By Ahmad Uzair
Zeb Bangash is undoubtedly one of the most popular female musicians to have come out of Pakistan in recent times. Not only is she quite successful in her musical stint but is also a true artist having deep understanding of arts and culture, and well aware of how important it is to keep firm to our roots and traditions.
Having myself interviewed some of the leading names in the music industry, I have been long wanting to interview Zeb, who is comparatively seen less in the media spotlight. After managing multiple delays due to different time zones and her busy schedule of hopping between different continents for shows, finally Zeb was kind enough to invite me over a cup of coffee where we talked at length about different phases of her musical journey, and her own evolution as a singer from ‘Zeb and Haniya’ to ‘Sandaraa’.
Below is a candid conversation with Zeb, who apart from being an excellent musician is doing a great job representing Pakistan all over the world at prestigious global platforms.
How does it feel to have co-founded a cross-continental and multi-cultural band: Sandaraa? How did this happen and what’s the most challenging aspect?
Sandaraa happened because of a chance gig with clarinet virtuoso Michael Winograd, 3 years ago. I invited Michael to feature in a concert at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC during the summer of 2012. The concert was a great success and we walked off the stage determined to carry it forward. Michael and I became fast friends because of a shared passion for traditional music. More than that we were both interested in the historical linkages and hybridity of traditional forms across our regions. We decided to work with music from Balochistan, Afghanistan from Klezmer and Eastern European traditions, and from Turkey and Central Asia and the idea of Sandaraa was conceived.
While I was touring the US as part of the Center Stage program, Michael and I presented this new idea to our friends at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York and with their help, we were awarded the prestigious Map Fund fellowship, which helped us set up the project.
Since then we’ve played to thousands of people in North America, recorded an EP. We have recently gone to Budapest to present Sandaraa at WOMEX. It’s a crazy thing that’s happened when you think about it. It feels unreal. There have been many times in my life that I have stopped to think “this is it. This is my dream coming true”. But with Sandaraa … I could never ever have imagined that living in Pakistan I would be playing Baluchi and Siraiki songs with a ridiculously brilliant group of Brooklyn musicians who also happen to be some of the most beautiful people I know.
You are definitely one of the most successful female musicians of the country in recent time; still you are hardly seen on television giving any guest appearances? Is it on purpose or it’s just that you have a very tight schedule?
It’s a bit of both. I have genuinely not had the time in the last few years because of excessive traveling and working in three different cities. I do admit though that sometimes I have shied away from interaction with the media. I prefer to connect when there is a professional reason or genuine interest on the other end. I also sometimes avoid it when I have been away from home for too long and need to rejuvenate and spend time with family and close friends. I made this decision pretty early in my career. I hope this doesn’t come across as unfriendly but it’s really just a self-preservation tactic. In fact, I am by nature extremely friendly and love socializing.
You have recently sung and composed music for the much awaited upcoming movie Ho Mann Jahan. How was the experience of working for a local movie? Any more similar projects that you are doing for local cinema?
Yes! I have worked on three songs for the film and am singing on them. I am also co-directing the background score for the film. It is a music oriented film and the soundtrack features works of many other great Pakistani artists. It’s great to finally be working on a big project in Pakistan. I am so grateful to Asim Raza for including me in this venture.
Ho Mann Jahaan is very close to my heart and sometimes I don’t know how to talk about it. Perhaps because it’s the first time that I have been on location, spent time with the team, been around for the ups and downs, and as a result feel invested in the entire production of the film. Asim approached me to do a couple of songs for the film way before production started so I have grown with the project and it has been a life changing experience.
I am proud of how quickly our film industry is taking shape and am thrilled that Ho Mann Jahaan will be releasing soon.
What is the future of ‘Zeb and Haniya’? Are we going to see any re-union in near future?
Not anytime soon it seems. There has been no serious talk of reuniting. When we took this break we both agreed that there was a need to figure out ourselves musically on our own and discover our own identities. No time limit or cap was put on it. We do have recorded unreleased material which Haniya and I have talked about bringing out together, but let’s see when and how that happens.
What do you think is the main reason behind the decline of the band culture in Pakistan? And why are so many ex-band members estranged from each other in this Country?
These are two separate question. I’ll address band members first. It’s natural for bands to break up. A small fraction of bands stay together for a long period of time anywhere in the world. The complications and bitterness are usually caused by creative differences, recognition and/or financial concerns. It’s natural for band members to feel slighted/hurt when a band breaks up because of the emotional and creative investment of each member. It’s traumatic at some level for everyone involved when a band breaks up because it’s almost like a family breaking up. Hence, the initial estrangement. Mostly this estrangement is temporary and will pass even if the break up is final.
The other issue is far more serious and specific. There was a time when original content from Pakistani bands was on the rise throughout the region. Then suddenly, in the early 2000’s, it came to a halt. Today the bulk of Pakistani pop music consists of watered down covers of traditional or film songs. We need to address and investigate why this happened. My understanding is that in Pakistan the sudden decline of promotion for original content declined because market players decided so. Security concerns, band dynamics, the demand or the musical tastes of our people are not the real reasons. The monopoly of the big labels in the early 2000’s and their refusal to play, release or pay for content they had acquired from Pakistani bands so that they could sell at a profit to the corporate fraternities is a major reason behind this shift.
How do you rate Coke Studio’s impact on the overall music industry and specially the fact CS played an important role in making your band a household name?
I think by now everyone knows it significance, it was a very integral part of our lives and it played a significant role in popularizing us. I remember it was when we first visited India in 2009 that I realized how big CS had become. From the moment I got out of the airport, people were recognizing us and coming up to us to say great things about Paimona, Chup, Chal Diye and Rona Chorh Diya.
Should we expect any solo projects from your side? Any details about Bollywood projects and what’s cooking up in ‘Sandaraa’?
Ho Mann Jahaan will be coming out soon in which you will be hearing quite a bit of me. I just finished working as a Music Director on a film in India which will be releasing in 2016. There are some songs in India that I have sung for other composers. Apart from that there is Sandaraa and hopefully we would set up a more extensive Europe tour for 2016.
I would personally like to thank Zeb for taking out time from her extremely busy schedule for this interview. Wish her the very best of luck and all the success for her upcoming projects.