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.