The only uncomplicated thing about Junaid Jamshed was his voice

The only uncomplicated thing about Junaid Jamshed was his voice

JJ's voice carried infinite hope and sunshine but his life, career and legacy were not uncomplicated.
Updated 07 Dec, 2019

It might seem strange to use this word for a man who meant such different things to different people, but when you heard Junaid Jamshed’s voice, the one thing it always felt was uncomplicated.

At the heart of the appeal of his various avatars was a voice that carried infinite hope and sunshine.

Junaid Jamshed’s life, career and legacy however, were not uncomplicated.

His journey represented a journey that Pakistani society seemed to have taken with him, and it represented the many contradictions that define our society.

But whether it was in his music videos or in his television appearances as an evangelist, there was always a considered appearance that he put out. It was almost like he always had an eager sincerity to play a construct.

At the time of his death, one of my first reactions was the realisation that a certain idea of Pakistan — of youthful exuberance in golden light amongst green hills — had died with him.

It meant that his legacy upon his death was inherently complicated. After his death, one segment of his fans put up his pop songs, making defiant proclamations of choosing to remember him for them.

Another group exhorted the media not to bring up his musical past, arguing that he had forsaken it. There was the memory of his misogynist statements, including one which led to a blasphemy charge, which his privilege allowed him to escape the usual punishment for. There were pictures and videos and tweets which were all used to make a claim on what he represented.

This article is not meant to address all those issues.

What prompted me to write it instead was the cascade of emotions that Junaid Jamshed’s voice in various pop songs evoked in me. At the time of his death, one of my first reactions was the realisation that a certain idea of Pakistan — of youthful exuberance in golden light amongst green hills — had died with him.

That was the setting he first emerged in, the setting that some of us only remember him as.

Stripped of its context, 'Dil Dil Pakistan' is a saccharine pop song that replaces the beloved with patriotism. But when you consider its appearance in the final days of Zia’s era, its radical impact gets clearer.

An appeal to modernity, to youth, to fun all embodied in the frail, attractive persona of Junaid Jamshed and his bandmates. The impact of the video was inherently complicated, yet Junaid’s uncomplicated voice singing about an uncomplicated love carried the song through all the tricky terrain.

Pakistani pop music had been little more than a concept before Junaid and the Vital Signs, and it became an entire phenomenon because of them. At the heart of its initial appeal was JJ himself, and his endless charisma as the frontman. He seemed to enjoy his reputation as a heartthrob, and yet also represented a very halal sexuality that wasn’t provocative.

But what Junaid’s voice achieved added far more heft to the pop scene. His ability to express emotions matched that of the most popular traditional singers, even when he had none of their training.

For an audience bred on ghazal and geet, it was his uncomplicated voice that allowed them to make the complicated transition to pop music. He set the template for the modern pop singer in Pakistan, comfortably at ease with corny, romantic numbers like 'Sanwali Saloni' as well as with deceptively melancholic tracks like 'Hum Tum'.

Indeed, the music that emerged in the 1990s largely followed the path set by the Signs, with almost all frontmen taking their cues from his uncomplicated voice and his complicated appeal. But while there were a few who could match his mastery over songs of love and heartbreak, there was no one who could match what he brought to patriotic songs.

It was only Junaid’s voice which could bring sincerity to this most overwrought of genres, and it was the reason that the Signs managed to produce several ‘national anthems’. The patriotic song is still an obligatory release for most musicians and bands, but none of them can bring the uncomplicated wholeheartedness that JJ brought to them.

Junaid’s uncomplicated voice also served as the bridge for the talents of two of Pakistan’s greatest creative polymaths.

On one end was the ideology of Shoaib Mansoor, whose songs both spoke of the urgent need to build a bright future and lamented of the loss of an idyllic (imagined) past. On the other end was the musical versatility of Rohail Hyatt, who kept searching for creative excellence even as the nascent industry demanded that the band produce easily digestible pop. Resolving all these contradictions and complications was Junaid’s uncomplicated voice, which was just at ease at emoting the intricacies of Shoaib’s verses as it was dealing with the challenging demands of Rohail’s compositions.

The music that emerged from all of this remains some of the most timeless produced in Pakistani pop. Even as the people that made it, particularly Junaid Jamshed himself, fell into contradictions and complications, the music continues to endure. The music continues to invoke an idea of this country created by the rhymes and dreams of a generation. That generation today is no longer young, and its dreams no longer true. But its music lives on forever, sung in that beautiful, uncomplicated voice.

Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance journalist, and Director of Content at @patarimusic.