Taking a pop at the old world

Feature Their music career began almost by accident while studying in America, but Zeb and Haniya's modern fusion of classical, folk, Arab and western styles has struck a chord with Pakistani youth, making them the country's biggest pop duo.

Their music career began almost by accident while studying in America, but Zeb and Haniya's modern fusion of classical, folk, Arab and western styles has struck a chord with Pakistani youth, making them the country's biggest pop duo. Abid Shah reports. There is, in the telling and retelling of their tale, a certain magic, an air of innocence, and some charm. The two cousins, Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam, had nothing to do. Term was over in their American college town, and the Pakistani girls were stuck in the dorms, bored stiff. Outside, a snowy white Christmas, frost, long dripping icicles and slippery pavements.

So, adventure. The cousins started snooping around the basements of Mount Holyoke College. Behind a stack of washing machines, dryers and coin dispensers, they found an unlocked door, a dark passage, and Narnia. Not exactly, but it was an abandoned bookstore-cum-cafe, with college mugs and scarves displayed on cobwebbed counters overrun by spiders, almost putting the girls to flight. But Zeb and Haniya settled in here with guitar, cookies and coffee, and, half-jokingly, composed their first song.

They told me the place was haunted; it showed. The song, Chup (Hush!), was a bit naughty, a bit spooky and slightly breathless, as if a spider was about to land on your neck. Friends liked it, the cousins uploaded it to the internet, and the world paid attention. And so, Pakistan's biggest pop duo, Zeb and Haniya, was formed, in 2002. Today, Zeb and Haniya dominate Pakistan's music charts. Their album, also called Chup, after that first song, leads the charts. The videos are viral. More than that, Zeb, who sings, and Haniya, who plays the guitar, have become symbols of opportunity for a new generation of middle-class Pakistani girls who, until now, avoided the male-dominated Pakistani music scene.

Fifteen years earlier, as a teenager growing up in Islamabad, Haniya had dreamed of playing the guitar, but lessons were not an option. The instructors were young men, and it would have been a scandal for a girl to be alone with a man. The guitar was considered to be a sign of rebellion. It represented the West, and a young Pakistani girl had no place in that world. Classical music, taught by an elderly teacher, was more acceptable, and Haniya learned to play the small classical Indian drums called tablas.

Zeb received classical training, too, taking a class with Mubarik Ali Khan, the famous vocalist. He was sceptical at their first class, but after her first lesson - a run that took her through the basic scales - the teacher changed his mind. "You are my daughter," Mubarik told her. "If you work hard, you can be a classical musician." The duo have betrayed those classical roots, but after meeting them, I understood why. In their suburban Lahore house, with its soft sofas and wooden furniture, we talked about indie rock and the great qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Haniya, her spectacles glinting, brought her computer, set up the speakers, scrolled through her playlist, and soon we were listening to Suzanne Vega.

I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee And he fills it only halfway... They grin, strumming their fingers to the lyrics of Tom's Diner, as I eat crisp samosas with ketchup. America, I thought, had marked them, and they had infused their classical training, the vocal tilt and strumming rhythms, to the singer-songwriter tradition so popular with undergraduates at American universites. This made sense, as they started playing together in college, influenced by Vega and Tracy Chapman.

And while Zeb and Haniya avoid politics, they are revolutionary in the singer-songwriter sense, simply because they exist. They live in Lahore, Pakistan's tree-lined cultural capital, and come from a modernising urban middle-class background that had few role models in music or the workplace. Fifteen years ago women from their class were housewives, teachers or professors. Any musical training was in the Jane Austen-style "accomplishments" column that women would tick off to snag suitable husbands. Singing as a profession was for harlots.

Zeb and Haniya, both aged 31, have broken this mould. They are ethnic Pathan singers in a context where Pathan culture is in a conservative freefall. Six years ago, the then ultra-religious government of Pakistan's majority Pathan North West Frontier province banned music in public places, imprisoned musicians, and tacitly condoned bomb attacks on music and video shops - the shop in their ancestral town, Kohat, was blown up while they were visiting their grandmother's house.

"We heard a loud bang and the windows rattled," says Haniya, "A cook ran in and said, 'Don't worry, it's probably just another CD shop.'" It was. "I didn't know whether to be more upset about the blast or the reaction to the blast," says Haniya. Last year, the Pakistani army defeated the largely Pathan Taliban militia that had conquered Swat valley, the country's most popular tourist area. Today, war rages in Waziristan, in the tribal areas that straddle the Pakistan and Afghanistan border.

Their album is influenced by classical, Pathan, western and Arab music, and they pay particular debt to Fairuz, the Lebanese singer. One of the band's biggest hits, Paimana Bitte (Bring The Flask) adapts Fairuz's jazzy style to Pushtu and Darri folk. Zeb's voice, pitched and accented with the nuance and inflections of her classical Indian training, is accompanied by Haniya's heavier voice and her guitar. A changing group of musicians accompanies them, playing everything from the sarod (a deep-toned stringed instrument) to drums and trumpets.

