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Image Credit: Supplied

To say that Junoon has reached the pinnacle of success and the very depths of despair would not be too far from the truth.

The Pakistani Sufi rock band, led by founder Salman Ahmad, lead vocalist Ali Azmat and bassist Brian O’Connell, have embarked on a highly-anticipated comeback trail after a 13-year hiatus that many loyalists, who call themselves ‘Junoonis’, hope will be the start of a new legacy for the band.

Having found a foothold in the mid-90s amid Pakistan’s burgeoning pop industry, Junoon’s music was an eclectic mixture of rock, qawwali-infused vocals and a dash of Punjabi folk. The diversity in the band’s music saw the trio carve a niche for themselves across Southeast Asia, poised for global domination.

But with fame came a level of scrutiny that few would ignore in Pakistan. Having made enemies in the political circles with their inflammatory rhetoric of the country’s corruption, the band often found itself banned from performing, and even accused of treason in 1998 (more on that later).

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Brian O’Connell, Ali Azmat and Salman Ahmad during their India tour in 1998. Image Credit: Supplied

What we are is what we tried to show the world and what we saw around us was something we were ashamed of.

- ALI AZMAT | Junoon vocalist

Amid denying the charges, stories of in-fighting within the group slowly began to emerge, with the band officially calling it quits in 2005.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid! ahead of their concert on January 18 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Ahmad called that period a time when the band members needed to find themselves.

“What I had given up for this music was my own life and my family. I am a very vocal social activist and I needed space for myself,” said Ahmad. “When you are in a band, you are doing things together; you have your own life but you are always comprising of each other.

“Ali wanted to do his own album. I was at a stage when my kids were very young and I wanted to give them more time, so we took a break. And now, years later, we feel we have done what we set out to achieve and this is the best time to come back together.”

Following its sold-out concert in Karachi on Christmas Day, the band looks back on Junoon’s tumultuous journey ahead of the Dubai main event.

Return of the prodigal band

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Junoon members had their first comeback gig in Karachi on December 25, 2018. Image Credit: Supplied

Stories circulating that all was not well within Junoon was finally confirmed by Azmat in 2012, who admitted to Pakistani daily, The Express Tribune, that he had issues with the band’s founder. “I have never had any resentment towards Junoon but its Salman Ahmad that I have a problem with,” he famously said in that interview.

So, 13 years later — and endless attempts at a reconciliation — what changed?

“We are getting old, for one,” laughs Azmat. “We have been talking for a very long time. As musicians, we needed to take a stand and decide what the next step should be. We talked about it for long. And we were supposed to do something earlier but I was doing something and Salman was doing something else. Brian was in the US. Hopefully now that we are together, there will be a lot more of this.”

Voice of a movement

When the band first burst on to the scene in ‘90s, the Pakistani pop movement had just taken root in the country. Acts such as Vital Signs, Strings, Awaz were eagerly filling in the void left behind by siblings Nazia Hassan and Zoheb Hassan, with anthems such as ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’, ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’ and ‘Jadoo Ka Charagh’ climbing up the charts with zeal. But Junoon refused to conform to the trend, choosing instead to pioneer its own signature sound – Sufi Rock. ‘Junoon’ (1991) followed by ‘Talaash’ (1993) — barely made a ripple.

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Salman Ahmad with Junaid Jamshed, the former singer of pop group Vital Signs, who died in 2016. Image Credit: Supplied

However, in 1995, while working on a third album, the band dropped controversial video of the single ‘Ehtesaab’, which depicted a horse dining in a luxury restaurant. Many drew parallels from the video as a mirror to the corruption prevalent in the country under the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, with a sly dig at her husband Asif Ali Zardari’s polo horses. The government responded by banning the song from state television and knowingly, gave the band its identity to the masses.

A year later, their third studio album, ‘Inquilaab’, would drop with the track ‘Jazba-e-Junoon’, which would later go on to become the voice of a nation, not to mention the official anthem for the Pakistani team in the Cricket World Cup.

Then came the ban

It was in 1998, while on tour in Delhi with their new album ‘Azadi’ that India tested its nuclear weapons at Pokhran. During their press interviews, Ahmad was quoted as saying that Indian and Pakistani leaders should spend more on education and health than on weapons of mass destruction.

