Behind The Curtains - With Salman Ahmad [Interview]

Dr. Salman Ahmad
by Moeed Ahmed, Taroob Latef, Laiba Khalid, Unsa Athar, M. Junaid Alvi

Master of All Trades, Jack of None
Doctor. Guitarist. Singer. Author. Teacher. Cricketer. Actor. Ambassador. Salman Ahmad has done much and proven more.

Graduate of King Edward (1988) with a “junoon” for music like no other, Salman Ahmad loved Physiology, hated Forensic, used to captain the King Edward cricket team, formed a band at KE “The Doctors’ League” and has almost single-handedly begun the trend of Sufi music in the current era.

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As spontaneous in his wit as he is eccentric in his appearance, Salman Ahmad sent the entire team into peals of laughter with anecdotes from his prof exams, some on record and many off it :P


How come a doctor?
I was 6 years old when my mom said, “Beta ya tou tum doctor ban saktay ho...aur ya tum doctor ban saktay ho.''
My family is made up of doctors. Phupa was a Principal of KE, Prof Dr Abdul Hameed Sheikh and Dr Ismat Anwar, who is my other Phupa was Professor of Surgery there.

Why did you leave medicine?
Yes I graduated from KE because I am a good student and I find it easy to retain but I knew that my junoon was something else. I loved music and cricket. Mein raaton ko so nai sakta tha.

How did you leave medicine?
So when I graduated I gave my parents my degree, skipped housejob and asked them to let me have a year to follow my heart. It was during these 12 months that Dil Dil Pakistan happened. But because I always had that pressure from my mom, I continued to work side by side for medicine. I raised millions of dollars for Imran Khan’s Shaukat Khanum and did countless health related projects to raise money with music. My wife, Samina who is also a doctor has been in these projects with me.

So when did you guys fall in love?
I was in first year. (he said laughing)

The “Bollywood Love Story” of Salman & Samina
(Many would know Samina from the song Azaadi where she was the lead female singer.)
“Mujhay tu daraya hua tha sab ne k Pakistan mein kisi larki se baat kar li tou us k bhai se phainti par jani hai.” One day on my Mamu’s wedding, among some girls sitting at the Dholki was Samina.

Mein tu Junooni hun, the first time I saw her I was like
“Wow...I like Pakistan”.

“Aik dum view har jaga ka change hogaya.” I was 17 years old, when I told my mom I like this girl and she was like are you crazy, you are just infatuated. But I was like no i know myself, I don’t get infatuated. I took my Khala and my mom to Samina’s place. When Samina’s mom saw me with my long hair and all, although bari achi chai shai pilayi unhu ne (he said smiling), she said to my mom “mujhay nai lagta tumhara beta doctor ban sakta hai, agar ban gaya tou hum baat kar saktay hain.” Then onwards it became a challenge for me. Mein kabhi fail nai hua! :P

Although Samina used to make my practical copies for me,
which was a big help.

We both graduated in 1988, she from Allama Iqbal. Mein soch raha hun k mein in key ghar gaya hun tu inko pata tou hoga k mein kaun hun. I wrote her a letter that I put in a blue envelope and said that I don’t know what is the right way to talk to you but this is the only way I can think of.

The punch-line is: Ab usko ye nai pata tha k Salman kaun hai. *facepalm*

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And my mother-in-law, I have never known why, samajh rahi theen k mera naam Mansoor hai (he said laughing and sending the entire team into a fit). So it was a whole confusion at first.

Then I found out that Samina’s elder brother, he is also a graduate from Allama Iqbal and very senior surgeon in America right now, wanted to learn the guitar. He asked me if I could teach him. And then I thought in order to go to this house why don’t I start teaching the brother, but Kim jitna acha surgeon hai utna he wo…(and then he went into peals of laughter). Dunya mein kisi ko bhi guitar sikha saktay hain, siwaye uskay. But to answer your question, haan hum chupkay baatein kartay thay :P We got married right after graduation. Samina is now not only a medical practitioner, but also an Integrated Medicine Health Counsellor.

