Doh pal ka jeewan: Remembering the voice of a generation

Published Dec 07, 2017 10:23am

This article was originally published on December 8, 2016.

Yesterday, Junaid Jamshed perished in a plane crash. To the generation who grew up from the early 2000s onward (the ‘millennials’), he was a successful businessman and a verbose preacher.

Many of Junaid’s public statements (as a preacher) attracted love and loathing, admiration and scorn. Yet, to a generation before this one, Jamshed was a voice who convincingly expressed the emotional ups and downs that many young Pakistanis went through in the 1990s.

The 1990s were a patchy decade. It had an exciting and expectant beginning, an uncertain middle and a stormy ending. Junaid sang through it all and as if his voice, words and music were being directly navigated by the topsy-turvy motion of the decade.

Junaid first gained recognition and then stardom as the lead vocalist of the seminal Pakistani pop band, the Vital Signs. The Vital Signs were launched in early 1986 in Rawalpindi by two teens, Rohail Hayat (keyboards/synthesizers) and Shahzad Hassan (bass).

They were soon joined by Nusrat Hussain (guitar/keyboards). Interestingly, they were not yet called the Vital Signs. Not even when Junaid Jamshed, a young engineering student from Lahore, joined as their vocalist.

This was a time when the wily General Zia-ul-Haq was reigning supreme as dictator with a puppet parliament sanctioning his every move, reeking of a Machiavellian brand of so-called Islamisation.

Even though the country at the time was covered by a façade of conservative moral pretenses, its urban underbelly was boiling with ethnic tensions, gang violence, corruption and the state-sponsored terror partaken to suppress dissent.

Ironically, it was these political and economic tensions which also propelled the gradual expansion of the country’s urban middle and lower-middle-classes. And it is the youthful ethos born from such commotion which sprang the pop scene and music we now call modern Pakistani pop.

Change was in the air. Tensions were running high and something had to give. This was the underlining feeling among the time’s youth. They could not pin-point exactly how this change would take place or even what it would really be about, but the moment Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in mid-1986 and led a mammoth rally in Lahore, the country’s major urban centres saw a quiet but certain outpouring of brand new pop bands.

Most of the new acts that began appearing after 1986 played at private parties, weddings, and at college functions. By early 1987, the Signs had become firm favourites in the period’s college function circuit. No one seems to remember what they were called then.

The band’s breakthrough moment arrived in mid-1987 when the video of their very first song, Dil Dil Pakistan was aired on the state-owned PTV.

The Dil Dil Pakistan video appeared on PTV in the summer of 1987. Director Shoaib Mansoor spent days trying to convince the censors to allow the airing of this video. PTV bureaucrats thought a video showing young men riding bikes in leather jackets reminded one of hooligans. The video was eventually allowed to air, mainly because of its patriotic lyrics. The music was composed by Nusrat Hussain and words were by Shoaib Mansoor. It was an immediate hit.

I first saw the Signs at a concert at the now defunct Rex Auditorium in Karachi. The year was 1989 and the band had just released their debut album, VS-1. The concert hall was packed with young men and women, and, though, many teens were accompanied by their parents, one could still smell whiffs of hashish smoke inside the hall.

VS Mark-I: Shahzad, Nusrat, Rohail, Junaid (1988).
VS Mark-I: Shahzad, Nusrat, Rohail, Junaid (1988).

A year earlier, the country’s ubiquitous military dictator General Zia had died, allegedly by a bomb which went off on the C-130 plane he was travelling in. Elections (in November 1988) had brought in the once demonised Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to power, headed by a 36-year-old Benazir Bhutto. The mood was euphoric, optimistic, expectant.

Before the Signs could record their first album, Nusrat left. He was training to become a pilot. He suggested Salman Ahmad as his replacement as guitarist. By now, the guys had started to call themselves the Vital Signs, a name inspired by a song from the 1981 Rush album, Moving Pictures.

