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SOUNDCHECK: Junoon the album

October 15, 2011

On September 30, 1991, Pakistan heard the first of what was to become one of the brightest lights in its music scene. The self-titled album, Junoon, didn’t make a huge impact on the population then, but it did bring attention to talents which until then had worked almost behind the scenes for the other big band, Vital Signs. And while many things have happened since then, it was the bands signature sound made popular with songs such as Neend Aati Nahin and Heer that laid the foundation for their success over the past two decades.

Last month, Junoon launched its 20 years celebration album. A strange event considering that the band as we knew it had not performed together since 2005. But in an exclusive launch with CityFM89, Salman Ahmed and Brian O’Connell got together to release a collection of songs that would mark two decades since the band first stepped into the limelight. Salman Ahmed said, “Junoon 20 is not about the band, it’s about the music. We wanted to do this for the fans and for the Junoonis who were inspired by us.”

It’s a novel idea. But it doesn’t entirely do justice to the band or its music. In the last two decades there has only been one band that really got sufi rock. Junoon might not have invented the genre (might being stressed), but they certainly dominated it. Only recently has Coke Studio tried to bring that fusion to the fore, but neither has it been consistent in doing so, nor has the music been the brand of music that Junoon was famous for. So no matter how many times the music is discussed, the lack of an actual successor means the discussion will inevitably revert to the band.

Twenty years on from its debut, the band is Salman Ahmed and Brian O’Connell. In the intervening years both Brian O’Connel and Ali Azmat left for other pastures, leaving Salman Ahmed as the sole incarnation of Junoon, until Brian O’Connell’s reappearance for this album.

Former frontman Ali Azmat was reportedly invited for the reunion but chose not indulge. When I spoke to Ali Azmat, he didn’t have much to say about Junoon 20. “There is no masala, so I have nothing to give you to create any masala out of.

There are no fights, no arguments nothing, if anything I want to stay off the grid and I’m trying to disconnect,” he said in a chat to Images on Sunday.

But frankly any masala is for the tabloids. If there is anything a Junooni would want right now is not to hear why the band broke-up, but for the band to reunite. There ain’t no stones without Mick Jagger, even if Keith Richards is a beast at what he’s doing. So there can’t be a Junoon without Ali Azmat (nor could there be a Junoon without Salman Ahmed).

The album itself is very good, and also rather unusual; not only does it feature the band’s own works but also other artists’ renditions of Junoons songs . However, the lack of pre-publicity made the album seems almost as if it had come out of nowhere, leaving fans to wonder why it was conceived (an attempt to stroke Salman Ahmed’s mythic ego perhaps), but it has inadvertently become an album that turns Junoon and its music into a legacy, for others to take forward.

Volume 1 currently on iTunes features 20 tracks and includes work by Bilal Khan, Shahjahan Khan (formerly of the Komeena’s), Aag, Laal, Fifi Haroon, Nusrat Hussain, Outlandish, Samina Ahmed, Usman Riaz and Rohail Hyaat, many of whom have reworked the Junoon sound in their own way. Besides numbers that the band performed when they were a trio, there are also a few new songs on the album, one of which is Chand Sitara, penned by Shoaib Mansoor and sung by Salman Ahmed; how Ahmed sounds seems to be a split vote with listeners but the song does have an anthemic quality to it.

Two songs stand out among the rest. Usman Riaz with Saeen and Aag with Mitti Mein Mil Jaengay — both are covers of old Junoon songs.

The exact words to describe the new Saeen are hard to conjure, but they would be similar to ridiculously awesome. There are no vocals to the song, instead Usman Riaz has worked with Saeed Sahab to use the instrument closest to the vocal range, the violin, to replace Ali Azmat’s voice. And if Urooj Aftab’s Hallelujah could get her to Berklee, this should win the boy the 2011 Nobel Prize for Music (they should make a category and give it to him). That Pakistan would have such talent on a multitude of instruments — he played the guitar, mandolin, tanpura, piano, harmonium, ceramic drums, and shakers and wrote the parts for the violin and percussion instruments — is incredible.

And Aag’s version of the surreal Mitti Mein Mil Jaengay is better than Junoon’s own version, agrees Brian. It plays in the same tempo and same key but has rocked it up, and the vocal refrains are backed by a guitar that does not quit. The song is definitely worth listening to, and the solo deserves to be a ringtone — or a battle tone.

Curiously, Sayonee is missing from the compilation; in an album marking the band’s journey through the years, their biggest hit should certainly have a place. Instead, the playlist carries Tum Sung by Samina Ahmed (Salman Ahmed’s wife) which is easily the weakest song of the album. It’s nice to see the first lady of the band try her hand at some music, but she is out of tune and pitch in a number of places and the song ends up announcing its mediocrity in the face of the other tracks.

But of all the songs, Talash is a reminder of when the band first started out and what it became. Ali Azmat’s voice and Salman Ahmed’s guitars compete while Brian tempers the sound with the baseline — all while an ominous voice chants “talash.” Which is the plight of listeners since Junoon as we knew it, faded away. — Shayan Shakeel