She is also my manager and it’s because of her that I have great respect for women.
Like they say behind every successful man there is a woman
and...behind every woman there is another...woman!

If you could go back in time, would you still do MBBS?
Thanks to my mom! I am glad that I completed my degree. It provided a semblance, gave discipline to my life and it has helped in numerous places in my life. Also it was during that time, studying embryology and dissecting in the dissection hall I felt my faith strengthen. The Darwinian thinking hai, that it is a happy accident bari bakwas lagi. No child, male or female, chooses the parents, chooses the gender,chooses the religion, chooses the socio-economic group. If you want to feel spirituality, see the human body or the development of anything in nature, caterpillar to a butterfly for instance. There’s so much beauty in the human body, so much perfection. That sent me off on to this spiritual path. Studying all the Physiology, Embryology, Anatomy, Pathology made me the artist I am today.

It was a good thing I became a doctor because my mother-in-law too was like
“Putar doctor banay ga tu shaadi hoge”.

If you had pursued medicine, what specialty would you have picked?
Dil ka doctor. Haha. Just kidding. But I was interested in Cardiology, although I feel I could have been a good Psychiatrist. However, now I have become interested in the brain. I study a lot of books on it. I am not being arrogant but I feel if I make anything my focus, I study it, I work hard on it, I try to understand it. I like studying the theory behind everything. I like rounded individuals.

Was your family supportive of your choice?

When you succeed tu log kahen ge “hamein pehle se hi pata tha,
is mein hamesha talent tha” aur fail hojayo tou kehtay hain
“itna kaha, itna samjhaya, samajh ayi hi nai”.

My mother loves me so in the end she just wanted to be happy. My father, wo sab se zyada khush thay. Because he loved music but his father never allowed him so he kind of enjoyed music through me.

After MBBS opting for full-time music, did the uncertainty not bother you?
For an artist, the uncertainty is the certainty.

Was your wife, Samina, okay with you leaving  a more promising career in medicine to pursue music?
Well, Samina knew who I was before I was famous. She knew where I belonged. So there were no expectations.
I am foolish enough to have seen any pretty girl and maybe even asked to marry her. But thank God that He put Samina in front of me. She understands me.

You are an ambassador for Polio and HIV eradication in Pakistan?
I am working for Rotary International as a goodwill ambassador for Polio eradication and HIV/AIDS. Pakistan is one of the two countries where polio is still endemic. I started working last year in august when we had 300 cases and today we are down to 28. For a country to be declared polio free you have to have 0 cases for 3 years. I am hoping to take Pakistan there by working with all the stakeholders to create awareness.

Favourite cricketer?
AB Devilliers. And from Pakistan, Imran Khan overall and currently, Misbah

What do you do in free time?
Music and read books.

Since when are you supporting PTI?
I’m not a member of PTI. I’m a Pakistani who wants tabdeeli.

What are your expectations from next election?
I believe you can actually change the society without going into politics.
“Be the change you want to see in the world”.
You should become excellent doctor, ethical doctors. When students like you go to America or England, they are amongst the best doctors. My brother in law tells me that he gets utmost respect as a Surgeon in US. If you can excel there why can’t you excel here in your own country? That’s what the real change will be. Ye na kren k saray krte han to ma bhi krun. You be the change that you want to see in Pakistan. I came back to Pakistan for the same reason. I was living a perfect life there but I wondered what was I doing for Pakistan? So I decided to make a difference.

Are you here in Pakistan for good now?
I am travelling all the time but I try to spend maximum time here in Pakistan. My family is in New York.

How do you manage to deliver lectures in Queens College despite such hectic schedule?
They understand that if we eradicate polio from Pakistan , it would be historic and a great opportunity for me. They say I can come back whenever I want.
You’ve spoken in various universities like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, what were those speeches about?
The issue in west are that Islam is misunderstood, Muslims are misunderstood. I am an artist who has done films, television, music, written a book and articles. They want to listen from Muslims who have an alternative point of view, not necessarily religious scholars or politicians but also people from other walks of life. So I always get invited to universities and other forums.