In swift retaliation, the Pakistani government barred Junoon from live performances in the country, as well as banning the band’s music on radio and television. Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture formally charged Junoon with challenging ‘the national opinion on the nuclear tests’, as well as making comments in India ‘amounting to sedition and treason’.

Junoon denied the charges, stating the band had been victimised since ‘Ehtesaab’ because they dared to voice their objection against political corruption in the country.

Two decades later, bring up the ban with Azmat, asking whether Junoon’s intentions were often understood, and the lead vocalist simply says: “That wasn’t just us but artists of our time I guess who were looking at the meaning of things and not liking the answers that were being presented.

“What we are is what we tried to show to the world and what we saw around us was something we were ashamed of. It was a complex issue. Some people would say that even if you don’t believe in it, others do, asking us why were we selling propaganda with our music. But that was never the case. I think for us it was a case of finding meaning in those silences and not to propagate.”

Ahmad channels his inner Sufism to respond. “Truth is timeless and ageless. The music which comes from a place of truth… whether you have a spiritual understanding or not, that force is very powerful. It is not limited by time and space.”

More studio time on the cards

The band promises it will not go gentle into that good night with Ahmad confirming they are currently working on a new single.

“I’ve lost in my life some very dear friends at a young age. Great musicians… I knew them from the age of 19; we thought we would grow old together and two years ago my friend Juniad Jamshed [former lead singer of Pakistani pop group Vital Signs] died in an air crash and that was a wake-up call for me,” recalls Ahmad. “I called up Ali and said we love doing music and there’s no better way of going forward than by playing music.

“We started talking to each other and eventually out of that conversation came two shows and a new song in the New Year.”

Both Azmat and O’Connell responded on the side of caution. “That’s a hard one to answer,” says the American bass guitarist. “Of course, we are back as brothers. What we did to make Junoon and what it became took a long time and was a labour of love. But predicting the future is a hard one to answer as there are so many moving parts involved. Ali is in Pakistan, I am in New York and Salman is all over the place.”

Azmat seemed to agree saying: “We will do a couple a shows and if this lasts then we will do studio work,” said the lead singer, adding. “I think we are keen on working on interesting projects and creating something new for the next generation.”

How they met…

Band founder Salman Ahmad calls it a “15-year journey from humble beginnings in Lahore”.

“I grew up in America and was in a garage band with Brian in the states. My parents were mortified to learn that I might become a rock musician so they sent me to Lahore to study medicine. But even in med school, I started seven underground bands.”

Azmat, who happened to be Ahmad’s neighbour in Lahore, shared the latter’s love for rock music.

“We were rockers,” reiterated Ahmad. “When we started Junoon, the first album was just Ali and myself and along other musicians. And then out of those humble beginnings, I called Brian in America and asked him to hang out for a couple of months for an album. That’s how Talaash happened. And from there we became Pakistan’s biggest rock bands.”

Did you know?

Ali Azmat is on a comeback trail, with the Junoon lead singer also returning to the silver screen with a cameo in the upcoming Pakistani film, ‘The Legend of Maula Jatt’. Speaking about the role, Azmat said: “I was told it was a cameo, but after being on set for 10 hours daily, I had enough. But the make-up is phenomenal. When I saw myself on the set I didn’t recognise myself. I can’t tell you much about my role, but it will be fun.”

Did you know?

Junoon’s last international concert before their split was staged in January 2004, also at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium by Oberoi Middle East Events. “As per our promise to each other, Salman Ahmad and I agreed that whenever they [Junoon] unite again the first international concert will be held in Dubai by us. We both kept up to our promise,” said OME founder and chairman Naresh Oberoi.

Oberoi has also confirmed that for this comeback concert, fans are flying down to Dubai from the UK, the US, Singapore, GCC, Pakistan, India, Australia and Africa.

Don’t miss it!

Junoon — The Comeback Concert in Dubai has been organised OME Events and will be staged on January 18 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium. Tickets start at Dh150 and are available on dubai.platinumlist.net Show starts at 9pm.