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Verslag 17 juni: Opening of the Mundial Festival with Salman Ahmad and Leo Blokhuis

Festival Mundial opened its 24th edition, together with Het Wereldpodium, with an in-depth interview with Pakistani-American Rock Star Salman Ahmad and his wife Samina. The Dutch ‘Pop professor’ Leo Blokhuis led the audience through music clips by a dozen musicians who tried to change the world. ‘Not the texts of their songs changed the world; their personality as musicians brought change’.


Before June 2011, the Pakistani-American rock star Salman Ahmad was more or less unknown in the North-Western part of continental Europe. Since that month, Mr. Ahmad and his percussion player Sunny Jain entered the hearts and minds of many visitors of the Festival Mundial.

This festival, focussing on World Music, is one of the largest in the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg). The Festival opened on Friday June 17th with an extended interview with Mr. Ahmad, who has recently published his autobiography Rock & Roll Jihad and a cd going by the same title. Two days later, Salman Ahmad and percussionist SunnyJain performed on the Here be Dragons Stage at Festival Mundial. This year, Mundial attracted about 45,000 visitors.

The opening of Festival Mundial took place in ‘Villa the Four Seasons’, a fine mansion in the centre of Tilburg. The event was visited by 120 representatives from the national, regional and local government, as well as representatives from the cultural sector and development NGOs. None of them knew who Salman Ahmad was, but after the interview many recognized this as an omission in their knowledge of World Music in general and in their knowledge of music from the Indian subcontinent in particular.

There is a lot to say about Salman Ahmad. Born in 1963 in Lahore, Pakistan, he moved to New York as a schoolboy. In 1977, he visited a Led Zeppelin concert where he discovered the power of music and decided to become a guitar player. Returning to Pakistan in the eighties, Ahmad tried to cope with the dictatorship of president Zia ul Haq and the emerging power of radical students called the Taliban. After becoming a member of the national cricket team, followed by graduating as a medical doctor, Salman Ahmad rediscovered the guitar during a cricket match in Bangladesh. He became one of Pakistan’s most well-known musicians at the time of the presidency of Mrs. Benazir Bhutto.

Nowadays, Salman Ahmad is a living legend who has sold tens of millions of cd’s all over South Asia, in including India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy. He is a U.N. HIV/Aids goodwill ambassador, was invited by world leaders like Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, performed together with Melissa Etheridge, Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel, starred in BBC and CNN documentaries, is currently a college professor in New York and published a well-written autobiography called Rock & Roll Jihad.

‘Why did you include the word ‘Jihad’ in the title of your book?, interviewer Ralf Bodelier asked Ahmad: ‘Jihad is a word that frightens many people in the West. They think about beheadings, killing infidels and Nine Eleven’. Mr. Ahmad shook his head: ‘This picture of Jihad is totally wrong and I would like to change it’, he answered. ‘Jihad is nót synonymous with war or violence. Most Muslims reject the violent approach and stress a non-militant connotation of the word. In fact, Jihad means promoting peace, harmony, tolerance and assistance of other people, no matter who they are, where they live, or what they believe in’.

While the audience listens in utter concentration, Salman Ahmad elaborates on his ideas about Islam, rock & roll music, dialogue, and ‘oneness in diversity’.

‘Listening to each other’s music’, he states, ‘is learning to look at the world through a new lens. Listening to music is seeing with the heart. Music makes all the masks fall down and shows the divine beauty of the other person.’

But music, and culture in general, is vulnerable, Mr. Ahmad realizes. In the past years, life in his home country Pakistan has turned into a horror movie. Moving away from Afghanistan and the rural Swat Valley in the northern part of the country, the Taliban is gaining more influence in mainstream Pakistan. They silence music, close schools, destroy movie theatres, kill dissenters, and flog girls for consorting with men. To Salman Ahmad, the Taliban, and the encompassing movement of Wahabi-islam, are not just opposed by the Western World. It is also contrary to traditional Islam, which is strongly influenced by the tolerant and open tradition of Sufism. ‘Believe me; the majority of all Pakistanis want to grow fragrant flowers, while the extremists only sow evil weeds. If we, ordinary Pakistanis, do not unite and reject their vision of hatred and violence, the Taliban will strengthen and flourish’.

Music is key to Mr. Ahmad. Together with education, music will provide common ground for a journey of light through darkness, extremism, and dictatorship. Because of this, he tries to bring people, cultures and influences together. Interviewer Ralf Bodelier inquires how different kinds of music can influence each other in a quest for common ground. His question is illustrated with movie clips of the 1977 Led Zeppelin rock concert and a concert of the Pakistani Qawwali-singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Mr. Ahmad takes up his guitar twice, and, accompanied by Dhol-player Sunny Jain, shows the audience what it means to blend oriental and occidental musical styles.

In the eighties, Salman Ahmad met his wife, muse and manager Samina. Dr. Samina Ahmad is a medical doctor too. Besides raising their three children, Samina manages her husband’s music business and hosts popular tv-programs in the USA on healthy cooking, family issues and nutrition. The couple also launched the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative, an NGO that tries to bring people together through music, media and advocacy. Samina Ahmad tells the audience about the necessity of taking care for each other, of increasing awareness of global issues and breaking down cultural boundaries.

Leo Blokhuis, a well-known connoisseur of pop music, leads the final part of the session. He takes the audience through the contemporary history of musicians who have tried to change the world they live in, from Pete Seeger to Rage against the Machine. Mr. Blokhuis states that it is not the texts of these bands that will change the world; it’s the identification with a singer or bandleader that revolutionises everything. ‘Of course, it was important that white musicians like Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan addressed the discrimination against blacks. More important were Fats Domino or Bob Marley plus the white boys and girls from Texas and Virginia who identified with them. The moment they replaced posters Jerry Lee Lewis posters with Sam Cooke’s, change set in’.

Salman Ahmad nods his head. He agrees. Although it’s not only the musician who makes the change, it’s still the music that enlightens our hearts.

Photography: Anjes Gesink www.anjes.nl
Text: Het Wereldpodium



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