Zeb and Haniya speak to Nithya Sivashankar about the influences that shapes their songs, the vibrant music industry back home in Pakistan and their Indian experience

It's not every day that one sits together with Pakistani musicians eating sambar, rasam and thayir saadam. Zebunnisa Bangash and Haniya Aslam, the pop sensations from across the border, along with their band members Sameer Ahmed, S.N Pappu and Amir Azhar enjoy the elai saapadu before settling down for an interview. Except it doesn't feel like an interview. The group from Pakistan exudes so much warmth it is more like a chat with college friends. From dosai and pineapple kesari, the conversation veers towards the obvious — music.

Cousins Zeb and Haniya represent the internet generation of Pakistan. Their very first song, ‘Chup', was released on the internet, and was picked up and made popular by radio stations in Pakistan. “When we were studying in the US, we composed ‘Chup',” says Haniya. “Zeb's brother and some of our friends back in Pakistan wanted to listen to our song. Since I was studying Computer Science, I was always working on websites. I thought I might as well make a website and put our song up on it for people to listen to.” That was how the duo became popular, adds Zeb. “Oh, the song eventually got into a Muslim matrimonial site too!”

Zeb and Haniya, like many of us, grew up listening to Cliff Richards and Abba. Says Haniya, “Our older cousins were into classic rock. So, of course, we listened to Beatles and other big groups of the 60s and 70s.” As Zeb's dad was in the armed forces, she travelled a great deal. “When my father was posted in Turkey, I had a chance to listen to Turkish musicians such as Ajda Bekan, Baris Manco and Emel Sayin,” says Zeb.

Shared love

Of course, music from India was only too familiar. “We used to listen to Hemant Kumar, Madan Mohan, Saigal and Naushad,” says Haniya, while Zeb smilingly recalls her grandmother's precious video cassette collection that included Gulzar's “Mirza Ghalib”, “Amar Prem”, “Amrit” and some Muzaffar Ali films. “We would watch these cassettes over and over again. We somehow never watched blockbuster Hindi movies our friends watched. For us, it was films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Guru Dutt and Amol Palekar.”

The independent music scene in Lahore is vibrant, says Sameer Ahmed, the bass guitarist for Zeb and Haniya.

“School and college friends get together casually and make music. Since we had nothing else to do, we made music. The young musicians there are proactive kids. They get sponsorships, book halls and organise concerts all by themselves,” says Sameer, who started out the same way.

“Of late, a lot of young bands have come up,” notes Zeb. “Bumbu Sauce is one of the most popular bands now. The group is trying to revive classic poetry and social texts through their music. We can sense a cultural renaissance happening in Pakistan.”

Haniya mentions that community support is tremendous in her country. “Musicians help one another out all the time. Zeb and I are here because of Mekaal Hasan's encouragement and support. He has done free recordings for musicians including Ali Zafar, Atif Aslam and bands such as Co-Ven (of which Sameer Ahmed is a part). As musicians we always step up and are there for each other.” Zeb also talks about the role the corporates play.

“They back our music. In our country, musicians and sportspersons are the stars. Billboards bear pictures of musicians. After ‘Coke Studio' and ‘Pepsi Battle of the Bands', endorsing bands is common,” she says. “Since the film industry is not very alive in Pakistan, corporates look out for the ‘hip youth' to associate their brands with. And there are many of those in music.”

Does gender come in the way of fame and recognition as musicians? “Absolutely not,” says Haniya. “If it weren't for our male counterparts, we wouldn't be here today. Mekaal Hasan and Gumby (the drummer in ‘Coke Studio') helped us immensely in our career. Sometimes, I think the vision of these musicians is much better than ours. Gender really doesn't matter.”

Zeb and Haniya carry fond memories of collaborating with Shantanu Moitra and Swanand Kirkire on ‘The Dewarists' (a series being aired on Star World, which has featured musicians such as Imogen Heap, Indian Ocean, Mohit Chauhan and Parikrama). “We were already familiar with their music, because of ‘Parineeta' and ‘Khoya Khoya Chand'. Shantanu, Swanand and their team of musicians were such fun to work with,” says Haniya.

Zeb adds, “In Pakistan, I've never had my vocals directed by a composer. It was wonderful how Shantanu worked so hard on my voice.”

Transcending languages

The duo's repertoire includes songs in Dari, Turkish, Pashto and Persian. “Zeb speaks Turkish,” says Haniya by way of explanation. While Dari was not their language at home, Zeb remembers her grandmother speaking it. “Because of the war in Afghanistan, there were musicians migrating to Peshawar. We would have these musicians perform for us at home. Back then, we would just mimic the words and sing along. Only in our teens did we realise that these songs were based in a completely different language.” It proves that music transcends language, says Haniya. “My belief that the spoken language is only secondary to music has been affirmed by this Indian tour.”

Zeb and Haniya were in Coimbatore as part of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest.

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