Led Zeppelin: Crossing cultures

The band that brought the sounds of the Middle East to the West.

Zeppelin legends: Guitarist Jimmy Page, right, with Robert Plant [EPA]

Since their formation from the remnants of the British band The Yardbirds in 1968, Led Zeppelin have consistently been in the vanguard of amalgamating musical themes from around the world.


In Physical Graffiti, for example, guitarist Jimmy Page, drummer John Bonham, vocalist Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones incorporated Middle Eastern musical themes into their hard rock riffs, unleashing a torrent of east-meets-west influences in the years to come.


Ahead of Led Zeppelin’s reunion in London on December 10, two musicians – Salman Ahmed and Mark Levine, from Pakistan and the United States respectively – offer their interpretations of how successful the band has been in using music to bridge the cultural divide.

Salman Ahmed: founder and lead guitarist of Pakistani rock band Junoon

By almost any measure, the December 10 reunion of Led Zeppelin is among the most anticipated in rock history. And with good reason. Led Zeppelin was the most powerful and mesmerising 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.


It was far more subversive than the satanic messages the band was accused of “back-masking” into Stairway to Heaven.


Their message was to bring the soul of the West and Islam together and produce a musical force powerful enough to break through the barricades dividing the two civilisations.


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


For a Pakistani born in Lahore who spent his adolescence in upstate New York, Led Zeppelin were a sonic voyage home, and not merely through their iconic song Kashmir.


Spiritual awakening

I saw the band at Madison Square Garden during their 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 realised music – in good measure, their music – had led me home.


Zeppelin channelled 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.


Where Page and Plant had immersed themselves in the blues, I studied with the qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who 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. The band’s music validated the belief of another hero of mine, the great Sufi Ibn al-Arabi, who said that only through a multitude of sources can universal harmony be achieved.


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, Norway. Before that, he was an artist-in-residence at Queens College in New York City. www.junoon.com



Mark Levine: professional musician and professor of Middle Eastern history

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 while performing as a young sideman with artists like Johnny Copeland and Dr John.


Plant, right, jams with US guitarist Nile
Rodgers, left, and Turkish-born Ertegun [EPA]

As I studied Arabic music I realised that the band had dug deep beneath the Mississippi Delta to the roots of the blues found in the chants and prayers of Muslim Africans brought to America as slaves. 


There were hints of the Arabic ruba’ (quarter tone) and Persian koron (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 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”.


Musical philosophy

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 primarily 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 in North Africa 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.


It’s no wonder the band was signed by Turkish music impresario and Atlantic Records founder, Ahmet Ertegun.


Ertegun passed away in 2006 and it is to honour him that Led Zeppelin reunites as a band next week.


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 civilisations and endless jihads that assault the world’s ears today.


It’s about time the world started listening. The next Led Zeppelin could as likely come from Casablanca, Cairo or Karachi as from London or New York.


Mark Levine is a professional musician and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of half a dozen books, including Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (forthcoming, Random House/Verso, companion CD to be released by EMI Records). www.culturejamming.org

Source : Al Jazeera

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