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Why did you choose KE?
It was in my DNA. Haha. My uncle Dr. Abdul Hameed Sheikh was Principal KEMC and another uncle DR. Ismat Anwar was Professor of Surgery. One of my cousins Dr. Shahid Sheikh who is a cardiologist in America was also from KE. I had so many relatives who had gone into KEMC plus i had very good grades when i came to Pakistan so it kind of all worked out.

How was the time spent at KE?
It was a roller coaster ride. Because not only I was studying to become a doctor but at the same time, I was discovering myself as a young person in a very difficult time. I was trying to find out who am I. Jis tarah Bulleh Shah ne kaha hai na Ki jana mai kaun. On one hand, KE provided a solid disciplined atmosphere. All the professors were incredible as well as strict which I think I needed as well. But on the other side, I was a complete malang, junooni who was trying to find his own path. There was a constant tug of war between my heart and my brain.

Your favourite professor at KE?
Dr. Bilquees Jamal Zafar. She was an incredible woman. And everybody was scared of her. She had a great heart. In fact why I liked her was (obviously she was a great teacher and professor) but she loved my music. Haha. She wanted to raise funds for the blood bank, so she said,

Prof Bilquees Jamal Zafar said to us:
''Tum logon ne music play karna hi hai college mae tou fund hi raise kar lo.''

Dr. Naghi, pathologist was also a great teacher.

A very strict teacher that you remember?
Bohat thay. Mai un ki kahanian nai bata sakta. :P

Did you play cricket at KE?
I was the captain of KE cricket team. Ham hamesha Allama Iqbal Medical College ko phainta detay thay.

Did you ever get a supply in prof?
Never. Kyunke incentives bohat baray thay pass honay k liye. (he reminded us laughing)

I was very concept oriented. Shuru mein mujhay substages mein fail kar diya kartay thay. Mujhay samjh nai ata tha. And then one day someone told me k idhar na apko thadyaan likhni hoti hain. If your papers don’t have weight, you are not going to pass.

What kind of events were held at KE at that time?
Chup chupa k. We the first year students organized a talent show off campus. Anyone who knew singing or playing guitar could do so. That’s how it started. When I was in first year, there were two final year students who were such great fast bowlers that they could have easily made the Pakistan team. We used to play cricket in Patiala ground.
When Dr, Bilquees Jamal Zafar started cultural events, we began playing music but only for the sake of raisings funds for Blood Bank. There were also tennis courts. At that time, Dramatics society was awesome and Kemcol had just begun to be published.

I have spent my whole childhood in the girls hostels of KE
because my grandmother was the warden there.
Whenever there was a function held at KE, we would go.

But at the end of the day it was Zia ul Haq regime. No music, no smiling.

The subject you hated the most?
Forensic. Because you have to see the dead bodies shot by bullets. Larkian bechari faint hi ho jati theen daikh k.

How was the trend of music at KE?
Music ka trend ye tha k ya ap Bollywood k ganay suno ya western ganay suno.
There was no concept of local Pakistani music and it had no respect at all. After Vital Signs, a lot of bands emerged.

When was the first time you performed at KE?
In first year.
Bara ajeeb function tha. Jamati agaye. Mera guitar tor dia gaya.
Us k baad maine kaha, mai tou aur play karoon ga.

Would you study the whole year or at the end
Bilkul end pe. But like I said I was very conceptual and I have a great memory.

If you tell me k aj imtehaan pass karo anatomy
ka tou mein kar sakta hun.

Do you remember zero point?
Yes (he laughed)

Which year did you find the most difficult?
1st year. because you are really scared. Your training is not how much information you absorb. It’s the compassion you have in your heart to save humanity that’s important.

It is your compassion that makes you a great doctor.
If you are kind, you'll be a great doctor.

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Did you ever do dissection?
Yes. I enjoyed it.

