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Zeb & Haniya

Pakistani soft-rock duo riff on classical training

Dec 10, 2008

Abigail Spindel

With their debut album, Chup, topping the charts, Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam may be the Pakistan’s hottest new pop duo, but their training is strictly classical. Lounging in Bangash’s large suburban house in Lahore, wearing light salwar-kameezes, Aslam playing Suzanne Vega songs on a loop, the cousins cut relaxed figures. They can’t stop chuckling over how far they have travelled.

As a teenager Aslam never took guitar lessons. “All the instructors were [young] men,” she grins. So she learned the tabla through an aging, respectable ustaad, waiting for her first guitar lesson till she enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts. Bangash was similarly pushed onto a sceptical Ustaad Mubarik Ali Khan, one of Pakistan’s top classical vocalists. Khan was impressed at their first lesson. “From now on you are my daughter,” he told Bangash. “You can become a classical vocalist.” But Bangash attended Mount Holyoke College, across town from Smith, and there, in the heady indie-rock atmosphere of progressive rural Massachusetts campus towns, she and Aslam started experimenting with Western music.

The genesis of their band, Zeb & Haniya, lies in a winter break when international students make snow angels and snoop around dormitory basements. The cousins were sneaking around one such basement when they came across an abandoned bookstore cum café. There, surrounded by spider-webbed coffee mugs and dusty chairs and bookshelves, Aslam brought her guitar, and half-joking, Bangash sang. “It was like a haunted house,” Bangash says. “We told each other ghost stories, and then we came up with a flirtatious song, cheapsterish.”

That song was ”˜Chup,’ the song melding their Eastern and Western influences in a style that has Pakistani critics and audiences raving. “Zeb has infused her classical training into a Pakistani version of soft-rock,” says Foaad Nizam, a guitarist. “She and Haniya have brought the singer-songwriter tradition to Pakistan, I would compare them to Tracy Chapman.”

In 2004, they uploaded two songs to the internet. Within weeks the song was playing on Lahore radio stations. This caught the attention of producer Mekaal Hasan: “After listening to their songs, I suggested they record them. Otherwise they might have sat around making songs at home. Why not make a record when people like your work?”

Their songs are in Urdu, with one exception, ”˜Paimana Bitte,’ a Pushto and Darri folk tune that the two musicians heard as children. They decided to reinterpret this tune, inspired by Lebanese songs. “We really liked the sultry, jazzy themes of Lebanese songs, especially Fairuz,” says Bangash. “So we decided to adapt the jazzy style to Pushto and Darri folk.” This jazzy influence is threaded in their album, complicated by Bangash’s voice perfectly pitched with refined nuances and inflexions, nimbly moving between and holding notes because of her classical training. Aslam, on the other hand, supports Bangash vocally with a heavier voice, even as she strums the guitar.

They are currently performing on the Pakistani concert circuit and appearing on television: their video, ”˜Aitebar,’ with dancers flitting through an old Karachi house, is on constant replay. The cousins cross the border for the first time in December, when Bangash and Aslam will perform at the Prakriti Alternate Arts Festival in Chennai. This relaxed duo should feel comfortable at any alternate arts festival. Unlike other singers hitting stardom, they have refused to change their style or lives, even performing in salwar kameezes instead of switching to the obligatory star wardrobe of jeans and tops. As one reviewer gushed, “They are not pop tarts.”

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