02 September, 2014 / Ziqa'ad 6, 1435

Zeeshan Zaidi performs with his band "The Commuters". – Photo courtesy Sadef Kully
Zeeshan Zaidi performs with his band "The Commuters". – Photos and video by Dhruv Kumar

If there is one thing that cannot be doubted about Zeeshan Zaidi, lead singer for New York-based indie rock band “The Commuters,” it is his ambition.

Stereotypically, Zaidi is not so much the typical rock star – there is no story of a long struggle with drugs, rock and roll, or even a notorious reputation with women. He lives on the opposite end of the spectrum, and quite happily.

“One day I will die – that is a fact. When the time comes for me to die, I don’t want to look back and say why did you not do this? Why didn’t you even try?” explains Zaidi. “I went college then law school then business school.  I know it isn’t the typical rock musician path but it was always my dream. I always felt like I had to do this before I died.”

Zaidi, of Pakistani origins, comes from an international background; was born in Canada, raised in Manila, and educated in the US while exhibiting extraordinary signs of the ordinary teenage boy fantasy of becoming a rock star.

“My parents recognised early on that I had so much motivation and ambition that they didn’t need to give me that,” says Zaidi who grew up as the eldest of four siblings with an engineer father and stay-at-home mom. “I play the trombone, saxophone, guitar, drums, and a bit of the piano. I learned the trombone as part of the school band and the rest was self-taught. I always had done musical stuff but never worked on anything.”

And he was not kidding around about the motivation and ambition part; Zaidi graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics, then graduated cum laude from law school, and then graduated top 10 per cent of his class from business school – all from Harvard University.

“I was just a kid that worked hard and proved himself. So I got into the best schools this country has – I was accepted. There was no obligation to take in anyone. I got all these opportunities both professionally, and academically, just because of what I was capable of doing,” says Zaidi.

“I spent a lot of time in the academic world. I spent a lot of time since then working with contacts in professions where you have to be street smart and people smart, even if you don’t know how to be a shark – you have to know how to deal with sharks – I think that is essentially what street smarts boils down to,” explains Zaidi, who describes himself as someone who is driven, purposeful, goal-oriented, and also trying to have fun along the way.

Zaidi was, and in no particular order, a vice president for two different music labels, a senior marketing director, chief operating officer for two different companies including Limewire, the free file sharing program which shut down in 2010.

“Along the way, I had all these authorities that came from different backgrounds from Jewish to Hindu and they knew who was and what I was. That I was Muslim and that I was a religious Muslim and nothing was ever an issue,” Zaidi tells Dawn.com.

“I got all these chances just because people saw I was competent. That is so much of what America is about. And there is no society that is perfect – especially post 9/11 – there is this whole dynamic of blaming Muslims. There is ignorance, there is targeting, and I could spend ages talking about that. But at the same time, this is still a society where anyone could do anything.”

In 2011, Zaidi joined the Council of Foreign Relations, and most recently co-founded Host Committee, a company that brings social media and real-world social life together in a world where everyone request friends – not make friends.

“I have always been a huge, politics, policy, and international relations junkie. This is a think tank and yeah it’s a power club but they let me in. Not because I am the son of this person or that person but based on knowing exactly who I am,” says Zaidi. “Whenever you think of Pakistanis and Americans there is always a disconnect and it’s mostly on a political level. What gives me hope is that if you take away the politics and the news that cloud the way Americans see Pakistanis and how Pakistanis see Americans, then people will connect with one another – generally once that happens people get along with each other.”

“There is that side to America: an America that embraces everyone. This a society where people like me, a Pakistani American Muslim, can accomplish a lot. To me America is the country that owed me nothing and gave me everything.”

And yet even after accomplishing many of his goals, there still was that driven teenage boy that wanted to turn his rock and roll fantasy into a reality. And so he did.

“I spend a lot of time working towards goals and objectives whether it’s the companies I am working on or music but at the same time I like to have fun and not take things or life too seriously. You can’t take yourself too seriously and I have a lot of respect for people who don’t.  I like people who can be focused, dedicated, and motivated when they need to be but also know how to have fun.”

Zaidi came up with the idea to put music to the songs he had been writing, so he connected with his childhood friend from Manila, Uri Djemal, who owned a music production company in New York, and is also the guitarist for the Commuters.

“I got in touch with Uri and said let’s do this,” said Zaidi. “We started working together and it went great. For me it was liberating to work with someone who could handle a bunch of stuff. I could just play and he would handle the rest. Frankly, he is better at it then I am because he is a trained engineer. And it was good to know someone my whole life that I had an incredible comfort level with.”

Influenced by musical all-stars; U2, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Peter Gabriel. Zaidi had been writing songs for as long as he can remember and each song came from different sources of inspiration.

“[Culture] shapes who I am – it sort of shapes who I am and how I see things. I don’t know if it directly affects the songs that I write – it might but if it does then it does indirectly. What I write about tends to be about how I connect with things,” said Zaidi. “There is no one way a song will come to me; sometimes it will start with a melody, or sometimes I will have a thought, an inspiration, or an idea that would be cool as a song. And sometimes I have woken up and the music and song is there in its entirety. I am definitely inspired by people, events, relationships, and moments.”

