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HIGH JUNOON AT GROUND ZERO

by Polar Levine 11/16/01 for popCULTmedia

I had a rare patriotic epiphany last night. Not one of those militaristic flag-waving USA! USA! USA! pep rally moments but a silent moment of thankfulness and amazement.

Right here in my neighborhood, a few blocks north from the smoking pile with Allahs name forged on the cornerstone, this blue-eyed Jew is grooving with a hall full of young Pakistanis (muslims, I assume) who are dancing and singing along with a Pakistani rock band. They knew every song.
JUNOON is the most famous pop band in South Asia. Although Im familiar with their music, Im one of the only people in the house who has no idea what theyre singing about, since the lyrics are all in Urdu or Punjabi. My eight-year old keeps asking when theyre going to sing Celia Cruz. The words to his favorite Junoon song Sayonee sound to him like Celia Cruz the name of the Cuban salsa star he listens to. Im momentarily part of a tiny ethnic minority (caucasian American) in the heart of my own neighborhood and Im happily, wierdly at home. If this can happen in America, then -- fuck me, USA! USA! USA!

Junoon ended its world tour in New York to play the United Nations General Assembly and stuck around to book a gig at Burough Of Manhattan Community College because they wanted to play as close to Ground Zero as possible. Their message of kinship among all ethnic groups, faiths and nationalities brings them as much trouble as it brings them devotion but here they were. Their calls for peace between Pakistan and India and criticism of Pakistan's government for using its scarce resources for nuclear rather than human development got them banned from the state-run TV station. Being banned from that station is the American equivalent of being banned from from the universe.

This is a band that has dropped into one of those confluences of time and place that create history. Guitarist Salman Ahmad grew up in suburban New York and Pakistan. He met bass player Brian OConnell in high school. They decided to make Pakistan their home and joined forces with singer Ali Azmat. Like Santana which forged a brilliant synthesis of Afro-Cuban styles and rock, Junoon has seemlessly woven Pakistani Qawwali music and Western rock. Ahmad, Azmat and OConner were joined by Ashiq Ali Mir on dholak (a cylindrical double-headed hand drum similar to tabla) and Jay Dittamo of New Jersey, USA on drums. Salman's younger brother Shehryar, who worked on Wall Street before relocating to Pakistan, manages the band.

As Pakistan becomes a major player and wild card in what is likely to become World War III, this hybrid Pakistani/American force for peace also happens to be a band of immense talent. Ali Azmat is a vocalist in the mold of U2s Bono and Led Zeppelins Robert Plant. He combines the passion and eloquence of Bono and a to-the-moon vocal range of Plant and traditional Qawwali singers like the revered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But unlike the Quwwali tradition of sitting crosslegged on the stage, Azmat throws himself wildly into the groove like Pearl Jams Eddie Vedder. Salman Ahmad is a brilliant rock guitarist. He lays a rich harmonic and rhythmic bed with sophisticated chord voicings, in-the-pocket groove science and a great sonic pallet. His leads are muscular, sweet and transcendent. Brian OConners finger-picked 5-string bass is phat and nimble. His job in the rhythm section is to bridge the two musical traditions and he nails it. Ashiq Ali Mir on dholak and jazz-trained Jay Dittamo on drums have amazing technique and their interplay kept the groove alive all night, never half-stepping into rote heavy handed time-keeping like so many rock bands. The quality of the rhythm section, to me, is the key asset to this band. Ashiq Ali Mir, sitting cross-legged on a carpet and looking more like a traditional Qawwali sideman than a popstar, rocked like Kieth Moon and he knew it! His face gave away the subversive joy he felt in rocking his ass off in a party he seemed to have crashed.

This much talent at this particular time, from this particular place, combined with a nuanced and articulate understanding of global politics is a powerful combination. They stand at Ground Zero of a historic moment.

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Polar Levine
Editor popCULTmedia