"That whisper in your heart has strength," Salman Ahmad told the audience in the Underground Friday evening. The Pakistani star of Sufi rock combined songs in Urdu and Punjabi with conversation about his experiences growing up in America and Pakistan in a presentation entitled "Rock and Roll Jihad."
Ahmad played 17th century Punjabi music, Pakistani nationalist songs, qawwali music and the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. He proved to be an engaging performer, coaxing the audience of Brown students and community members to clap and sing along to lyrics many did not understand. He said when people sing together, their "mystical energy" creates a "circle of light," breaking down the walls between members of the audience.
He told them the story of his childhood and his struggles to become a musician in the face of opposition from his Pakistani family, who wanted him to become a doctor. But after seeing a Led Zeppelin concert at age 13, he decided, "That's what I want to do with my life." Ahmad attended medical school in Pakistan but became frustrated by the strict Islamic dictatorship's prohibitions against music and poetry. He organized a covert talent show, which was broken up by militants who smashed his guitar. "If you're a rock musician, you'd better destroy your own instrument," he said ruefully. That moment "changed everything," and he resolved to follow the whisper in his heart.
Ahmad works toward fostering peace between India and Pakistan and emphasized the role of music in cross-cultural communication. He and his band, Junoon, were the first Pakistani band to tour India. He described how his friends and relatives told him, "You'll be tortured, and then you'll be deported." But he was surprised by the warm welcome his band received, telling the audience about a time when three major Bollywood stars came into his dressing room before a performance to ask for his autograph for their nieces. This experience, he said, exemplified the "strange cultural relationship between India and Pakistan," in spite of political conflict. He asserted that personal contact like this will be the "way forward" for the two countries.
Ahmad played a popular Pakistani song to great enthusiasm from the audience.
The evening took a more serious turn when Ahmad's wife, Samina Ahmad, took the stage. Two years ago, the couple started a non-profit organization, the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative in response to the catastrophic floods in Pakistan. The musician's wife told the audience that the floods were more disastrous than Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake combined. But the floods did not receive as much attention as those disasters, and international aid was delayed. She also described the organization's work in sponsoring a girls' school and building a village in Pakistan.
She concluded by urging the audience members to take action."Start from where you are and do what you can," she urged. "You are the hope of the world."