The Commuters first album “Rescue” was released in April and included songs like “Bombs Away,” “Fallen from Grace,” and “As I Make My Way.”

““Bombs Away” was about the first gulf war – the first televised war. People were glued to their televisions. It wasn’t really a protest song. I wouldn’t call it political as much as looking at world events,” explained Zaidi. ““Fallen from Grace” is interesting. [Many] people really liked that song which I didn’t expect. It was one of the last songs I wrote. It’s not about me or one person – it’s about several people I know. They had bad experiences when they were young kids which led them to act, behave, indulge in certain things later – almost to cope. And for me it was like looking at them and asking; if what they are doing is a reaction to the situation they had no control over, is it really their fault? Was it a choice or was it fate that they ended up that way?”

Zaidi had the songs and had brought a band together; with Uri Djemal on the guitar, Ben Zwerin on bass, and Paul Amorese on the drums. Although there is a completed album but the Commuters never signed to a record label even with all the strong connections each band member had made along the way in their professional musical careers. Instead Zaidi decided to create his own label, Communal Records.

“When I started with The Commuters I said I was going to do this at my own pace. And I don’t want to sign with a label or a manager, yet; I will be the manager, I’ll be the booker, I’ll be the lawyer, and the label. So that I don’t make a commitment to someone that I don’t think I can keep,” explained Zaidi. “When you commit to a label you are basically saying you will do everything to become bigger and the same goes with a manager. And I didn’t want to do that.”

“I made a conscious decision to not give up everything to just do that. It’s my passion – in some ways I feel like I was put on this planet to do this but I have so much going on that I also love and don’t want to give up. I have this other career that I built up and I wasn’t going to give that up because I love it too much. Being a part of the media and technology world gets me so excited.”

The Commuters are planning an east coast tour in the US but future plans include a cross country tour in the US and eventually a world-wide tour with a growing fan-base in Pakistan and the UK.

“The Commuters just started. It’s only been a few months since out album came out.  A lot of these songs I started writing ten years ago. This isn’t anywhere near the best of what I can do. So this is just the first album. I want to take this as far as we can on our own.”

The author is a former Dawn.com staff member, now based in New York.


Do you have information you wish to share with Dawn.com? You can email our News Desk to share news tips, reports and general feedback. You can also email the Blog Desk if you have an opinion or narrative to share, or reach out to the Special Projects Desk to send us your Photos, or Videos.

More From This Section

Comments (48) (Closed)


