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How Led Zeppelin Broke Through the Walls Between Islam and the West

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w/ special guest blogger Salman Ahmed

By almost any measure, the December 10th reunion of Led Zeppelin is among the most anticipated in rock history. And with good reason. Led Zeppelin was the most powerful, mesmerizing rock group of all time.

But beyond unforgettable songs and legendary live shows, Led Zeppelin broadcast a powerful message to fans who were tuned in to their music at a particular frequency--one far more subversive than the Satanic messages the band was accused of "backmasking" into "Stairway to Heaven": Bring the soul of the West and Islam together, it told us, and you can produce a musical force powerful enough to break through the barricade dividing the two civilizations.

From opposite sides of the globe, we each heard this message, and it profoundly shaped our lives.

For a Pakistani born in Lahore and spending his adolescence in upstate New York, Led Zeppelin was a sonic voyage home, and not merely to Kashmir. I saw the band at Madison Square Garden during its last US tour in 1977 and it was a spiritual awakening. There was something deeply familiar in the music, but I couldn't place it until I returned to Pakistan for medical school.

It was then that I realized music - in good measure, their music - had led me home. Zeppelin channeled the Sufi music of South Asia through the blues to create rock 'n roll at once more spiritual and more hedonistic than any before or since.

Soon enough I traded in my stethoscope for an electric guitar, which seemed the better instrument to help heal my deeply wounded society. If Page and Plant had immersed themselves in the blues, I studied with the qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who coming from the opposite trajectory offered a similar message of harmony and brotherhood.

With such inspiration I formed Junoon, which became the biggest rock band in Asia. Since then I have regularly found myself following in Zeppelin's footsteps. For me, the band's music validated the belief of another hero of mine, the great Sufi Ibn al-Arabi, that only through a multitude of sources can universal harmony be achieved.

For a New Yorker born in New Jersey, hearing Led Zeppelin as a young child initiated a life long love affair with the music and cultures of the Muslim world. Most rock legends mined the blues; but the bends in Jimmy Page's guitar solos and Robert Plant's vocal melodies stretched beyond the "blue" notes I heard nightly performing as a young sideman with artists such as Johnny Copeland and Dr. John.

As I studied Arabic music I realized that the band had dug deep beneath the Mississippi Delta, to the roots of the blues in the the chants and prayers sung by the Muslim Africans brought to America as slaves. There were hints of the Arabic ruba', or quarter tone, and Persian koron, or neutral third, which like the unsettling dissonance of so many Zeppelin songs, resolves itself into the most harmonious interval in Western music, the perfect fifth.

With Led Zeppelin as my example, my goal as a musician and a scholar became creating conversations between the intellectual and artistic production of the West and the Muslim world. During the day this might mean exploring the relationship between Muslim modernists and European existentialists, or Jewish and Palestinian port workers in late Ottoman Jaffa and Tel Aviv. After the sun set, it's involved performing with Iranian metal guitar virtuoso Farzad Golpayegani at the Rock for Peace Festival in Istanbul, or bringing together Moroccan gnawa artist Hassan Hakmoun and the French Jewish gypsy group Les Yeux Noirs on Latin rock sensation Ozomatli's Grammy winning album, "Street Signs."

With either a pen or a guitar, it's been the same Zeppelin-inspired culture jamming that led Salman to create a new genre of pop music, "Sufi rock."

Led Zeppelin's self-described "tight but loose" musical philosophy had a special impact on us. In blues, rock, and jazz, the drummer and bassist's function is primarily to lay down a tight groove over which the front men can let loose. Rarely does the rhythm section have the space to take the music to a higher dimension.

But Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham did just that. The interplay between all four musicians linked Zeppelin to the great chain of Sufi-inspired improvisers, from the Gnawa slaves of the Maghreb, across North Africa and the Middle East still to the Qawwali of North India.

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--often productively so. It's no wonder the band was signed by a Turkish music impresario, Ahmet Ertegun, in whose honor they are reuniting once more.

Muslim rock and metal artists today 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, and most innovative and powerful rock 'n roll . At its core, even the most extreme Muslim heavy metal carries a message of peace and harmony - 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 come from Casablana, Cairo or Karachi as it is from London or New York.

Guest co-writer Salman Ahmed is the founder and lead guitarist for the multi-platinum Pakistani rock band Junoon and a UN Goodwill Ambassador. His most recent performance was at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Before that, he was an artist-in-residence at Queens College, in New York City. www.junoon.com. Both musicians are collaborating on an compilation album, tentatively titled Flowers in the Desert, featuring the leading heavy metal, rock and hiphop acts in the Middle East, being released by EMI records in the spring.