While Sufi music originated over 700 years ago, it was only commercially recognized as a genre in the mid-to-late 1970s when the world started to pay attention to it. Just a few years earlier, in the West, rock music, too, had become widely popular, first in the United States and later internationally.
Now you may be wondering what these two distinct but equally moving music genres have to do with one another.
In the 1990s, a fusion of East and West released South Asia’s answer to what happens when one combines rock music and Sufi music.
In short, the genre of Sufi rock was formed – a sound that is impossible to forget.
What is Sufi Rock?
Sufi rock is a musical subgenre that combines the rock and Sufi devotional music. This fusion combines traditional rock music formats with classical Sufi folk music and poetry.
The result is bands that comprise rock-orientated musicians, like a keyboardist and a guitarist, with classic Sufi instruments, like sitars and tablas.
The images and lyrics in Sufi rock music have their roots in Sufi poetry and folk traditions.
The Rise of Sufi Rock
Sufi rock became popular in the early 1990s when the genre was first introduced in Pakistan by the pioneer band Junoon. By the late 1990s, it became widely popular in India and Turkey as well as in Pakistan and would soon become known to the world.
The writer Nadeem Paracha came up with the term “Sufi rock” to describe the Junoon band’s sound. The blending of Eastern and Western music traditions shot Junoon to popularity, and by 1997 they were touring internationally, thereby introducing Sufi music to the world.
Popular Sufi Rock Bands
Sufi rock music remains popular with audiences today. Songs and albums are listened to all over the globe, and musicians like Junoon and Zeb and Haniya are two of the successful bands synonymous with Sufi rock.
Junoon was formed in 1990 by Salman Ahmad. Born in Pakistan, he moved to New York with his parents at age eleven. Here, he learned to love rock music, with his introduction to the genre coming via a Led Zeppelin concert. Shortly after this, he purchased his first electric guitar.
While living in the US, Ahmad befriended Brian O’Connell, an aspiring bass player. Ahmad and O’Connell formed a band at a young age, but this was disrupted by Ahmad’s family’s return to Pakistan in 1981.
In 1987, Ahmad joined the popular Pakistani band Vital Signs. Although successful, Ahmad chose to leave the band in 1990, founding Junoon with another ex-Vital Signs member Nusrat Hussain. They released one album together before parting ways.
Ahmad then contacted O’Connell, his old-time friend, who traveled across the world to join Junoon. The band quickly got to work recording their second and third albums.
Before long, Junoon started to attract the attention of the public. One reason for this was that their music was politically influenced, with some songs being censored or banned altogether. A single of their third album, Jazba-e-Junoon, was the official song of the 1996 Cricket World Cup.
The success of their third album saw them tour the United States, Canada, and India and solidified the popularity of Sufi rock music.
With songs in both Urdu and English, the musical style of Junoon combines rock guitar riffs with the serenity and tranquility of Sufi folk music and poetry.
To date, the band has released eight studio albums. Junoon disbanded in 2005, briefly reuniting at times throughout the next few years, but had a formal reunion in 2016. Ahmad and O’Connell, who still serve as lead guitarist and bass player, have relocated to New York.
Zeb and Haniya
Another notable and successful Sufi rock band is the duo (and cousins) Zeb and Haniya, active between 2007 and 2014.
Their musical style can be described as an eclectic mix of folk, blues, and alternative pop music. As females, they set a new standard in the music world with their unique and original Sufi-inspired tunes.
Although they only released one studio album, they toured worldwide, popular across numerous demographics. They also recorded singles for Pakistan’s Coke Studio on three separate occasions.
Sufi Rock Music Today
Sufi Rock is still popular among South Asia’s youth today. The fusion of rock music with Sufi poetry and imagery has become a hallmark of contemporary qawwali music. It cannot be overlooked as an essential part of qawwali music’s history.