatorship ended in a plane crash," Ahmad said. 

"It was an opportunity for young people and Pakistanis to vote for a new leader. You know democracy came back. So on the one hand, people embrace the song Dil Dil Pakistan, millions and millions of kids. And people voted in a 35 year old woman Harvard graduated woman in Benazir Bhutto. So it was incredible that if you give Pakistanis an opportunity for freedom and democracy, they will choose music, they will choose a young woman, the first ever woman to be a prime minister of a Muslim country."

Ahmad was born in Pakistan and spent his childhood there. He was exposed to qawwali music as a young boy at family weddings held in people's backyards. "I remember that sound and that melody and the rhythm just connecting with my heart," Ahmad recalled. "I didn't know what the melodies were or what the music was saying but it just connected in a visceral and very spiritual way."

He attended middle and high school in the United States, during which time he attended his first rock concert. It was there that Ahmad experienced that transcendence for the second time.

"What I saw the qawwali do at a very young age was to blur or actually destroy the wall between the performer and the audience. You know there was no 'us and them.' It was a circle of light. And the second time I had that experience was when I was a 13 or 14 year old and going to my first ever rock concert at Madison Square Garden," Ahmad explained. "When I saw Jimmy Page come up on stage with a two-headed guitar, dragons painted on his pants, and the music that Led Zeppelin made, it communicated itself in a very direct and simple way much like much like the qawwali music did."

Ahmad returned to Pakistan in the 1980s. In 1990, Ahmad co-founded the band Junoon, which in Urdu means "obsessive passion". It is also a Sufi metaphor for seeking beauty or truth. Ahmad is poetic about the idea of junoon: "I see it as the whisper from the heart. But because of the volume of the world, which is so loud, we never hear the whisper."

Soon after forming Junoon, Ahmad met the legendary qawwali performer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was an encounter that changed his life.

"Here I was, a rock star in Pakistan, going to meet a maestro of qawwali. I had my Fender Stratocaster when I met him. And Nusrat looked like a Punjabi Buddha, you know, sitting cross-legged in this Arts Council in Lahore. And I was nervously, you know, how do you approach a guy who's been singing qawwali all his life, whose family has a 700 year tradition of singing this devotional music. And I asked him in Punjabi, I said 'What do you want me to play?' And he shyly said do whatever your heart tells you to do. And that was amazing. That was another sign for me… He was a mentor. He told me what the poetry was saying. It was like a journey which lasted only six or seven years because Nusrat died in 1997 but I was hooked back to qawwali. That was my bridge to being more than just a Pakistani rock musician."

Throughout his life, Ahmad has forged his own path despite pressure to withdraw, particularly when he returned to Pakistan as a young adult to find the country under the grip of a military dictatorship and religious extremism.

"I was confronted with either to run away and hide myself and hide my guitar and forget about my passion for music, or to confront it," Ahmad recalled. "It was asking me, the union was asking me: how far will you go? How far will you go to follow your passion? And I went all the way."

This interview was first broadcast in March 2011. It was produced by Susan Mahoney and Nicola Luksic. Written by Erin Noel.