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Zeb Bangash: ‘Band Culture is Shrinking; People Get Together Only For a Gig’

The Pakistani singer on her latest fusion project Sandaraa, channelling ancient traditions in music, and the future of folk rock duo Zeb & Haniya

Anurag Tagat Jun 04, 2018

Zeb on stage with Sandaraa. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Between stints in film music and other collaborations, the In the world of fusion, the further back you dive into history to find roots, the likelier you are to strike gold. Zeb Bangash, one of Pakistan’s crystalline voices, has found favor not just across the border with Bollywood projects (she worked on Alankrita Shrivastava’s 2016 film Lipstick Under My Burkha) but also in New York, which is home to fusion project Sandaraa.

Like Bangash’s own music preferences, Sandaraa (which means “song” in Pashto) revels in intermingling, flittering from jazz to rock to European folk and Eastern lyrical and sonic traditions. In 2013, after a concert with New York-based klezmer clarinet artist Michael Winograd. From Bangash’s training in khyal gayaki tradition to Winograd’s Eastern European Jewish music influence, Sandaraa was born. Bangash says over the phone from Lahore, “We’re both interested in looking at the roots and re-creating perhaps lost linkages in a modern sense.”

In the first few years – until they finally released their self-titled album in 2016 – Sandaraa performed modern renditions of traditional songs, using it to craft their own sound. “We played a bunch of songs from Persian Khorasanic region. They don’t really belong to any one country but more regional folk tunes. We took a lot of music from the Logar style from North Kabul, we took a lot of stuff from Balochi music, which is the Makrani, African-influenced Balochi tradition and then we worked with some Sindhi material. We went with those kind of regions that have been the sites of ancient civilization, sites where lots of migrations and intermingling of peoples and cultures have been happening over millennia,” she says.

More recently, Sandaraa released the mystical yet playful “Farz Karo” in January, as part of a 2017 performance and recording session in New York that was supported by the Chamber Music America​ Classical Commissioning Program. From a total of 10 songs, three were new compositions which drew from Urdu poetry. Rightly so, “Farz Karo” features verses from Pakistani poet and writer Ibn-E-Insha about the reality, love, faith and illusion. Bangash adds, “It’s the fun, peppy kind of song of the three.”

It’s been a bit of a wait to release new Sandaraa material, but Bangash says it can’t be helped. She says about the songwriting process, “What happens is that we get together for a short while and then we do a bunch of work and then because we’re all in different bands and doing more than one project, we made this song as a live recording that we also shot. We got someone to film us and then I had to come back to Pakistan and we just got very busy with all this other stuff!” She says a second song from the session should be out soon, along with more material through the year.

Zeb Bangash. Photo: Muhammad Husnain Mahmood/MHM Photography; Styling: Mehek Saeed; Hair and make-up: Fatima Nasir

From “producer-driven and client-driven” world of TV and film music projects, Bangash was happy to be in a band setting that’s not centred around the vocalist as principal composer. She says, “The band culture in our part of the world, even though we like to promote it, is slowly shrinking. People just get together when they have a gig. It’s more a singer-based culture. Even if you have the same musicians you play with, the overall participation is not too geared towards having everyone’s inputs.” With Sandaraa, the “intention becomes the aesthetic” and she’s happy to not be surrounded by yes-men while working on music. She explains, “If I’m feeling shy of trying something out, they’ll say, ‘No, let’s try it’. It challenges me as an artist to keep up with them – because they’re all brilliant artists – and to also try out different things. We’re all in this zone of discovering the undiscovered.”

With Sandaraa in gear for the current year, Bangash is also working on an upcoming collaborative album with Indian artists (“I’m not allowed to say what it is exactly,” she laughs). Where does that leave one of her most well-received project, folk rock duo Zeb & Haniya? She says neither her nor her cousin, guitarist Haniya Aslam, are pursuing the project actively. However, she adds, “I think we’re having too much fun rediscovering ourselves and all of that. Of course, I love my cousin, so you never know! It could happen any time.”

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