Paimana Bitte was their flirtation with folk music. It has received enormous feedback from Pathans, who have asked them to sing other Pathan folk songs to keep tradition alive, but their impact extends across Pakistan, beyond the Pathan community. All the other songs in their album are in Urdu, Pakistan's national language, and their lyrics appeal to city youth. All this listening, my patience, is exhausted

Enough We have talked a lot, now it is time for love You should know what is in my heart This longing, this sweet longing, what is it? This refrain resonates with young, urban Pakistanis who find it difficult to date or even meet in public. However, the increasing use of mobile phones means that customs are changing. Many young people resort to the phone to get to know each other, relationships start with missed calls and late-night gossip, and sometimes these chats evolve into marriages after overcoming objections by the parents of either or both the bride and groom. These marriages are still disdainfully called "love marriages", but fewer people care. The tide favours the young.

And the children of the rapidly expanding middle class are looking for heroes and role models. The Taliban and conservative Pathan allies may repress musicians, but Pakistan's mainstream is hungry for music. But let us return to our theme, to the momentous challenge of blazing a trail, to tell the story of ambition, drive and talent. How did a song composed on the spur of the moment in a moment of boredom lead to a music career in a conservative society? How do you become a musician in Pakistan?

"We made the song almost as a joke, and we expected our friends to laugh when we sang it to them," says Haniya. "But people loved it. I think it was a defining moment when we realised that we could actually come up with an original song that people would like." Though the cousins continued practising and collaborating on songs after that winter, they put most of their energy into their studies. Zeb had studied economics and joined a business with her brother, who imported massage chairs from Singapore. Haniya graduated with a degree in computer science and relocated to London, earning a master's degree in anthropology in 2006.

She later returned to Pakistan where she accepted a job at the National College of Arts in Lahore, helping to develop new courses. To the delight of her parents, she obtained a visiting teaching position in May in the cultural studies department at the college. It was, for a society obsessed with the role of women, a perfect position - respectable, academic, and not too adventurous. She soon left.

Music remained a hobby. When not working, the cousins wrote music and practised their songs at a house owned by a guitarist for the Pakistani boy band, Coven. It was perfect, mainly because the house had a back-up generator that would kick in whenever the electricity was disrupted, a regular occurrence in Lahore. Five years ago, the duo re-recorded Chup, their original song. They distributed it over the internet just for friends, but before they knew it, the song was all over Pakistani radio, playing an endless loop. In light of the song's popularity, Mekaal Hasan, one of Pakistan's top producers, approached them.

"I thought that their material had great potential and after listening to their songs, I suggested they record them," says Mekaal, a long-haired guitarist who became a friend. "Otherwise they might have sat around making songs at home... why not make a record when people like your work?" Getting their music out had its challenges. Recording an album in Pakistan can cost more than US$10,000 (Dh37,000), which is serious money in a country where the average annual income is under $1,000 (Dh3,700). "I know a lot of people - friends of ours - who can't break into the industry because they don't have money or contacts," Haniya says.

Luckily, she and Zeb had both. They borrowed money from Zeb's brother, and Mekaal owned a brand new recording studio. This reduced the bulk of their expenses. Most of the musicians who play on the album were friends who agreed to work for credit, working for free and then being paid after the duo signed a record deal. After the launch in July 2008 came the realities of a life in pop. The cousins toured Pakistan for three months, playing as many concerts as possible. In a country with no copyright laws, concerts are revenue. Today, because of bomb threats, few outdoor concerts are organised, and musicians make money by touring abroad, visiting expatriate communities in the Middle East, Canada, the UK and the US, as well as playing at cultural centres in the US and university campuses across North America.

In Lahore, two years ago, a small bomb exploded at the Rafi Peer Puppet Festival, the largest puppet festival of its kind in the world, scaring away foreign artists. Last year terrorists struck at the Sri Lankan cricket team, killing police and injuring players. Consequently, no concerts are held, except in heavily guarded private clubs for the elite, and the masses follow music on television, where a lot of money comes from corporate sponsorship.

In this environment there are many challenges: the violence, the openness, the television, the audience, the lack of female role models. Support for women in the industry is inadequate, and Zeb and Haniya are the role models. This, surprisingly, leads to independence. One example is how they dress. Other stars in their position, including several women stars - most of whom were born of expatriate families - wear jeans and tops. Zeb and Haniya perform in traditional Pakistani attire, wearing loose-fitting shalwars and kurtas.

"The way they came on stage spoke volumes about their confidence," a reviewer for Instep magazine wrote of a concert. "Dressed simply in pants and plain kurtas? they looked dramatic on stage. Zeb and Haniya are not pop tarts, and they do not need designer wear to boost their profile. Theirs is a music that speaks for itself." I read this and remembered a line: All this listening, my patience, is exhausted

Enough A change is brewing. Ten years from now, I expect no female singer will be even obliquely referred to as a tart. And she will have a haunted basement, snow, and two creative souls to thank.

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