We had around 40 girls in a class of 300. They were the most studious and would top all substages and stages. We thought to prank them. Aik din ham Dissection hall mae dead bodies ki white chadar le k lait gaye. Jab larkian aeen tou ham uth gaye. Cheekhain maar k saari bhaag gaeen wahan se.

Did you face ragging in first year?
Yes. But my mamu was in final year and was a jamati. Log unkay dar se unk bhanjay ko hath he nai lagatay thay. Haha.

Medicine or surgery?

Any point in your life when you were glad that you were a Kemcolian and not just any medical student?
Yes, yes , yes !! I was invited to Queen’s College as a guest. After I had delivered the lecture they offered me a job but it demanded a credible degree. So when they saw my KEMC MBBS degree they were impressed! So I got my job because of that.

I am proud of not only being a doctor and a Kemcolian but also a Pakistani. I think Pakistan is an incredibly unique place. No other place in the entire world is like Pakistan.

Are you still in touch with medical knowledge and books?
Oh yes! I believe you have to remain informed all the time. I love reading. Other books seem easier after MBBS.

How was your interaction with girls in KE?
I played my guitar quietly with my head bent down
and the girls used to love it.

What about your fan following?
There were just 2,3 people *laughter*

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How did you come to Pakistan?
I was born in Lahore and brought up in America. I loved playing the guitar. “Ab hun to mein junooni.” I would spend hours on playing the guitar, my fingers would start bleeding but I would not stop. My mom would however go ballistic on me. One day our professor of surgery, the Phupa :P when he came to my room one day and saw me with long, dishevelled hair playing the guitar, he went straight back to my mom thinking “k pata nai meine kya kar dena hai.”

He told her to send me to Pakistan. “Wahan tou koi music ka scene he nai hai, koi guitar hi nai bajata, acha bhi nahii samjha jata, tu khud theek hojaye ga. Jo music bajata hai usko wahan kehtay bhe marasi hain.”

When did you take up music seriously?
I formed the band Doctors’ League in KE. Then one day I noticed two guys staring at me, very hard. They later turned out to be Junaid Jamshed and Shahzad Hasan who had come to see my guitar playing and recruit me for their band.

They told me they had a band called Vital Signs.
Meine kaha ye tou medicine k sath connected term hai :P
So maybe this is a sign from God that I should join them :P

Allah’s plan is very unique. Although Pakistan was still a century behind in music and stars like Moin Akhtar and Umer Shareef would make fun of musicians in their stand-up routines, I started 7 bands in Lahore.

Ab scene ye tha. How old are you guys? 21-22?
Imagine someone comes up to you and says
“yaar hamara aik band hai aur hum aik show karnay lagay
hain...Kinnaird College mein.”
I mean the end-all of ambition at that time was a concert in Kinnaird. (he grinned)

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I thought this looks like a good job to do. Meine unhe foran kaha k mujhay tou tumharay saray gaanay atay hain. Later we became friends.

When I started playing, Pakistani music was not taken seriously. People just followed western and bollywood music. There were Nadia and Zohaib but they too had sung an Indian film song in the start.

So I would sit down to play my songs and people would be like
“chor de yaar, hotel california play kar de.”

One of the songs that was made fun of was Dil Dil Pakistan. People would say k tumhara kya khayaal hai Pakistan change ho jaye ga because it was a bleak era, Zia-ul-Haq ka daur tha. Dil Dil Pakistan ban tou gaya but it was released in 1989,on an album. I mean who knew it would get such a huge response.

Then Benazir became Prime Minister and she brought us live on a show and then there was a drama being filmed on us and then there were newspapers writing stories on us . It was all too overwhelming for a young medical student who nobody knew just yesterday.

Even our friends, who used to be like Salman idhar aa changed
and would scurry out of our way k ye tou Vital Signs ja rai hain.

