Gulfnews: Playing a different tune [Article on Zeb and Haniya]

Zeb and Haniya

Playing a different tune

By Andrea Anastasiou | Feature Writer
Published: March 22, 2009, 23:15

“Music happens to be an art form that transcends language.”
– Herbie Hancock

It can be argued that music is the universal language. Through it, we have the ability to communicate messages that otherwise may be lost in translation, and catch the attention of people who may ordinarily look away. Zeb and Haniya, an unassuming girl-band from Pakistan, are a living testament to the power music has.

Since the release of their debut album Chup! last year, they have caused something of a stir in the media, both locally and internationally. The duo are ethnic Pashtuns, with their families hailing from the town of Kohat in Pakistan’s North West Frontier.

Through their music, and by singing some of their songs in Pashto, they are choosing to express their identity and are quietly hoping
to dispel any negative stereotypes. They are also commonly known as Pakistan’s ‘first girl-band’, and are gently pushing the boundaries of the Pakistani music industry.
Much like Shakira and MIA before them, Haniya Aslam and Zeb (Zebunissa) Bangash are artistes who are trying to teach the world something about their culture and language, while making good music.

“Because of the way global politics have panned out,
we feel that the perception of Pashtun characteristics has become one-dimensional, reductionist and negative,” says Zeb. “The people of the North West Frontier Province cherish music and dance, both integral parts of our centuries-old traditions. The Zeb and Haniya project is in the same spirit. All we’re trying to do is uphold tradition in our own way.”
Their songs don’t deal with politics or religion, rather they choose to spread a message of positivity and hope.

Their debut album took almost six years to complete, with each song being inspired by a personal experience or emotional state they have been through. They wrote most of the songs together, and also received a helping hand from Zeb’s sister Maleeha Bangash, and their good friend and writer Bilal Sami. “Lyrically, we never intended for there to be a theme running through the album,” says Haniya.

“Some songs are retrospective and look back in nostalgia or sorrow, while others are about forgetting the past and moving forward. Whatever ideals come across in the songs are ideals we hold ourselves; for instance, there is a lot of emphasis on an individual’s agency and on her will
to change. Some of the songs repeatedly urge the listener not to dwell on the past but to move ahead.”

World music
They are reluctant to box their music into a certain genre, and instead choose to ensure each individual song conveys its own feel and mood. Their album has been described by the media as world music, art folk, ethnic blues and folk pop, which shows the amount of influences they have. “We believe everything we’ve heard since childhood influences our music in one way or another,” says Haniya.

“These include Pakistani pop and folk music, classic rock such as The Beatles and Allman Brothers, world music from countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Senegal, Mali, classic jazz, and delta blues. In addition, Zeb is training to be a vocalist in the indigenous classical music traditions, while I draw a lot of inspiration from singers and songwriters from the US and UK.”The fusion of their music has been a successful one, as Chup! was released to rave reviews in Pakistan’s major newspapers.

Hamza Jafri from The Friday Times said at the time “The Zeb and Haniya album is incomparable to other local releases. This album is definitely the most accomplished mainstream production work out of Pakistan as yet.” This is an impressive feat for a couple of girls who once dreamt of being teachers and doctors and for whom a career in music was never considered an option. The Zeb and Haniya journey began when they were children. Being first cousins, they grew up together in a family that adored music.

Zeb remembers how any kind of family gathering would include music in some way. “Music was always a part of our lives, whether it was a performance by a well-known artiste, or our aunts and uncles singing with a harmonium and tabla. Our interest in music is almost innate in some way,” she says. Haniya was born in Karachi in 1978. Her father was
in the government service, meaning that the family lived all over the country, from Lahore to Quetta and Rawalpindi.

They settled in Islamabad when Haniya was ten years old, where she remained until she moved to the US to study in 2002. Born in Peshawar, Zeb also moved around a lot during her childhood, as her father was in the army. In 1995, the family moved to Turkey, after which Zeb moved to the US in 2004 to join Haniya at small, liberal arts colleges in Western Massachusetts. It was during this time that the two began to make music together.

The colleges that they attended (Haniya went to Smith College, while Zeb attended Mount Holyoke), were only
a 30-minute bus ride apart. During vacation time, the colleges and towns would be empty, so to pass the time they would sit and attempt to compose songs. “Our first song, which is also the title track of our album, Chup!, was written in the basement of Zeb’s dorm during a blizzard,” says Haniya.

“The atmosphere was very eerie, and to dispel the fear we sang a bright, cheery, almost teasing tune. We came up with the refrain that started with the word chup, which means ‘quiet’ in Urdu.”
Their friends immediately loved the song, prompting them
to make a rough recording on Haniya’s PC, which did the rounds among Pakistani students all over the US.

“This made us think about recording a better version, so when we were in Pakistan next, we recorded a demo of Chup! with a friend, Mekaal Hasan, who runs a commercial studio in Lahore. This version saw an even wider circulation on the internet, until someone emailed us and told us that Chup! was playing on a Pakistani FM station. That was probably when we realised we had actually come up with a ‘real’ song,” says Zeb.

With the help and support of their families, and the encouragement of one of Pakistan’s best producers, Mekaal Hasan, the two worked together to record and release the album. “Our families have been incredibly supportive of the project right from the start,” says Zeb. “In fact, they have had more faith in our music than perhaps we ourselves did.”
While many are eager to point out the fact they are Pakistan’s ‘first girl-band’, Zeb and Haniya say the barriers they face in the industry are no different from the ones faced by men. “This is a growing industry in an insecure country and an unstable world.

Work is very hard to come by and there are very few avenues that provide a steady income for musicians,” says Haniya.
Despite the obstacles they face, the two, much in the spirit
of their album, are optimistic about the future. They already
have a number of projects lined up, including an appearance
on the Pakistani TV show Coke Studio, where ‘pop’ singers perform with traditional artistes.

They’ve also been approached by one of the biggest names in the Pakistani film industry to help produce half of a soundtrack for a film, a prospect they’re ‘thrilled’ about.
“We’re not going to limit our growth as musicians by picking one direction,” says Haniya. “We’d much rather stay open to new opportunities and take up as many as we can. For instance, we would love to tour globally and collaborate with local musicians wherever we are.

Musically, we’re game for anything that promises to be exciting, and that helps us grow as musicians.”

Source: Gulfnews: Playing a different tune