The last time I met Ali Azmat was back in 2000. So he made it a point to tell his audience (in his hyperactive talk show, Pappu Yaar), that “the moment Junoon got signed by Coke, this guy stopped meeting me.”
The truth is that the whole idea of a band like Junoon falling prey to unabashed corporate dictates so easily did play a detrimental role, but it wasn’t just Coke that broke my “ideological” link with Junoon. A link cultivated in 1991 to bring a sense of protest and some good old fashioned rebellion in the foundation of the Pakistani rock and pop scene. At least this is how Salman Ahmed and I looked at things during the many frantic meetings we had during those initial years of the volatile band.
Well, it was all groovy until 1999. Because to me Junoon died as soon as fond memories of the band’s last great album, Parvaaz (1999), faded into the worn-out Sufi-rock indulgence of Ishq (2001) and eventually culminated in the dreadful, Deewar (2004).
After 1999, it was apparent Salman Ahmed’s ever-changing ideological leanings (or rather, their withering away at the earliest call of the mighty cola), were tiring out whatever creative and ideological steam was left in the band. Junoon had started its decisive slip into becoming nothing more than a cynical, Cola-rich cash cow. Increasingly, the band seemed to look and behave like a sad, bloated parody of its past glory.
However, it was good to see Ali Azmat rebound with all of his obvious talents intact on his debut solo effort, Social Circus (2005). It was even better meeting him after all these years and getting into a long talk akin to the ones I used to have with him so many years ago.
Alive he cried
Ali hasn’t changed. He still comes across as the pure hearted, big-mouthed teen I first encountered in 1990. The only difference is that his jumpy presence and that unabashed penchant to play out his thoughts and emotions like an energetic, unrestrained jester are now tinged with a slight but obvious strain of all-round skepticism.
I told him how when I wrote about the eventuality of Junoon’s break up in 2004, many of the band’s hardcore fans fired a series of non-stop emails, calling me all sorts of things. Even early last year while talking to a local weekly, Salman Ahmed rubbished my claim (that Junoon have disbanded), telling the interviewer “NFP can dream on.”
Therefore, I asked Ali whether he would like to go on record explaining me the real status of the band today.
“Gladly,” he said. “It (Junoon) is over. It is gone. It’s history!”
But I told him, Salman Ahmed thinks otherwise.
“Of course he does,” he said. “Junoon became a cash cow. Nobody wants to let go of a cash cow.”
NFP: When did you tell Salman about your intentions to quit Junoon?
Ali: It was pretty apparent when we were recording Deewar. All we did was argue. Later on, we stopped talking at all. Even during concerts, we were not seeing eye to eye. That’s when I realized Junoon had reached its limits.
NFP: Is that why Salman had to sing on a few songs on Deewar?
Ali: He was dying to sing them. And worse of all, it became very embarrassing when he started to sing these songs on stage during concerts. Allllvidaaaahhh… (Impersonates Salman singing).
NFP: I remember back in 1992 while I was with you guys in Lahore, and you were late for a concert, Salman angrily told me how he wished he could sing …
Ali: Salman always wanted to be in the limelight …
NFP: Yes, but in those days at least he was aware that he could not sing. Anyways, to me Junoon folded in 2000. Did you see enough hope to hang on to the name for another four years (till 2004′s Deewar)?
Ali: The last few years were rather troublesome. Brian left …
NFP: Fired, you mean?
Ali: He went into severe depression. I tried to help him out. I was always there for him. But a time came when I told him to better clean-up his act. He was destroying himself; just couldn’t cope anymore. He had to leave. Leave the country. He’s much better now.
NFP: What else?
Ali: Salman’s talent of getting the best out of me became a negative trait. In the end he just wanted to suck the energy and ideas out of me so he could continue to bask in the limelight of Junoon. To me Junoon became a bad joke. A waste of time. I just had to strike out and do my own thing. I worked really hard on my solo album. I wanted to prove myself that I could survive as an artist outside Junoon.
NFP: That you have. But I always believed you should have opted out many years ago.
Ali: Perhaps. There are some people who think that the reason I am expanding my reach as an artist is because I am in some sort of a race with Salman. That’s bulls**t! I also get mail from many Junoon fans blaming me of breaking Junoon …
NFP: Well, did you?
Ali: Of course I did! I had to. And I don’t care what these fans think of that. I’m not willing to play the same damn songs over and over again for an aging band that has lost all inspiration to do something new. It became stale. I’m having a great time with my recent band. They are full of energy, ideas and passion.
