When we think of contemporary Pakistan, topics like art and culture seldom come to mind. Instead, for many Western and some (primarily diasporic) Pakistani onlookers, the country is likely to conjure images of drone-strikes, the Bin Laden raid in Abottabad, or other headline-grabbing instances of violence. These observers would be surprised to learn that the city of Lahore, Pakistan’s urban “survivor,” second largest city, and intellectual capital, lies at the center of a dynamic music scene and is home to some of the subcontinent’s most inspiring and gifted musicians.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss this musical phenomenon with Haniya Aslam of the Lahore-based musical duo Zeb and Haniya. Originally from Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, Haniya, who is responsible for the group’s instrumentals, and Zeb Bangash, who provides vocals, have created a sound, which although not downrightly political has forged its own space in Pakistan’s contemporary music scene. Playing with several genres at once, the group is influenced by musical styles ranging from blues and jazz to Afghan folk songs, and often adopts traditions simultaneously claimed by Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan, and India.
Despite what some might expect, Haniya doesn’t consider herself to be on a cultural crusade to dismantle oppressive stereotypes of Pakistani society. For instance, while the group’s hit single (and title of their debut album), ‘Chup’ literally means ‘hush,’ it does not seek to address or silence anyone, and, instead, has a playful feel.
Ultimately, Haniya believes using music as a medium of self-expression, and doing this for the sake of pleasure, is an act of agency. In this way, Zeb and Haniya remind us what far too many forget – that even in Pakistan, people have the ability to shape their own destinies.
Muftah’s Q&A with Haniya Aslam follows. **
Q: How did you both officially come together as the band, Zeb and Haniya ?
Haniya Aslam (HA): Zeb and I are first cousins and have been singing together since we were about six years old. We come from a family of music lovers and have grown up memorizing songs and singing constantly.
As a band/project, Zeb and Haniya can probably be traced back to our undergrad days in western Massachusetts. That’s where we started writing songs for the first time and discovered we actually had an audience other than our family.
The band officially started in 2007, when we began work on our debut album ‘Chup’ (Hush).
Q: It is widely known that you are influenced by a variety of musical styles that range from blues and jazz, to subcontinental ragas and Afghan folk music. Are there any specific artists who have influenced your style?
HA: When we started out, questions about our genre or influences confused us, because we didn’t consciously draw from any one source, or try to head in any one direction. We eventually realized that subconsciously, we drew from pretty much every style of music we’d heard since we were children, which consisted of a wide spectrum of sounds.
Personally, as an acoustic guitar player and songwriter, I greatly admire singer/songwriters such as Suzanne Vega, Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Jose Gonzales.
Q: You are both known for writing all your own lyrics. Are there any themes in particular that you both address in your music?
HA: The first album—for which Zeb and I wrote most of the lyrics— didn’t really have an over arching theme. Some of the songs were straightforward love songs. There were also a few about finding one’s own voice and agency. I suppose they were your usual coming-of-age sort of songs.
The second album, which we’ve been working on for over a year now and hope to release by the end of 2012, has a couple of songs for which we wrote the lyrics. But this time we actually approached a few poets and writers we admire and asked them to write for us. And there is also a more defined theme this time, which is hope.
Q: You are both based in Lahore. What is the Lahore music scene like these days? Is there a growing alternative music scene?
HA: Lahore has always been the cultural capital of Pakistan. The classical music scene has always been strongest here and our film industry, or what remains of it, is also based here. In the mid to late 1990s, Lahore had a thriving underground rock scene. Nowadays, live music isn’t as common as it used to be, but a burgeoning electronic media industry has encouraged the emergence of a lot of bands and solo acts since the early 2000s.
These days there are many new bands coming up with really exciting kinds of music, from all Pakistan’s major cities.
Q: You recently performed in India. How was the trip? Was it your first visit to India?
HA: We’ve been traveling to India fairly frequently since 2009, but our first tour there was in November 2011. We played The Hindu’s Novemberfest in Chennai, Coimbatore and Hyderabad, and we came across some of the best venues, sound technicians and audiences that we’ve ever seen.
Also, while we knew we had fans in Delhi and Bombay, we had no idea people listened to our music in South India too. The response was fantastic, and we’re returning to Novemberfest this year too.
Q: You were both featured on the show, The Dewarists, a travelogue/music series on Star World India. You both also collaborated with Indian composer Shantanu Moitra and lyricist Swanand Kirkire on the track ‘Kya Khyaal Hai.’ Did collaborating with Indian musicians change any preconceptions you had as Pakistanis about India?
HA: Any preconceptions we might have held ended the first time we came to India. Actually, some of our closest friends in college were Indian, and all one really needs is to meet one Indian or Pakistani to realize everything we are told through the media and propaganda machines has no basis in reality, whatsoever.
Q: There seems to be an underlying perception in the West that Pakistan is all about “bombs and bullets.” Just looking at Western media coverage, there is such an intense focus on conflict in Pakistan that a lot that is actually great about Pakistan (such as its music) is undermined. In these circumstances, what do you feel your role becomes as musicians?
HA: When we decided to take up music and pursue it professionally, we never realized that artists are viewed as ambassadors for their people and countries. Initially, we resisted the role since it was never our intention. Eventually, however, we realized the importance of stepping up and dispelling warped preconceptions, simply by being able to do what we do and be who we are.
Q: You probably get asked this question a lot by Western media, and sources unfamiliar with Pakistan, but I may as well ask it for the record: As musicians who hail from KPK, Pakistan, have you faced any challenges as female artists in a context where traditionally, the roles of women in society are typically governed by men? If so, what have they been?
HA: Yes, we get asked this question a lot, and, no, we didn’t face any hurdles solely because of our gender. In fact, our male colleagues and friends were the ones who initially encouraged and pushed us to record our first album and enter the music scene properly. Without their support we probably wouldn’t have done any of this.
People are quick to emphasize the roles that successful women play in their societies, but many of these women couldn’t have achieved what they had without the support of the men around them. This is true of any society really not just KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) or Pakistan.
Q: I’m thrilled to hear you both have a new EP coming out! Anything in particular you want to share in advance of its publication?
HA: We’re thrilled too, and can’t wait to share our new work with our listeners.
The second album is always harder because the first one was written without the consciousness of an audience. Those songs were written for ourselves. This time we were far more conscious of all the people who would hear what we released. The biggest hurdle was finding a way to override this awareness. We’ve tried to be a little more experimental this time, and let each song go through to its natural conclusion. We’re very excited with these tracks, and hope our fans will like them too.
*Ayesha Chugh is editor of Muftah’s Afghanistan & Pakistan page
**The views expressed in this interview are solely those of Haniya, and are not in any way representative of the band’s views.