PAKISTAN: Azadi - Junoon
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Pioneers of Sufi rock honour their predecessors, their piety and their poetry
When I think about Junoon, one quote that comes to mind is that of Isaac Newton. The legendary scientist once said: "If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants". To become an inventor of anything one must be inspired and must in fact utilise the wisdom of others who have come before them to help them contribute to their field. As a pioneer of an entire genre of music one needs to have clear influences with lots of talent. Yet this is not enough; to make it successful and unique one must learn to merge the essence of the work of those who have inspired them beautifully whilst also placing their own authentic stamp on their creation. Junoon’s role in spearheading sufi-rock as a genre demonstrates exactly this, and perhaps this is never as clear as it is in their fourth studio album, Azadi.
“Whilst rock can often been seen as one of the unholiest forms of music, Junoon almost prove their dedication to the scripture and poetry that forms the basis of much of their work, and dare I say to God as well, through the passion with which they play their killer guitar riffs and the precision with which they bang the drums.”
When I was first recommended Azadi, I cannot pretend that I did not have a preconception about the band as I had read that previous members of Junoon included Nusrat Hussain (before the release of Azadi) and that the band was spearheaded by guitarist Salman Ahmad. To explain a bit to the uninitiated in the world of Pakistani music, like I was until I suddenly became hooked on the drug that is World Music, the names Ahmad and Hussain have great significance. They were members of the band that went on to record Dil Dil Pakistan, the catchiest song of the 20th century – Vital Signs. Whilst my love for Vital Signs is real, the music of the synth-pop band is at times inane and at others laughable. This therefore made me hesitant when I saw that there was a crossover with a band looking to revolutionise a distinct and mesmerising form of music, Sufi music.
Whilst here on Around The World In 200 Albums, Joel has, of course, adopted the role of ‘resident Sufi music expert/connoisseur’ as he develops his relationship with the work of qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a way that can only be described as ‘obsessive’, I do of course have great respect for the genre and would never like to see being butchered by the lads from Vital Signs. Yet, I must say I was somewhat blown away with my first listen of the pioneers of suffix rock. Whilst the first tracks, which were also released as singles, stand out (Yaar Bina being my particular favourite), the whole album maintains a great balance between honouring the Sufi traditions that come before them, as well as rockers such as Led Zeppelin that they cite as influences.
Over this process we have discovered a range of Muslim rockers whose music I have been enamoured by from the Tuareg rock found in the Maghreb or protest rockers such as Ramy Essam from Egypt. Yet, one thing that they all lack in comparison to Junoon is the feeling of translating a piety in their music. Whilst rock, can often been seen as one of the unholiest forms of music, Junoon almost prove their dedication to the scripture and poetry that forms the basis of much of their work, and dare I say to God as well, through the passion with which they play their killer guitar riffs and the precision with which they bang the drums. This is particularly apparent on tracks like Meri Awaz Suno and Mahiwal.
Although the album is mostly a collection of poems by Sabir Zafar sung in Urdu, Mukh Gaye Nae is a Punjabi folk song that is adapted from the work of poet Iqbal. Yet for a non-Urdu/Punjabi speaker like myself, the vocals of Ali Azmat bring the lyrics to life particularly on the balladeering tracks like Kyun Parishan. His powerful voice is one reminiscent of some of the best Qawwals, although does not stand out in the same way as the Santana-esque guitar hooks played by the former Vital Signs star Ahmed. Whilst the album is perhaps a bit too long, that can all be forgiven when one considers how the band manage to transcend the framework that the likes of Nusrat or Abida Parveen set, in which mysticism and devotion could be expressed through raga like melodies, and instead are laying fertile soil for those who will follow in their footsteps and play the sufi-rock genre themselves.