Salman Ahmad & Farid Ayaz Bring Sufi Music to Stanford
By Ras H. Siddiqui

L to R: Salman Ahmad, Farid Ayaz, Jay Dittamo and John Alec

Stanford University is amongst the elite centers of learning in the world. It is well known for its centers of excellence in the sciences, business, and the humanities and can boast of alumni that have certainly made their mark throughout the world. Its Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace has impacted or influenced US domestic and foreign policy for decades. And as the recent week-long Pan-Asian Music Festival 2006 South Asia (Jingdong Cai Artistic Director) running from February 11th through the 18th concludes, one is convinced as to why the International outreach potential of Stanford campus programs (in this case the Department of Music and the Asian Religions & Cultures (ARC) Initiative) can never be underestimated.

One of the co-sponsors of this event was the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, a source of pride for the Pakistani-American community here, as some of its members came from as far away as Sacramento to participate in this presentation of South Asian Sufi music with Qawwali (a Muslim Gospel) sung by Farid Ayaz (and ensemble) and a fusion of South Asian mysticism and good old fashioned western Rock and Roll presented by Junooni Salman Ahmad and his band.
The series of events that highlighted South Asian culture started off with a four hour long program on Sufi Music on February 11th which discussed at length the South Asian Qawwali art form at the Braun Music Center. It was followed by the showing of the movie “The Rock Star and the Mullahs” and a discussion on it with Pakistani-New Yorker and Rock musician, Salman Ahmad who makes a serious attempt to explain the place of music in Islamic culture in the film.

Stanford’s Linda Hess and Professor Robert Gregg with Salman

Salman Ahmad with Sohaib and Sara

On Sunday the debate on Music and Islam continued at the Stanford Humanities Center, in Levinthal Hall which was followed by a Qawwali Concert by Farid Ayaz and Ensemble from Pakistan at the Dinkelspiel Auditorium on campus. Farid Ayaz is currently amongst some of the best practitioners of the Qawwali art form, one which concentrates a great deal of its energy on appreciating the one God and his Prophet. Few musical instruments are used, as the main medium is the singer’s voice, a harmonium, tabla and the rhythmic clapping of the hands in the background. For those that have had a chance to experience the fallout from a well-done Qawwali performance, a feeling of abandonment to God or ecstasy has often described. The Server of the Spirits or “Saqi” is often called upon in the South Asian Qawwalis and one can only speculate as to how many people experienced the sight, the sounds and the potent elixir combination poured by the Saqi at this performance by Farid Ayaz and his group at Stanford.

The Monday night Sufi Rock Performance of Salman Ahmad and Junooni was more than moving. Salman is one of the best-known Pakistani-South Asian Rockers in the world. Not only did his band “Junoon” or “Passion” (bordering on craziness) start a friendship movement between the youth of India and Pakistan long before it gained today’s acceptance, but the band in general and Salman in particular have always stayed close to societal issues that few others in Pakistan would touch, such as AIDS awareness, people with special needs and raising a musical voice against corruption. “Junooni” is the closest thing to the band Junoon’s American reincarnation. The first CD produced from Salman’s New York based effort is called “Infiniti” which was released recently and received some good reviews (Please visit for details).
Not unlike Qawwali, Rock too is best experienced by listening to it live. It is the aura of the performer, the stage magic if you will, that adds to the joy. In Salman Ahmad’s case, the Dinkelspiel Auditorium’s fine acoustics, his calm confidence and humor along with his closeness to the lead guitar strings brought the mystical East and the wild West close together. Assisted on Bass by John Alec and Jay Dittamo on drums, this was a fan of mystical Rock’s dream concert. The audience was superb. Establishing the mood with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s famous “Allah Hoo” and the Punjabi “Heeray,” Salman went into the ballad that conquered Indian hearts in 1998 called “Sayonee.”

Two groups of the audience in a visible state of ecstasy

He talked about Junoon’s collection/album “Azadi” (Freedom) and their first visit to India while not knowing what to expect. He recalled the sendoff they received in Pakistan where a large number of friends and family members of the band came armed with autograph books and requests for autographs of Indian actors and actresses. He also recalled the warm welcome that India’s performers gave the band and shared the humor of the time when they felt that it was proper to pull out those autograph books, it was some famous Indians who pulled out their own books and started asking for their (Junoon’s) autographs.
The theme of peace between people and countries was ever present in Salman’s performance. In a tribute to the late John Lennon, Salman and company presented a beautiful “Imagine” for the audience to reflect upon. And following John Lennon’s work, Salman presented the words of Punjabi saint and poet Baba Bulleh Shah that essentially echoed the same message, in a different language and more than a century earlier.
The words of Baba Bulleh Shah and an invitation from Salman brought Qawwal Farid Ayaz to the stage. In praise of the talents of the “Young Man” as he referred to Salman, he sang a couple of notes as Salman kept up with him musically on the guitar. It was certainly a sight to see. The old art of Qawwali and Rock and Roll sharing the same stage produced a moment that would have made the Sufi musicians of South Asia proud as some in the Stanford audience by now were close to “haal” (ecstasy).

Farid Ayaz and Ras Siddiqui

The song “Mast Qalandar” is the epitome of the Sufic influence in Pakistani music. Just about everyone has sung it with his own twist. Salman gave it his Rock addition, a New York meets Pakistan version as those hangers that had thus far refused to dance were also seen swaying to this music, including many that did not understand the words. It reminded this writer of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s last performance in Berkeley a number of years ago. Not since then have we witnessed such a successful Pakistani crossover effort as Asians, Caucasians, Indians, Pakistanis, Muslims and non-Muslims, young and old (even a few Stanford faculty members?) were moved enough to dance or sway together to the mystical Junooni music.
Three encores later with “Tu Lang Ja” (You move on), “Dosti” (Friendship) and once again “Sayonee,” the satisfied crowd finally began to disperse. Sara and Sohaib Abbasi who provided the program in Islamic Studies endowment funding at Stanford, along with some members of the faculty stayed to greet Salman along with many autograph-seeking fans.
Those who could not attend Stanford University’s Pan-Asian Music Festival South Asia 2006 missed a great deal. The tribute to A. R. Rahman on Valentines Day was a big event which was attended by a very diverse audience including Salman. The concerts later in the week concluding with a performance by the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jindong Cai which incorporated the work of Naresh Sohal in the North American Premiere of “Song of Five Rivers.”
In conclusion one needs to congratulate Festival Associate Director Linda Hess and all the other organizers involved in making such a memorable week possible. In these frequent times of trouble in the world, it is good to note that music can still be a bridge between cultures and helps to promote better understanding between people. And if John Lennon and Baba Bulleh Shah could communicate the same message of universal brotherhood to us across a gap of cultures, continents and centuries, why can’t we at least attempt to learn something about overcoming our differences from them today?



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.