The first VS album was recorded at EMI-Pakistan’s studio in 1989. Shoaib Mansoor did all the lyrics while Junaid and Rohail shared the bulk of the composition duties. The sound and words of the album were clearly influenced by an important curve in the history of Pakistan and the initial euphoria which followed the end of a stifling dictatorship and the arrival of democracy.

VS Mark-II: Salman, Shahzad, Junaid, Rohail.
VS Mark-II: Salman, Shahzad, Junaid, Rohail.

Released in early 1989, VS-1 was a massive success. It was an exultant album. It reflected well the mood of the times. It was all about hope and the new generation’s celebration of individuality, independence and free will. The song Doh Pal Ka Jeewan captures this sense and sentiment well. The video is from the band performing the song in a special PTV show called Music ‘89.

On the same album was the melancholic Musafir which opted for a more reflective outlook and introspection to come to terms with what may lie on the other side of the euphoria which was sweeping across the period’s youth culture. This atmospheric composition challenges Junaid’s range as a vocalist, but he nails it beautifully. Musafir was also the first song by the Signs dwelling on a theme of sudden loss; a theme the band would continue to explore and expand in all their albums. Though Musafir was recorded in 1989, this video was shot in 1993.

I befriended Junaid in 1991. I had dropped out of the University of Karachi and joined an English weekly as a political reporter in December 1990. It was the Signs’ second album (VS-2) which prompted me to begin dabbling in music journalism. Between 1992 and 2001, I mostly reported and commented on the local pop music scene. I struck a close affiliation with the Signs, especially with Junaid and Rohail.

I was quite a sight in those days. Shoulder-length hair, unruly beard, wild eyes and fantasies about turning Pakistani pop music into a vessel for some kind of a cultural revolution! Naïve notion but at the time it seemed perfectly achievable. Well, at least in my head it was.

Viva la Revolution! Down with hair-cuts!
Viva la Revolution! Down with hair-cuts!

Junaid wore his emotions on his sleeves. He loved music. But there was an introverted side to him as well, which the extroverted Junaid was not quite comfortable with. This conflict between his two sides would continue till he believed he had found a resolution through religion a decade later.

Rohail was mostly quiet but very observant. He was most comfortable with his quiet nature. Shahzad too was quiet. Thus, Junaid became the band’s spokesman. The new guitarist, Rizwanul Haq, who had been brought in 1991 after the acrimonious departure of Nusrat’s replacement, was edgy and circumnavigated with a nervous energy and a largely apprehensive disposition. And his playing, though not spectacular, was incredibly subtle and melodic; perfect for the VS sound which was developing.

But all was not quite well when the band began recording their second album. After recording his vocals, Junaid quit the band, saying he wanted to become an engineer. When Rohail was mixing the new album, the band did not really exist anymore. This is precisely why the Signs’ second album VS-2 is such a departure from the first album’s more upbeat ways.

1991’s VS-2 was entirely moody with a heavy sense of desolation hanging over it. The music, vocals and lyrics all broodingly converge towards this sense of dread and loss in the most affecting manner. Ajnabi from VS-2 is a personal favourite of mine.

Yaad Kerna is another gem from VS-2. Junaid was a huge admirer of Shoaib’s lyrics. He sang them as if tackling his own existential crisis through these songs. Rohail’s production remained top notch, especially the way he added poignant musical nuances to the overall compositions. In VS-2, the band rued the loss of innocence, hope and euphoria that had mushroomed in 1988. By 1991, the euphoria lay crushed under the weight of a new round of ethnic and sectarian violence. The revolution was over.

1993 was a happy year for the band. It settled down and began operating as a well-knit professional unit. It had risen to become the land’s top pop act and that too in a then increasingly competitive pop scene. No wonder in their third album, Aitebar, the band decided to rediscover the buoyant mood of the first album. But Aitebar remains the band’s weakest offering.

Indeed it sold more copies than the introverted VS-2 but it is mostly cramped with throwaway tunes. This was also the album which was almost entirely recorded in front of me. The vibes in the studio were terrific.

