Bulleya: Who am I?

My dear friend Adil posted a wonderful note on his blog about Bulleh Shah and this generation’s re-discovery of his beautiful poetry. Very rightly, he gives credit to Sufi rock band Junoon, my favorite, for making my generation reconnect with this magnificent work. Junoon’s rendition of Bulleya wasn’t the first attempt by Junoon to introduce sufi poetry (and sufi philosophy) to a generation of Pakistanis that was addicted to rock music, but it signified a crystalization of Junoon’s vision and passion. Baba Bulleh Shah had a message that Junoon was, at that time in history, in the best position to deliver. Regular readers of my blog probably already know about my passion for Junoon so no need to repeat that – but I do want to say something about Junoon’s rendition of Bulleya, given a new rendition has come out by Indian singer Rabbi Shergill.

Adil seems to think that Shergill did a better job of conveying the passion of Bulleya than Ali Azmat, but I disagree. Don’t get me wrong – Shergill is a wonderful singer and has done a wonderful job of singing Bulleh Shah. Our difference of opinion may reside in his better appreciation of the traditional and classical renditions of sufi poetry, while my musical sense is still firmly centered around rock music. I believe that Junoon did a fascinating job of not just presenting Bulleh Shah to a new audience, but in the process Junoon invented a way for a whole generation of young people to be able to peer into sufi music, and the mysticism that it represented, that simply did not exist. The short, crisp and penetrating guitar riffs from Salman in Junoon’s version, along with Ali’s passionate and fiery but at the same time almost angry voice, provokes the listener to focus on not just the words, but on the feelings that reverberate through a body that finds itself in sync with the harmonics of sounds reaching its ear drums. When I first heard Junoon’s version of Bulleya, I did not understand most of the words, but the passion I felt for the tune was deeper than much else I had listened to before. The song questioned my identity, the identity of all else that was always presented in the society I grew up in as the only truth, and it presented an invitation for me to step outside the box to discover who I, as a human and as an individual, stood for.

I remember clearly that one evening in Karachi more than a decade ago when I was caught listening to this song while torrential monsoon rain rang a drum beat on the streets of Karachi. I suddenly, and really quite surprisingly, found myself asking what my priorities were in life. This was quite a moment for me as I had recently left my country, my family and everything that was so familiar and easy for me to move to a new country furthest away from home and to be on my own. Nothing I had learnt in religion or school had prepared me to answer that question and here I was, in many ways, already on my own not knowing who I was and what I wanted to be. As I listened to Junoon’s song again and again that evening, I realized that yes, while I had little clue as to who I really was, and was unable to find any identity box to place myself into, there was nothing wrong with me, and that what I really was, was a little bit of everything. As Junoon sang

Water nor dust are neither what makes me
I am not flame. I am not wind
I am not pure. I am not vile
I’m no Moses and I’m no Pharoah
But, Bulleh, who is it that I am?
Bulleya, who am I?

I questioned, but then heard an answer that rang true:

First and last, I see the self
I recognize no second to it
No one is more knowing than me

In a small way, the realization that for me to be anything, I had to know myself first, and that nobody else was supposed to know me better than myself, was amazingly empowering. It was no declaration of independence of a confused teenager, but it did sound a call of freedom for me. It was an internalization of the belief that I was a citizen of the world; that I did not deserve to be judged or judge anyone else with lenses that are often too simplistic, or more often than not prejudiced.

Well, Junoon did it for me then, and everytime I listen to it, does so again. I have been to many Junoon concerts. I have organized more than a handful of them myself, and I have hung out with Junoon (yes, they kick ass in real life as well). They are not much of a mystery, but what sets them apart is that they know their music and they are passionate about the message that their music delivers. As a band, or as individual musicians, they have a finger on the pulse of the generation that grew up in the 80s and 90s. Adil hoped in his blog that they (Junoon and all singers who have sung Baba Bulleh Shah’s music) are thankful to the great mystic poet. Knowing Ali, Salman, Brian and some others who have played with them, I feel strongly that they really are thankful – to Bulleh Shah and to all other mystic influences on their lives and their music. Ofcourse, they are also thankful to their fans. But I am sure they know well how much some of their fans are thankful to them for bringing Bulleh Shah to life again. Thanks, guys! And keep it up. Infiniti or Social Circus, the Junoon/the passion lives on!

