Junoon and bhangra challenge South Asian tradition even as they uphold it.
“I want to thank the people of Washington, D.C.,” announced Junoon guitarist Salman Ahmad midway through his band’s May 20 performance at Constitution Hall. But the people of Washington, D.C., didn’t know he was there. One of the most popular rock bands in the world was onstage at one of the city’s largest venues, and there was virtually no advance notice—no ads in the Washington Post, no airplay on WHFS, no listing in the Washington City Paper.
Of course, Junoon (which means “passion”) is based in Karachi, Pakistan, and its music is not released in the West. The back cover of the trio’s latest album, Parvaaz (“flight”), even states that “sale for export outside Pakistan is strictly forbidden,” although the disc was available Saturday night. The injunction may reflect the fact that the sometimes-controversial band’s Indian label—soon to be a subsidiary of AOL-TimeWarner-EMI of Dulles, Va.—has declined to issue the album in India. So much for globalization.
The concert was promoted in Pakistani-oriented media along the East Coast, explains Pakeeza Khawaja, treasurer of George Washington University’s Pakistani Students’ Association, which co-sponsored the concert with similar organizations from the University of Maryland, Towson State University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She says that the roughly 1,000 “Junoonies”—considerably fewer than the promoters anticipated when they booked the 3,700-seat hall—came from those colleges as well as places farther away, including New York, North Carolina, New England, and Canada. One of the several young men who had painted half their faces green in emulation of the Pakistani flag also sported a Georgia Tech T-shirt.
It was that kind of evening. Junoon is in many ways a traditional rock band—tune out the Urdu lyrics and you’ll hear echoes of U2, the Police, and Pearl Jam—and the show was in many ways a traditional rock concert. Fans rushed the stage as security guards attempted to keep them back; singer Ali Azmat encouraged the audience to sing the choruses as Ahmad and American bassist Brian O’Connell, both barefoot, prowled the stage. (They were backed by a drummer and a tabla player who are not full members of the band.) Yet the banners above the stage didn’t advertise beer, athletic shoes, or a new music-related Web site. The concert’s sponsors were S.K. Catering, whose fliers offered to prepare Indian food for groups of 50 or more, and Illusions Designs, a Herndon company that creates dresses inspired by traditional Indian styles.
The latter sponsor did more than fly its banner. Illusions Designs preceded the concert with a show of fashions that were, as the company’s onstage tout announced, “unlike any other.” Aside from a few Western-style dresses, the models mostly showed Indian-rooted outfits characterized by elaborate embroidery and sequins, bared midriffs, and diaphanous wraps and veils. (The biggest cheer came when the one model who came onstage with a veil over her face removed it.) The Junoonies didn’t seem the ideal market for these neosaris. In the audience, a few women wore traditional clothing, complete with scarves covering their hair. But most were in the typical college-student uniform of jeans and T-shirts.
“The fashion show had nothing to do with the Junoon concert,” says Khawaja with a hint of distaste. “Nothing to do with us. It wasn’t our deal at all. It was a means of sponsorship.”
Constitution Hall is perhaps best known among members of the South Asian college crowd as the home of the Bhangra Blowout, an annual dance competition also sponsored by GWU students; it’s billed as “the largest South Asian student event in North America and largest South Asian event of any kind on the East Coast.” (The most recent one took place April 1.) Bhangra was originally a harvest-time folk dance from Punjab, a region that was divided between India and Pakistan when the latter was created in 1947. The style has been updated and expanded throughout the Indian diaspora, in part because its percussive music lends itself to cross-fertilization with hiphop, techno, and reggae.
Coincidentally, the day after Junoon’s performance, the Smithsonian held “From Roots to Shoots: The Evolution of Bhangra in the United States.” The Baird Auditorium program featured performances by four dance troupes, including one from Pakistan; a demonstration of turntable techniques by a New York City DJ who spins at a monthly party called Basement Bhangra; and some thickly jargoned commentary by a University of Massachusetts assistant professor who was worried about “the commodification of Indo-chic.”
This year’s Bhangra Blowout showed that style is becoming “more traditional,” claimed moderator Majula Kumar, but you couldn’t tell that from the Rhythmic Rajas, a troupe from the University of Maryland. The quintet performed to a rave-worthy assemblage of reggae, electro, and go-go beats, using moves that owed less to Punjabi harvest festivals than to Broadway musicals. This concoction also showed the influence of Bollywood, the Bombay-based Indian film industry that cranks out hundreds of movie musicals annually.
Junoon was briefly mentioned at Baird, commended both for its mix of traditional and contemporary music and its willingness to take its message across the frontier to India. (Currently, Junoon is unwelcome there, thanks to tensions between Pakistan and India and the band’s stand against nuclear proliferation on the subcontinent.) Khawaja, however, insists that “Junoon has nothing to do with bhangra. It’s totally separate. Junoon plays rock ‘n’ roll with a tabla beat. Without the tabla and without their words, you couldn’t tell the difference between them and another rock ‘n’ roll band.”
That assessment certainly rang true on Saturday, when even the tabla beat was largely lost in the hard-rock roar. On Parvaaz, such songs as “Bulleya” and “Aleph” balance sinuous Indo-Pakistani melodies and lyrics adapted from 17th-century Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah with guitar and bass riffs derived from, respectively, The Edge and Sting. Like many rock bands, however, Junoon trampled some of its more delicate aspects in concert. The group played hard and trad—lengthy guitar and drum solos, no synths—for two hours and quit only when the house lights came up at 11 p.m.
What does link Junoon and the Bhangra Blowout is that each is a youth-oriented phenomenon that welcomes the whole family. Both the Constitution Hall and the Baird Auditorium audiences included middle-aged parents, college-age kids, and grade-schoolers, one young enough to be clutching a Teletubby. Both Junoon’s “Sufi-rock” and bhangra’s harvestfest-hiphop encounter controversy—Junoon released an anti-corruption song, “Ehtesaab” (“accountability”), that was banned in Pakistan, and at Baird, a Sikh audience member sternly warned that bhangra has become “polluted”—and yet honor tradition.
In the postwar United States, pop music has traditionally defined generations. Once it was Elvis vs. Sinatra; now it’s Britney vs. R.E.M. Junoon, however, trusts people that are several centuries over 30. That’s why, despite its debt to ’80s British rock, Junoon is less global than local. Those guys with the Pakistani flags and the painted faces had it right. When they rushed forward to grab Azmat’s hand, they weren’t reaching for commodified Indo-chic. They were touching home. CP