The title song of Aitebar is the album’s only high point. A lavish little ballad revolving around Rizwan’s empathetic piano and Junaid’s assured vocals which eschew the despondency of the songs on VS-2 and once again tries to ignite hope.

VS Mark-III: Junaid, Rizwan, Rohail, Shahzad.
VS Mark-III: Junaid, Rizwan, Rohail, Shahzad.

Rohail was not happy with the band’s third album. Junaid was. In the simmering tensions between the two, Rizwan somehow got ousted. Rohail brought in guitar genius, Amir Zaki. It was an odd choice. Zaki was technically brilliant and enjoyed a large cult following. His fans couldn’t imagine him lasting in the Signs. He didn’t. I remember strains between band members were at their peak during the recording of the group’s fourth album.

In 1994, Rohail quit. Junaid was not amused. Rohail returned in early 1995. But the same year, Zaki was out. He couldn’t cope with the tensions in the band, and that is saying a lot because Zaki himself was a rather temperamental man. His presence in the Signs always seemed suspect and even atypical.

VS Mark-IV: Junaid, Rohail, Zaki, Shahzad.
VS Mark-IV: Junaid, Rohail, Zaki, Shahzad.

The recording of the band’s fourth album, Hum Tum, was a laborious exercise. It took almost a whole year to record. I witnessed much of it as Zaki came in and went and then Asad Ahmad, another guitar virtuoso, was brought in to help the band complete the album.

Somehow, I felt that this would be the band’s last album. I shared this with both Rohail and Junaid. Rohail just shrugged his shoulders. He had worked extremely hard to make this the band’s best album. He would often work at nights. Junaid was nonchalant about my prediction, rather feeling. He said he had sacrificed too much to see the band wither away after just four albums. He wanted more; he knew he was only getting better as a vocalist.

And what an album it turned out to be. It was nothing like the complacent Aitebar. Rohail still calls Hum Tum his baby. The production and arrangements on it are dazzling. Like VS-2, this album too had a lot of ambiance and Junaid’s vocals are very much part of the overwhelming atmosphere.

And then there were three: VS Mark-V.
And then there were three: VS Mark-V.

In Hum Tum, Junaid again used songs about unspoken tensions to address the growing existentialist conflict within him. The brilliantly arranged and produced Dair Hogai Hai may as well have been about the inevitability of the band’s demise.

The epic Mein Chup Raha is remarkable on so many levels. The production is again first class and the guitar (by Asad Ahmad) carries Junaid’s vocals about unspoken tensions in a dizzying gallop.

The aesthetic and commercial success of the album wasn’t enough to roll back another happening: Rohail and Shahzad were both emotionally and creatively drifting away from Junaid. Or maybe it was the other way around. Not much seemed in common between them anymore.

And though the Signs’ demise was never officially announced, by 1998 when the band were offered a deal by Pepsi for another album, Rohail declined, signaling the folding of what still remains to be one of the most important and volatile chapters in the history of Pakistani pop music.

But, yes, Junaid did want to continue as a singer. That’s why he went on to record two solo albums. I last met Junaid in 2002 during a one-off VS reunion concert in Karachi. The band had disintegrated in 1998 and Junaid had begun to drift towards more spiritual matters. He had first decided to quit music in 2000, but two years later changed his mind and returned to reform the Signs.

Just before the concert he told me that the band was all set to record a new album. However, right after the concert, he briskly walked into a hall behind the stage and announced that he was quitting music. This time, for good. Then walking towards me, he shook my hand and said, "It’s over. Good bye." We never met again.

Junaid’s alteration was not sudden. It was a gradual and rather painful process, unfolding slowly. He was convinced his future and, more so, the resolution to the inner conflicts he had struggled with lay in becoming a ‘born again Muslim.’

Incidentally, Junaid’s exit from the music scene also marked my exit from music journalism. His departure had nothing to do with mine. It simply symbolised the exit of a generation that had emerged riding on an illusion anticipating some kind of a utopia. But a decade later this generation had ended up in a vortex of disillusionment. It wanted out. And out it went.