Lahore, Pakistan - When Pakistani rock stars Ali Azmat and Mekaal Hasan were hitting their teens, U.S.-backed military dictator Zia-ul-Haq “Islamized” Pakistan. “There was no entertainment; nothing. It was the worst time to be a teenager in Pakistan. We just roamed around on bikes,” Ali complained. “I didn’t drink until I was twenty-five!”
But during this time, American programming came through. Pakistan and the U.S. were allies. And as Zia-ul-Haq sobered up Pakistan, urban-dwelling Ali and Mekaal could still get their eyeballs in front of TV screens and watch MTV once in a while. “Black suite, white socks, Jackson changed everything; 'Thriller' changed everything,” says Ali. “Your MTV sent out videos of rockers with girls roller blading on Miami Beach….Fireworks. Chicks. Big cars. You’re like ‘Holy Fruity!’ I want to do that action on guitar myself.” So Ali imitated big singers from Bruce Springsteen to Eric Clapton, and found he could hit the high notes. His friends loved it. He felt liberated by it.
And after a while of imitating American sound and the style -- “Long hair, glamrock, cheetah print pants” -- he “got interested in...actually hearing the great musicians.” And with friends like Hasan, he traded dubbed tapes of Western bands, from famous to obscure.
Rock, which Ali says he associated with America even though he now realizes he loved many British bands too, is “about being from the street; it’s about expression and not compromising. It’s an attitude…how to be true to yourself.” Through ul-Haq’s years his repertoire grew, he started singing around town, and soon after the general’s plane crashed, Ali picked up an electric guitar and formed his own band.
Soon thereafter he teamed up with American-educated Pakistani Salman Ahmad to become Junoon's lead vocalist. That’s when he started reincorporating South Asian sounds back into his music -- because it’s what he knew, because he couldn’t imitate all his life, and because his confidence was growing.
Reinterpreting Sufi devotional music with electric guitars, Junoon took on the establishment, true to Rock & Roll roots. President Nawaz Sharif banned the group for singing against government corruption. Yet for it's unapologetic political stance, the band skyrocketed to fame across South Asia.
Mekaal Hasan, a few years Ali’s junior, is more academic about his music than Ali. He went to Boston for two years to study theory and composition at the Berklee College of Music. But returning to Pakistan, he too underwent the same change as Ali, from a wholly Western style of music -- in Mekaal’s case it was jazz -- to an understanding of the power of cross-composing Eastern and Western styles.
“There is no difference,” says Mekaal. “That’s what you come to realize.” He says the composition structures are remarkably similar, and that East can meet West in new and surprising ways through music. At a time when misconceptions about the “Other” plague Americans and Pakistanis alike, he is convinced musical collaboration can bridge the divide. Ali jokingly sings "bin Laden blues" while Mekaal explains how Western riffs can energize Sufi devotional poetry, and poetry can add a profound depth to the wail of a guitar.
The music metaphor for improved East-West relations doesn’t escape Mekaal as he tells me “music is the greatest source of joy here” and there are so many connections between America and Pakistan through music as long as we can “explode misconceptions…and pull the connections out.”