The story of Junaid Jamshed’s public life begins with one air crash and ends with another. The August 1988 air crash in Bahawalpur that killed Pakistan’s military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq was widely hailed in Pakistan as the end of an era when religious obscurantism reigned supreme. Though the roots of obscurantism turned out to be deeper than many had thought, Zia’s death did spark a brief era of intellectual liberation which encouraged the performing arts to come out from their underground existence. The group Vital Signs, of which Junaid Jamshed was lead singer, released their first album in 1989 and the band remain one of the most recognisable symbols of that era. But when Jamshed died on Wednesday, aged 52, he had transformed into a religious icon who shunned music and Western clothing, and used his cult to preach Islam worldwide. Some say that Jamshed had sought the limelight, and when his music stopped inspiring people, he donned the garb of a star preacher. Others refuse to doubt his sincerity, saying his transformation had more to do with his personal circumstances and faith.
Back in 1980, an Indian music composer, Biddu, had teamed up with a London-based Pakistani singer, Nazia Hasan, to produce what can be called the first-ever Western-pop song in South Asia, Aap Jaisa Koi. The song became a major hit and inspired many new-generation musicians in Pakistan to start underground bands. Junaid Jamshed was one of them. During the mid-1980s, he and the band would often perform at college and university functions in Lahore, where he studied engineering, or in Peshawar where his father, an officer in the Pakistan Air Force, had been posted. In 1987, it released Dil Dil Pakistan, the first indigenous Pakistani Western-pop single ever. It featured on Pakistani television and was well received, but it wasn’t until the plane crash that killed Gen Zia that Vital Signs, and the musical scene they inspired, began to flourish. This widened in the wake of Zia’s death, when broadcast policy softened. Vital Signs released their debut album in 1989 and a national TV feature was commissioned based on the album. A succession of pop and rock bands followed through the 1990s – some brilliant, some mediocre. The trend also touched trained singers from traditional families of musicians who experimented with fusing local and Western music, raising the stakes for creativity in an increasingly competitive environment.
Like many musicians, Jamshed’s success waned with time. Subsequent albums did not do well, and by the end of the 1990s his personal and commercial popularity was fading, which he took as “a source of pain and frustration”, according to Sonya Fatah, a Delhi-based writer and film-maker from Karachi who interviewed him in 2012. Some of Jamshed’s acquaintances suggest that he was also frustrated during a failed tour of Europe after the 9/11 attacks, in which he and his band members faced questions over Pakistan’s cultural values and tolerance of militants. By 2003, according to Sonya Fatah, he was “struggling with his identity as a musician, both because of the changing music landscape… and his confusion over his belief system”. He told her: “Once I got into music, [my religious values] all got washed away… I had lost the concept of humility; I had lost a connection with Allah.” In his new avatar, Jamshed emerged as a preacher and proselytizer as well as a shalwar-kurta fashion designer and charity worker. He later became a close confidante of Maulana Jamil, a charismatic orator who heads the Tablighi Jamaat, a global Islamic missionary movement that proselytizes non-Muslims and encourages Muslims to adhere to religious rituals and an Islamic dress code. He was known to repeatedly attempt to persuade old friends from the music world to become missionaries.
A sincere man
Jamshed travelled the world, first as a musician, and then as an Islamic missionary. Friends and former colleagues paid tribute to him when news of the crash broke. “He was a wonderful man; good looking, well meaning, and a friend of friends,” said Salman Ahmed, the lead guitarist of Vital Signs, who later founded Pakistan’s first authentic hard rock band, Junoon. Ali Azmat, also a friend of Junaid and former lead vocalist of Junoon, said in a statement that Jamshed was a sincere man in whatever he did, including his business, which he used to promote traditional dressing and his missionary work. “We would meet up sometimes, for dinner or over a cup of tea,” said Azmat. “Every time he would emphasise the importance of religious work and would ask me to join him. Every time I would refuse, but he never took it to heart. “He was open to the idea that we could ideologically differ and still be friends.” Junaid Jamshed became one of the brightest stars of the liberating era of late 1980s Pakistan, and later one of the country’s most prominent religious preachers. His death will be mourned by family, friends, fans and religious figures alike.