Below is Junoon’s rendition of Bulleya and then Shergill’s. Both are great works. Make up your own mind whose version you like more. Try sampling more of Junoon’s great music at: http://www.junoon.com. Luckily for me, my ipod has this song, and as I drive through Swiss streets, I will make sure I play it today.




8 Responses to Bulleya: Who am I?

  1. Adil Najam says:

    Bilal, which version we like is a matter of personal taste so there is no wrong or right (I actually prefer some of the more traditional renditions to both these versions.) My point, as you rightly say, is to thank both Junoon and Rabbi for doing what they did (bring new sensibilities to Bulleh Shah) and to invite other to look at the rest of Bulleh Shah’s work which is equally or more powerful.

    On the song, as a matter of personal opinion, I do like the Rabbi version better because I think he is not pretentious about it. The music does not distract from the words, and he recites the verses simply putting in the emphasis at the right places and lets the words do the magic (rather than the interpretation). Also, in the Junoon version, I thought they sang it as if Bulleh Shah was TELLING us all the things he is, rather than PONDERING in self-inspection, what his essence might be. Moreover, I thought the Junoon version was needlessly angry. I do not find anger in these words, I find desperation, a plea for self-inquiry, a quest for one’s own essence. I do think that the Junoon video is nicer (although even less relevant to the words).

    But all of this is to explain why I like Rabbi’s version better. Even though I think they are both interesting. I must also say that I do believe that each singer has the right to interpret the song as they wish… the song then belongs to them and not just the poet… my reason for liking Rabbi is that the interpretation imbedded in his rendition is closer to my own reading of the words…. in essence, to each their own… as long as this gets people back to Baba Bullay, I am happy.

  2. I for one think the Junoon version is simply infallible. Rabbi maybe good, but then again, hes no Ali Azmat, and when you have him and Salman’s powerful song composition, the heavy riffing, Brian’s hearty bass patterns, you get Bulleya, a song that made me a Junooni for life! Theres layers of music in the Junoon version, which makes it a powerful song with an important message, which is what Junoonism is all about. Furthermore, as with the entire album Parvaaz, the sound was just unique, and I would rate the album as the best piece of work that ever came out of the sub-continent. One thing I do not appreciate about the Rabbi version is that its a little too similar to a Jay-Z feat.

  3. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Khurram (Spock), I guess we agree. Parvaaz stands out among Junoon albums as among their finest. Its still my favorite (ofcourse after the first album Junoon where the Journey began!). Do you know which Jay-z song? That would be fun to look up.

  4. S AHmad says:

    By the way, do you all know that Bullay lifted some of these lyrics from Rumi, tranlating them into Punjabi?!!!

  5. […] Those who know me also know of my liking of Junoon and its band members. I have written about Junoon before (see here and here), and I think there is plenty available online on them for those who wish to read more about them. Junoon is now mostly split between Salman Ahmad and Ali Azmat, both pursuing their solo careers. […]

  6. PRABHU SINGH says:

    junoon’s version is definitely more fiery…….

    If one is looking for inspiration and soul-fire…….listen to junoon…….Ali Azmat’s vocals are soul-stirring…….the guitars by Salman are great too……the bass by Brian is simply phenom…….i think his baselinings define Junoon’s music…….the percussion on drums and tabla is too good….in the end it was one fiery spiritual mystical thought…..brought out beautifully….

    Coming to Rabbi…..
    He has brought it out in a totally different context…….a more devotional feel……The techno has been used amazingly to a devotional song…….
    and i think his version is more subtle and simplistic and thats why it connects more readily with the Indian audience.
    The video brings out the song even better…..and the mass took to it because mainstream society is totally barren of spiritualistic feel…….we needed it real bad…..and the guy delivered it real well……

    From a rock point of view….Junoon’s Bulleya well…rocks!!
    I think they needed a real good video to back the song up……and songs like these which are inspired by the ages….should document the history of the verse and the movement………..

    Sufism is an amazing spiritual concept and fits in perfectly with the young generation…….

    If music is a medium of bridging differences……its songs like these……which really send the message of spiritualism,tolerence and commonality…….


  7. Mehr Gulzar says:

    I really dont understand the idea of comparing different versions of a song. Music has no barrier whatever version v should acknowledge the effort and appreaciate the work!

  8. Kartik says:

    Okay you posted this long back, but I couldnt leave the post without you showing this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOriUKHfnrs
    A beautiful rendition of Bulleya at Coke Studio.


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