People ask me how did you come up with “Hai jazba junoon tou himat na haar, justuju jo karay wo chooye asmaan” and I say what Ghalib says k “atay hain saaray mazameen ghaib se.”
People think Imran Khan asked me to sing Hai jazba junoon! But actually it was about my life.
How did Vital Signs become Junoon ?
Well, it is very simple. No one is going to tell you this in anatomy but I am telling you this. Everyone has a padded cell in their brain which goes lunatic for fame and money. We were friends first, friends who just wanted to play music. But the overnight fame got to our heads.

A sponsor once came to us and said we will give you so much money that you wouldn't need to work for even a day for the rest of your lives.
And hence came the phase of fighting over money. I had to sit down and think that I did not leave medicine to end up fighting with my friends over money. I could have made money there. I decided that it was the best for all to part ways.
But money is important too. Isn't it?
Yes it is important but the society has given much more importance to financial stability than it deserves. People get married to rich people just to be financially stable and end up having miserable lives.

I have learnt one thing in life; If you do what you love and you love what you do, money is a byproduct of that. You can make money out of anything you can excel at. There are no 'ifs' and 'buts' there. Rizq, shohrat, taqat jo Allah ne deni hai, koi nai cheen sakta aap se.

But the lunatic asylum in our brains keeps telling us that we have to fight for these things or we'll lose them. I was being pulled towards medicine from one side and the greed for money was pulling me to the other sides. So I had to leave Vital Signs. My parents thought I had said goodbye to music for good. Haha. But I came up with the plan of making my own group.
I dreamt that an old man kept shaking me, saying 'Salman tumhey janoon hai, junoon hai, mauseeqi ka junoon hai.' I picked up the word Junoon from my dream.
The fun of doing music was the junoon I had for it. So I made the craziest decision to start all over again. And to be honest it was a huge struggle. There were few musicians around back then and so it was easy to locate them. Ali Azmat used to live two streets away from my grand father's house in Ghari Shahu. Brian I knew back from my high school days.

You belong to a well-off family. Do you think you would have pursued this career if you did not have any money to start with?
Well let me tell you that I never took any money from my parents for my career. I have seen some really bad days too. The first 6-7 years of Junoon were really tough. I was married and it's hard to cope with a married life with no money in your hands.
I was surrounded by doctors and every time they asked 'han jee, kia kar rahe ho?' the answer used to be "Junoon".
Samina never complained but I did not want her to go through all this. So there came a stage where I decided that I will give myself one year, just one more year to pursue music. If it doesn't work out, I will go for a more financially promising career. But then I made sure that I put the best of my efforts in that one year. I reached the same maniac stage that everyone reaches a day before their anatomy exam.
I compiled the album. I took it to many music companies. All of them said Junoon k tou music ki samjh hi nahi ati. Aap Vital Signs jaisa music banayen. And they offered to release it some day but without giving us any money. Allah always takes you to the last limit of your patience to test you.
My last limit had come. And then out of nowhere I got the idea of creating a song for the cricket world cup as I loved cricket. The perfect timing! I came up with one more song for my album which made Junoon bigger than Vital Signs. We got Coca Cola's sponsorship for half a million dollars. One day we had no penny in our pockets and the other day, it's half a million dollars!

How was your time spent with Junoon?
Filled with the passion. But then history started to repeat itself. Fame, wealth power; the dark energies surrounded us. And hence I took the decision to expand my horizon. I was offered to work for HIV/AIDS and I realized that the music was the best platform to get people's attention on that issue. I went to New York in 2002. It helped me grow as a person. As a human being you need to keep pushing yourself to learn new things. Getting fame or money shouldn't stop you.

It's hard being married to a band, you know! A band requires the same emotional attention. I realized that it was hindering my growth as a musician and a person.

You were the part of Pakistan's two biggest bands. Do you realize how many hearts you broke when you left both of those?
Oh, yes. I got a sense of that when I received a letter written in blood. Literally.

Who use to write the songs for Junoon?
Compositions were 99% mine. Bulley Shah wrote Bulley Shah. Iqbal wrote Iqbal (he joked). I used to sit with Sabir Zafar. He is a great poet who used to convert my paraphrased feelings into poetic verses. He is working with me on my new album.