NFP: What Junoon used to be like many years ago. But tell me Ali, even though your solo album was critically acclaimed, you have been criticised for modeling for some pretty cheesy TV commercials.
Ali: Yes, it’s not such a wonderful thing. But in this country for a musician it has become a necessary evil. How else can I survive? We don’t get any royalty money from the sale of our albums, concert organizers want you to play for peanuts, and TV channels want us to play whole sets without giving us any money at all.
NFP: Most of those TV concerts are sponsored, right?
Ali: Yes, but the channels get all the money!
NFP: So you decided to form a union.
Ali: Everybody got excited by the idea. All of them wanted to join. They all agreed with what I was saying about the way we are being exploited. A few months down the road, only a handful of them are ready to take some action. Till even today, they are not even willing to send in photocopies of their ID cards. They are giving me lame excuses: Oh, yaar, our sponsors will get angry; oh, we will lose out getting coverage on TV, etc. For heaven’s sake, I even corresponded with the President on the union’s behalf! On their behalf!
NFP: So the union’s out, then…
Ali: I’ll do whatever I can for the betterment of the scene. Because it’s my betterment as well. Do you think I enjoy doing all those idiotic ads! I do not have a cash cow called Junoon anymore. I’m all on my own. But I am loving every bit of it. I have started to enjoy making music again. I am pleased with this TV show I have (Pappu Yaar). I am the sort of man who wants to continue reinventing himself.
NFP: Shouldn’t the reinvention be an extension of what Ali Azmat has always stood for?
Ali: It is.
NFP: I don’t think so. Because where does that passionate, conscientious musician go when we see the same guy in an Arab dress selling McKoftas?
Ali: I refuse to appear as Ali Azmat in ads. I want to play a different role. That’s Ali Azmat playing a different role all together. Whenever agencies contact me for an ad, I tell them I will not appear as Ali Azmat the musician.
NFP: But Ali Azmat the model? I don’t think Ali Azmat can ever be a model. He’s too talented for all that hogwash.
Ali: Listen, I may not have always agreed with you on the matter of corporate sponsorship in music, but I have respected your tenacity. If I want I can be making hell of a lot of money doing dozens of ads! But I don’t. I did those two ads (McKofta and Sony Ericsson), because my professional and domestic obligations required me to get hold of that money. I don’t take them seriously and so shouldn’t you or anybody else.
NFP: I don’t. As long as they are not treated as an artistic extension of Ali Azmat the musician.
Ali: They are not. They are just Ali Azmat playing a different role.
NFP: So why doesn’t that Ali Azmat play a role that is closer to his heart, mind and talent?
Ali: Him you can hear on his album. And on the next one.
NFP: When is the new album coming out?
Ali: Soon. I’ve recorded some songs. Five of them are in English, which I am putting on a demo for a foreign label.
NFP: Some pretty big names were involved in the union you were making.
Ali: I’ll just say how disappointed I am with their attitude, apathy and lameness.
NFP: Some causes need sacrificial lambs to get going. Maybe they see you as being that lamb?
Ali: I’m not afraid. I’ll go on doing my own thing.
NFP: What about Salman. Do you see him continuing Junoon with some other vocalist.
Ali: (Laughs) Well, if he does, good luck to him. But as far as I am concerned Junoon is over and done with.
NFP: Your decision to quit must have really ticked him off.
Ali: Like hell it did! But we had started to have serious disagreements even when the band was there. I just hated the direction he was taking. He wanted Junoon to take that direction too. It became a circus in which Salman Ahmed always wanted to be the centre of attraction. The hype that was created around us when we struck gold in India started to go to his head.
NFP: He started to believe the hype.
Ali: I don’t know what he started to believe in. Maybe he thought Junoon was just him, him and him.
NFP: That’s quite like Salman, isn’t it? Ali it was great talking to you again. And I am really looking forward to your next album.
Ali: I’m glad you are. Great talking to as well. So, until next time then.
After completing a hectic two-hour schedule of recording Pappu Yaar in which Ali Noor and I were his guests, Ali was up and about to record yet another episode. He said he has to finish recording as many episodes as possible so he could go back to recording his second solo album.
Over the years, he may have become a tad cynical about a lot of things, but the good news is, I found him to be as funny, with his raw, earthly brand of humor, and as energetic as I did when many years ago, I first came across this uninhibited, highly individualistic talent ready to be tapped and explode.
The explosion ain’t over yet.