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Zeb & Haniya Bring Songs from the Frontier

Pakistan’s newest music export are bridging the gap between the blues, jazz and Pashtun folk music on their upcoming EP

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Sharin Bhatti Oct 18, 2011
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Pakistan’s newest music export are bridging the gap between the blues, jazz and Pashtun folk music on their upcoming EP

A rubab is playfully plucked, falling into a distantly-familiar melody with the drone of a tanpura filling the silent space. An acoustic guitar adds a new riff and rhythm to a voice singing a Dari folk song, ”˜Paimana Bitte.’ The century-old song was first sang in the court of Afghanistan’s last King, Zahir Shah and was courted by a new female singer-songwriter duo Zeb & Haniya, in Pakistan’s popular televised jam session, Coke Studio, in 2009. The salwar-kurta-clad cousins made their television debut and in a show full of men, were the only female singers who are singing a long-forgotten folk song, from the North West Frontier of Pakistan, home to Afghans. Singer Zebunissa Bangash, along with Haniya Aslam reintroduced the folk song, they have grown up listening to being sung at home and which has then just released on their ten-track debut album Chup! in Pakistan. “It’s been our most requested song, and means ”˜Bring the Chalice.’ Both Haniya and I grew up singing the song in our grandmother’s parlour, not knowing what it meant then,” Zeb, the singer explained.

Two years later, the duo’s music is making its way to India, courtesy MTV Roots and a new online music show, The Dewarists, where they collaborated with Bollywood composers and lyricists Swanand Kirkire and Shantanu Moitra on a new song called ”˜Kya Khayal Hai.’ “The track is a collaborative one, both musically and lyrically. We started with an idea of Shantanu’s and everybody else’s input completed the song,” says Haniya, who co-composed the track with Moitra. On their second visit to the country, Zeb & Haniya seemed to have found an eager ear in their Indian fans.

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“Our first visit was in 2009, when we jammed with Sheldon D’Silva and Gino Banks and met with loads of musicians. Due to visa and date issues, we didn’t perform at that point, but managed to find a link to India. This winter we will return to play in India,” says Haniya. Having grown up in Khot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and bordering Afghanistan – formerly called the North Frontier – their brand of music draws on the Pashtun heritage combined with their own love for blues, jazz and Latin American music. Zeb and Haniya learned music while attending college in the United States. It was where they both found their calling in music, which they couldn’t pursue openly while in Pakistan. “I bought my first guitar then. I always wanted to learn, but there are only male teachers in Pakistan and I possibly couldn’t learn there,” says Haniya, who quickly took up Anthropology in Music as a major and discovered the blues. “We made friends and started practising in Zeb’s dorm basement. That’s when we recorded our first track, ”˜Chup’ and uploaded it on the net to share with our friends. Soon we started getting many hits and requests for more songs,” Haniya says, recalling their earliest years. But it was only when they returned to Pakistan around 2007 that music became a career. “We found some great producers to work with on our first album and then toured across the country promoting our music,” says Zeb, whose playful voice complements their melodic songs that address themes of love, longing and happiness. They use guitars, drums, trumpets, rubab and mesh their influences together for easy listening.

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Now, the duo is working on an EP of six tracks, with songs reflecting their original songwriting skills. “Our first album had a lot of folk covers. Now we are writing new songs and experimenting with new sounds. It will be a collaborative album, featuring a lot of guest artists,” says Haniya, who’s set a deadline of December for the release of the EP. “The stress is on production and diverse music arrangements this time around,” says Zeb, who is also heavily influenced by South Indian folk traditions. A track on the EP is simply called, ”˜Happy Song,’ and Haniya describes it as “a lullaby, which promotes positive vibes and beauty during a time of darkness and turmoil.” She wrote it following the assassination of secular Islamist leaders Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer earlier this year in Pakistan. “Music needs to maintain and sustain a congenial healing and soothing quality and this song serves that purpose,” she says.

Photo Credit: Kunal Kakodkar

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