Usually the face of the band is the singer. But for Junoon, Ali Azmat and you were both equally at par. Did it ever create a problem between you two?
Well, I'll say what I said before. Such negative energy did divide us all.
Why did you guys go for sufi music instead of the regular pop?
Because it was my heart's voice. And guess what the song that made us win 'The Best International Group Award' in India was all sufi music. Everyone else was doing the regular bollywood stuff so our sound stood out.

The Indian actress Kajol told me that she has recorded “Sayonee” on one complete  side of her cassette.

Did you ever think of getting back together with Junoon?
I did try. I once got an email from a Pakistan Army Captain. He told me that the whole army listens to Jazba-Junoon during the mission Zarb-e-Azb.. He said that the music of Junoon meant alot to the soldiers fighting at the front. And that couldn’t I for the sake of fans, reunite Junoon.
But things didn't work out.
Junaid then called me last summer. And we came up with the idea of releasing Chaand Sitara. It got two million hits on facebook in less than a week.
What is your take on Atif Aslam?
What I like about Atif Aslam is that he is a natural singer. He sings from the heart. His voice has that raw appeal. But I think he stopped growing like most people do when they get fame, too early and too much.
You are the only guitarist in Pakistan with a double-neck guitar. What's the story behind that?
The two groups that influenced me as a teenager used to play double-neck guitars. The first concert that I ever attended at the age of 13 was of Led Zeppelin. Their guitarist Jimmy Page sounded so good that I decided to use a double-neck guitar.

You are 51 years old and yet you look anything but 51.
I think music keeps me young. Some people want to show that they know everything. That gets you old very quickly. I learn of young people and artists who are coming out now.
(Yes, he is 51 - Picture by Chris Ramirez)

Who do you think is the best singer in Pakistan?
You can’t say best in art. But I think the most trained and the one who has done a lot of hard work is Rahat fateh Ali Khan.

What is your link with Sufism?
I am a curious person. My intuitive impulse is very powerful. When Islam was forced on me as a kid, I ran away from it but when I studied Sufism for music, I read Quran, Hadith and all spiritual traditions in depth and I still read them regularly. I try to understand them from every perspective. I feel spirituality is our foundation. What makes us different from West is that our spirituality is alive, our compassion is alive. I want to learn more and more. I teach Rumi in my lectures. I have deep Interest in Rumi, Khusro, Bullay Shah, Allama Iqbal.
What makes a difference is the type of music you create. You can use a computer for doing terrible things or you can use it to impart knowledge, enlightenment. It’s the same thing with music, it’s a vehicle.

(Picture by Chris Ramirez)

Einstein came up with E=mc2. It was the biggest discovery of the millennium. All journalists go to Einstein and say Professor how did you arrive at this. Einstein smiles and says Music. The right brain is your intuitive brain which is a sacred gift and the left brain is the logical brain which is the trusted servant. Where do all inventions come from. Not logic and knowledge but imagination. When I listened to Mozart and Beethoven it would stir my imagination, so E=mc2 came to me via the language of art, not via the language of science.

Any message for current medical students and aspiring musicians?
Dil say jo baat nikalti hai asar rakhti hai
Par nahin taqat e parwaz magar rakhti hai

Paulo Coelho says that when you follow your heart the entire Universe conspires in helping you to succeed. It is the absolute truth

Rumi said: “What you seek, is seeking you” but you need a lot of courage for this. You have to go down the road of uncertainty.

But when you fail on that road of uncertainty, do you think you should stay persistent or take a turn back?
Give yourself some time like I gave 12 months to myself. I knew even if I failed I wouldn’t waste much time rather learn from my failure. The same happened with Junoon, I didn’t know how to continue. You have to go to the edge before you are uplifted.

Are you a sufi?
S- Salman
U- Understands
F- Falcon’s
I- Inspiration


And the interview concluded with an exclusive performance by Salman Ahmad !
Watch it here on our YouTube Channel:


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