by Susan Kepecs
Pakistani pop phenoms Zeband Haniya are swamped, stamping their style of South Asian fusion on the world beat map. That includes Madison, of course -- they play at the ninth annual Madison World Music Festival on Fri. (Memorial Union Terrace, 7-8 pm) and Sat. (Willy St. Fair, 3:30-5 pm). Both women, who are cousins, currently live in Lahore, near India -- but their family comes from Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, home of the Khyber Pass and the bull’s-eye of the Af-Pak war. Zeb (pronounced “Zayb”) and Haniya, who went to college in the States, are absolute proof that the Pakistani women in burkas we see on TV are mostly a myth.
Zeb and Haniya, utterly modern women, released their debut album, Chup!, (it means “Hush!”) in 2008. A year later they won the Best Live Act award at MTV Pakistan – and besides performing and recording in their home country they’ve played for audiences in France, Italy, Norway, India, Malaysia, and New York City. This month they return to the States as participants in the Center Stage project, a public diplomacy initiative of the US State Department in partnership with the New England Foundation for the Arts.
This kind of cultural exchange makes a definite dent in the deficiencies of the mainstream media. Among New York Times headlines out of Pakistan this week I found “Taliban Rages over US Decision on Terrorist Group” (Sept. 9), and “Some Pakistani Women Risk All to Marry for Love” (Sept. 8). Despite everything this news imples, Zeb and Haniya put out a gentle sound – East meets West with skillful swing.
I had the good luck to interview Zeb and Haniya on the phone last week, as they kicked off their US tour at the University of Akron in Ohio. They were both on the line at once, chiming in on the same questions. I couldn’t always tell who was who, so in the Q and A below when I’m not sure who’s speaking I attribute the quote to both of them. It’s not perfect journalism, but since they’re very close I don’t think they’ll mind too much.
CulturalOyster: How were you chosen for the Center Stage program?
Haniya: We applied online and were asked to go to Islamabad for an audition when the Center Stage team came to Pakistan. We played a short concert, and later we found out we were chosen!
CulturalOyster: I’ve read about a number of young Pakistani musicians lately, some of them women. This seems phenomenal, given what we see on TV about the repression of women in your country.
Zeb and Haniya: The representation in the US media of the state of women in Pakistan is not totally accurate. Historically, Pakistan has always had very successful musicians. For example in the film industry one of the most powerful figures was the singer / director / actor Madame Noor Jehan. She was called Madame because she was so respected and such a great figure of authority. So we grew up listening to her and to lots and lots of other female role models – women doing classical music and pop and folk songs from the region. In the 1980s the government [under Muhummad Zia-ul-Haq, who imposed martial law in the name of Islam] put restrictions on the arts. A lot of musicians stopped performing in public, but they still played at private functions and the music never died out. There’s been a media boom in the past decade, which has brought out a lot of new talent. But people outside the country are very surprised – they don’t expect musicians from our country.
CulturalOyster: I read that a young female singer from Peshawar – Ghazala Javed – was killed there, in a drive-by shooting, this past July. So I wonder – do you feel safe performing in Pakistan?
Zeb and Haniya: We do, actually. We never lived in that part of the country, although our family roots are there, but we performed in Peshawar last year. What happened to Ghazala was very unfortunate and one is tempted to attribute it to the Taliban, but the incident had nothing to do with them. It was her ex-husband who killed her – he was angry over a money issue. That happens all over the world. The idea that anything that’s wrong in Pakistan involves the Taliban is something we have to fight against. The international media is so powerful –stories are spun overseas and before you know it they’re all over the Internet. The same perceptions are growing inside Pakistan – because western news is so accessible now, over the last five or six years people from other parts of our country have been afraid to go to Peshawar. Yes, the Taliban are there, but that’s not the entire story.
CulturalOyster: You must have started playing when you were kids – you’ve said you grew up listening to all kinds of music. But when did you start performing and recording, and where?
Zeb: Our first performances as a band happened in western Massachusetts, when we were in college [Zeb attended Mt. Holyoke; Haniya went to Smith]. We put some of our songs on the Internet and they traveled back to Pakistan that way. After we graduated and moved back home – Haniya to Islamabad, and me to Lahore – we performed separately. But she came to Lahore in 2006, and that was when we started performing together in Pakistan.
CulturalOyster: Tell me about the various influences in your music, and how you mesh South Asian forms like Pashto folksongs with western sounds.
Haniya: I think one way American influence comes in is that I play guitar. That instrument is so representative of American folk music and rock – the progressions I play are automatically accessible to western audiences. And of course, we’re also influenced by what comes from our own country.
Zeb: It was not a conscious decision to mix those influences. It was very natural. At home, one of the first cassettes I heard when I was little was the Beatles, so this also is music from our childhood. It’s as much ours as anything else. This is true for lots of Pakistanis. That’s why it’s so easy to make the jump – we don’t realize “oh, now we’re doing something western,” or “that’s an eastern melody.”
Haniya: That Beatles cassette was actually the first one I remember. My brother was a huge Beatles fan, but he also listened to Black Sabbath and Ozzie Osborn and my sister liked Cyndi Lauper. All my siblings were always coming up with something – the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees. And my parents liked Elvis and [British popster] Cliff Richard. As for the South Asian strain, we write most of our songs ourselves, and most of the lyrics are in Urdu. The sound is rooted in Pashto, Afghani and Turkish folk music, and also film music from India and Pakistan.
CulturalOyster: Who's in your backup band on this tour, and what's the instrumentation?
Haniya: We travel with four of our friends – they’re fantastic musicians. There’s Zeb on vocals, me on guitar. There’s another guitarist, a drummer, a hand percussionist, and a Pakistani classical flute player.
CulturalOyster: I read that you were working with a spike fiddle player, so I thought there'd be more Asian instruments.
Zeb: My voice is an Asian instrument. And the bamboo flute also is Asian.
CulturalOyster: You have a second album in the works – what else is on your agenda these days?
Zeb and Haniya: The second album is getting mixed right now, and we have two music videos in post-production. There’s also a collaborative album coming out soon, with a Bollywood duo – the four of us have gotten together and written seven new tunes. And there’s this tour – that’s keeping us busy through Oct. 4!