A force for peace
The reunion of Led Zeppelin is among the most anticipated in rock history. And with good reason. In the 1970s, the British band was mesmerizing.
But beyond unforgettable songs and legendary live shows, Led Zeppelin broadcast a powerful message to fans who tuned in to the right frequency. Bring the soul of the West and Islam together, Led Zeppelin told us, and you can produce a musical force powerful enough to break through the barricade dividing the two civilizations. In its way, this message is far more subversive than the Satanic themes the band was accused of “backmasking” into “Stairway to Heaven.”
One of us – Salman Ahmed – is a Pakistani who was born in Lahore and spent his adolescence in Upstate New York. Led Zeppelin was a sonic voyage home for Salman. When he first saw the band at Madison Square Garden during its U.S. tour in 1977, it was a spiritual awakening. There was something deeply familiar in the music. Once he returned home for medical school he realized that the band had channeled the Sufi music of South Asia through the blues to create rock “n” roll.
Soon enough, Salman traded in his stethoscope for an electric guitar. If Led Zeppelin frontmen Jimmy Page and Robert Plant immersed themselves in the blues, Salman studied with the Pakistani musical legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who coming from the opposite trajectory offered a similar message of harmony and brotherhood.
The other one of us – Mark LeVine – is a New Yorker born in New Jersey. For him, hearing Led Zeppelin as a young child initiated a lifelong love affair with the music and cultures of the Muslim world. Most rock legends mined the blues. But the bends in Page”s guitar solos and Plant”s vocal melodies stretched beyond the “blue” of such greats as Johnny Copeland and Dr. John (with whom Mark was fortunate to perform as a young guitarist). In Led Zeppelin”s music, there were hints of the Arabic ruba”, or quarter tone, and Persian koron, or neutral third.
Led Zeppelin”s self-described “tight but loose” musical philosophy had an impact on both of us. In blues, rock and jazz, the function of the drummer and bassist is mainly to lay down a tight groove over which the frontmen can let loose. Rarely does the rhythm section have the space to take the music to a higher dimension.
But Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham did just that. For Salman, the interplay between all four musicians linked the band to the great chain of improvisers inspired by Sufism, an Islamic mystic tradition. Salman has a special interest in that tradition; his band”s music is often classified as “Sufi rock.”
It was this pedigree that separated Led Zeppelin from the rest of the rock “n” roll universe, reminding those with the right ears of a time when the distinctions between East and West, Islam and Europe, were still fuzzy. It”s no wonder the band was signed by a Turkish music impresario, Ahmet Ertegun, in whose honor they are reuniting once more. The soaring minor and major scales that Plant and Page embellish in songs such as “Kashmir,” “Going to California,” “Four Sticks,” and “Friends in the Light” are, to our ears, drawn from traditional vocalizations of qawwali, a Pakistani form of Sufi devotional music.
Led Zeppelin”s ability to move between Western and Muslim cultures was evident when Page and Plant went to Morocco to record songs for their 1994 “No Quarter” album and DVD. Finding musicians performing in a market in Marrakesh, Page and Plant were able to bond with them musically – and with an immediacy that produced some of the albums most alluring tracks, such as “Yallah” and “City Don”t Cry.”
Today”s Muslim rock and heavy metal artists, in turn, have been powerfully influenced by Led Zeppelin. The band”s music echoes their own history and culture, helping them create new hybrids of rock, metal and Islam, and through it, some of the world”s lushest, most innovative and powerful rock “n” roll.
At its core, even the most extreme Muslim heavy metal carries a message of peace and harmony. This is an important counterweight to the sounds of clashing civilizations and endless jihads that assault the world”s ears today.
It”s about time the world starts listening; the next Led Zeppelin is as likely to come from Casablanca, Cairo, or Karachi as it is from London or New York.
Mark LeVine teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of the forthcoming “Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” Salman Ahmed is founder and lead guitarist for the Pakistani rock band Junoon. This article first appeared in The Boston Globe.