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- Written by Eman Jueid
- Category: Music Events
Whatever stillness still lingering as they tuned dissipated like the tabla roll as they began their first song. A bass note plays, and before you know it, the rest of the band, and soon the space swells with an undefined sound that is part-jazz, part-rock, part-folk and completely unlike anything else.
It’s hard to peg Pakistani pop duo Zeb and Haniya in any specific genre, and that’s the just way they like it. Rather than place labels or boundaries on their music, they prefer to look at what they do as transcendent, a “global sensibility,” the very blend that comes when you look to music not to define, but to share, to understand, even to translate that when seemingly opposite cultural sounds harmonize, perhaps where they come from are not as different as we would think. For audience members that evening, their repertoire was nothing short of mixed and variegated, featuring songs from their debut album, their upcoming second album, original compositions and classic folk tunes steeped with their personal touch of “Lahori- ethnic blues” and Pashtu rock.
This evening marked the first time they brought their unique sound to audiences in Denver, Colorado. As part of Centerstage, a public diplomacy initiative of U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Denver was the second-to-last stop of Zeb and Haniya’s month-long US tour for cultural diplomacy. Other stops included Akron, Ohio; Helena, Montana; Houston, Texas; the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in Washington, DC; the acclaimed World Music Festival in Madison, Wisconsin; and Globalquerque! in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With mission that “diplomacy doesn’t happen in conference rooms or embassies,” but rather through artistic and cultural exchanges, Centerstage spent this year organizing independent month-long tours for ten international performing arts ensembles from countries as varied as Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan. “This public-private partnership,” they stated, “is the largest public diplomacy effort to bring foreign artists to American stages in recent history.” In Denver, the event was a collaborative effort with the Lamont School of Music’s Expanding Horizons Initiative, a new project to bring acclaimed artists and ethnomusicologists from around the world to the University of Denver and its greater community.
Accompanying the duo on the tour were some of Pakistan’s most highly renown performers, including Hamza Jafri on guitar, Ahsan Pappu on flute, Amir Azhar on bass and Kami Paul on percussion.
The set began with “Kabhi na Kabhi,” from their 2008 debut album Chup! (Hush! ). Like a gentle invitation, the song, about home, beckons you with its gentle Urdu lyrics and familiar sounds of jazz with rock interludes. They followed it with the more upbeat “Ahaan,” another jazz-infused tune, inspired by O.P. Nayyar and strongly influenced by older Bollywood beats.
All the songs before it came at a gradual build up to their hit track that punctuated the first half of the concert: rock-heavy “Rona Char Diya, (I’ve Stopped Crying)” their self-proclaimed “angry song.” “Crying is a big deal” in Pakistani culture, Zeb explained, telling the audience about a time when her father went to the movies and came back disappointed: “It didn’t make me cry,” he said, “So I didn’t like it.” Here, the band takes that sentiment and channels it into a high energy, bluesy post- breakup song about the strength that comes when you wipe away tears from a failed relationship. Passionate, fierce – think Meredith Brooks’ “B***h,” with a Pakistani twist.
Watch the video here
From their upcoming second album came a piece simply titled “The Happy Song,” about finding beauty in the turmoil that lately been paralyzing their country. “This song is about taking a walk in the rain and forgetting one’s worries,” Zeb explained to the audience, “and as you walk in the rain, realizing that life is great.” An antithesis to the chaos that dominates most world news coverage, the duo decided to write it so that they could give their fans a fuller, more complex picture of Pakistan, beyond headlines of intolerance and corruption.
The line between original tunes and updated renditions of traditional folk songs became harder to distinguish as the concert went on. Yet to perform them together not only showed us the influences that Zeb and Haniya grew up with, but also how updating these more classical melodies opened doors for them to reach out to new fans they otherwise may not have realized. One such piece was “Paimona Bitte (Bring the Chalice- and Let Me Be Intoxicated)” which Zeb stated, “opened up the band to many new audiences, as well as opening us to how to use music to honor our histories.” When the duo originally began performing it, they mistakenly attributed it as a traditional folk song they remembered hearing while children. “We grew up listening to ‘Paimona’ and owning it without knowing the language,” Zeb explained. Their cover became a hit, and it was only after the composer’s daughter emailed them from the US that they learned it was actually an Afghani song written by the composer for Afghan King Zahir Shah 40 years ago. Written in Dari, the song helped the two women bridge the boundary to Afghan fans by extracting beauty out lyrics that are not in their native tongue.
Watch the video here
Such is the trademark of cousins Zebunnisa Bangash and Haniya Aslam, who began bridging boundaries and dabbling in music while undergraduate students in the United States. Zeb, at Mount Holyoke College, studied economics and art history (“I was such a typical Pakistani girl!” she exclaimed to me); Haniya, at Smith College, studied computer science and anthropology. While both women grew up in musical environments – Zeb’s father tried to convince her to pursue music in college – it didn’t quite come together until they found themselves in the US, away from home, and started writing tunes together as a hobby more than anything else.
Their initial climb to Pakistani stardom is barely mentioned during the concert, and only towards the end of the evening do they talk about their beginnings as a music act, when Zeb recounted one Thanksgiving during college, they had nowhere to go so they decided to stay on campus. They found themselves stranded, and in a café in the basement of Zeb’s dorm, began to tell each other spooky stories to distract themselves from feeling scared. Later that night, they composed what is now their classic track “Chup,” and, as Zeb explained to the audience, “it became a big reason why we’re in music today.” The song, with its bluesy guitar riffs, folksy harmonies and audience clapping spread like wildfire over the Internet shortly before finally getting picked up by radio stations all over Pakistan and attracting a cult following, including over 276,000 fans on their Facebook page alone.
Watch the video here
No better song could end the evening than their cover of “Bibi Sanam,” a Dari folk love song they sing in both Dari and Pashtu. “If ‘Paimona’ opened us up to half the country, then this song opened half the world to us!” Zeb explained. It’s no exaggeration. The duo performed the piece during their first appearance for Coke Studio in 2009, and the video spread like wildfire, now at over two million YouTube hits and counting. Along with their sultry groove, the lyrics, from a poem by Hafiz about patience, lends the traditional tune to be claimed by a multitude of countries surround the area where he lived – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. “This song is owned by so many countries in the world,” Zeb continued, “so we’re owned by so many countries in the world.”
Watch the video here
It could be that the reason why it’s so hard to peg Zeb and Haniya in a specific genre is not so much because they’re genre-less, but more that their repertoire, in all its canon, is an emerging genre in of itself. Global crossroads have always been a consistent theme in the duo’s life, yet they don’t look it that way; rather, they see their background in both Pakistan and the United States as part of this shared tapestry of common human experiences, translated into melodies and sounds that are as variegated as the global and classical traditions that influence them. While their lyrics are emotive, it’s their music that invites, creating a collective space of comfort from the familiar and curiosity for the exotic. In this blend of musical styles – traditional folk tunes, Hindustani, Latin and West African grooves, American folk, blues, jazz, even Bollywood – what Zeb and Haniya create on stage is not just artistry, but an aural dialogue, rooted in the fact that “music transcends national boundaries” and anchors us in the mutual experience of discovering beauty through sound.By Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts, Culture and Music Editor