Nat
Dec 12, 2012 10:35pm
Out of context by 3 miles. But it was a good cue to brag about non-achievements. Hard working means doing manual labor.
Shah
Dec 14, 2012 02:52pm
Hehe, funny :-)
faisal
Dec 13, 2012 09:44am
So what is wrong with moving abroad for better life and future? You have to realize that leaving one's culture, society and circle of loved ones is not the easiest thing to do. You want to stop the brain drain? Give people hope for better future or stop complaining.
BRR
Dec 12, 2012 02:59pm
The singer is not Pakistani. So chill, he is an American, and let him be.
Faizan Tariq
Dec 14, 2012 08:56am
Typical reaction from who blame america for everything including their Hypocrisy .Amercia is country who is selfish and only cares about itself. Why should any country think otherwise?
Shah
Dec 15, 2012 04:50am
really, is that what you got after reading this article? and I guess the title of this article “America owed me nothing, gave me everything” make any sense either to you? " Good luck to you
zubidabb
Dec 13, 2012 04:00am
Wrong,wrong and wrong,did't you read the article, he said, he was born in Canada,raised in Manila and studied in the US
Bangash
Dec 13, 2012 02:19am
All Pakistanis hate America until they get a visa.
aku
Dec 13, 2012 06:46am
Good to see Zaidi doing well. It is important that whether you live out of country or inside, we make our contribution to this country. With all its evils and problems, we will remain Pakistani the rest of our lives. So instead of arguing about problems, we make contribution to the solution in our own way. Zaidi is doing it by promoting a good name for the country. Everybody can.
Zeeshan
Dec 13, 2012 01:58pm
My friend we should not expect the results of our good deeds (in case we start moving on the right track) in our lifetime. This generation is doomed to be sacrificed for the better future may be after 50 years. If our elders have prioritized the national interests we would be having very easy life today.
Nat
Dec 13, 2012 10:25am
Sure, I blame YOU and not Pakistan. Satisfied.
Nat
Dec 12, 2012 10:46pm
Bravo, just to accept that the America owed nothing to the writer, and gave it everything speaks of a humble man. Good on you, but just one question. Is this also true about your parents, that they owed you nothing and gave you everything right from the first day, when you could not even wipe your own shit and feed yourself. And is it also true about the millions of drug users, and homeless and .... they also got everything and are just complaining, or they are just animals, or you are, by any means, son of a gun or a blue eyed boy of the establishment?
Zia
Dec 14, 2012 07:31am
Cynical, It gives me great hope that there exist people like you in Pakistan.Using reason and logic is great way to come closer the "truth". "Cynical" is not a good identity, "Skeptic" could be more appropriate... :) Keep up the good work.
SJ
Dec 12, 2012 04:33pm
Thank you Erfan. EVEN TO THIS DAY, people, who fought for Pakistan and then left all their belongings and came to live here are considered foreigners. What a shame. We lived in the US and found people there amazingly wonderful, law abiding, just and passionate. This is the reason why US is on top as it VALUES talent and hardwork irrespective of cast, color or creed. We need to learn from it in our disjointed, multicultural, multiethnical fragmented society. We have a LONG way to go.
Chaudhry
Dec 12, 2012 04:38pm
We are born Pakistani, get education in Pakistan, go to USA for higher education and then never return except some who do so in old age.....If this brain draining continued then how it will be able to develop the country. Think..........
Mountie
Dec 12, 2012 06:22pm
No this article doesnt potray negative image of Pakistan. No this person does not owe anything to Pakistan or Islam and no Imran Khan cant solve our problems in 90 days. No this is not some kind of consipiracy theory!
Cynical
Dec 13, 2012 10:22am
There is actually, if one is intelligent.
omar
Dec 12, 2012 05:00pm
How is your life-story related to this article? Do you want a pat on your back for being such a proud Pakistani (who incidentally doesn't live in Pakistan)? Next time you land, please, inform us and the whole country will come greet you at the airport.
Nat
Dec 13, 2012 10:23am
It is an ocean, however much quantity of fish you take, the stock is not depleted, and the ecosystem bounces back.
Nat
Dec 12, 2012 10:55pm
GhostRider asks 'Just answer honestly, can an a Pakistani achieve similar success in Pakistan?' Talk about Alam Lohar, Raeshman, Alamgir...
B. Ally
Dec 13, 2012 05:25am
There are success stories based upon merit in America.There are success stories based upon merit in Pakistan. American dream is great but America nightmare is terrible. If ones hard work and talent succeeds it is great but when it starts failing then horror story becomes endless in which ever country you live. Let us keep hoping that hard work and talent does not go to waste.
shuaib
Dec 12, 2012 11:33pm
This comparison of American and Pakistani society is absurd to say the least. Yes, America and west have done a fantastic job in acheiving a just and egalitarian society and I wish and pray that one day we will be able to achieve some of this success in Pakistan also in near future. But to say that Pakistani bad and Western good is just too simplistic. Put any human, be it an American or an African in a situation Pakistanis face then see how they will act/react. With all its shortcomings, I say "Zara Num ho to ye matti bari zurkhais hay saqi" salaam shuaib.
Habib
Dec 13, 2012 07:43am
Ok. Thanks a lot for sharing your life history with us!
AK
Dec 14, 2012 02:17am
It is the sad truth. When a student from a government funded medical college or engineering university in Pakistan moves away it is brain drain and loss of resources. Unfortunately it is the lack of prospect and security that causes it. E.g We are providing US hospitals a pipeline of qualified doctors. These expatriates own gratitude to Pakistan and we also need to acknowledge billions of dollars that overseas Pakistanis remit every year.
m Canada
Dec 12, 2012 03:49pm
You made me proud. May Allah (S.T.) bless you even more. That's how we are...Majority of us (NRP) feel the same way about our country regardless how much and how far we are living from our beloved country "Pakistan".
rajesh
Dec 13, 2012 08:19pm
America wants people who can strengthen their economy and increase prosperity no matter where he come from, this resulted due to policies of its leaders who are sincere with their country. In our beloved country Pakistan, leaders have always been sincere to themselves so whenever anyone gets any single chance to travel abroad, almost avails. If same drained brains could have got any favorable circumstances, definitely had served in much better way. It time to choose your leadership else will be just cursing each other.
AC
Dec 14, 2012 12:17am
Then why he is there? Is he think America did nothing for him, let him flourish in Pakistan Music industry. Person like him is a shame and disgusting.
Rao
Dec 13, 2012 02:45pm
Then they rush to the land of infidels to live very happily afterwards.
AI
Dec 12, 2012 10:39am
How did you ready this article and came put with any negative reference to Pakistan? The author doesn't even talk about Pakistan. It's about all the opportunities Zaidi got in America just because of his talent and ambition and hard work.The author never said or implied that if Zaidi had been living in Pakistan he may have not achieved those. People in Pakistan achieve amazing things every day as well. BTW, he wasn't born in Pakistan wasn't raised in Pakistan. Just because his parents are Pakistani doesn't mean that Pakistan is his country necessarily. People can be loyal to the countries they grow up in without the rest of us blaming them for it.
saadiya
Dec 12, 2012 07:28am
“America owed me nothing, gave me everything” Kuddos for having accieved all this. BUT i find this title offensive - because we owe our country first . Not the other way arround . And i am sick of dawn publishing articles with a negitive incantonation for pakistan
Shah
Dec 12, 2012 01:08pm
Born, raised, educated, served in its army and worked all my life in a european country. I love my country of birth that gave me the opportunitiy to be successful. I love its nature, its people and the way things are organized. And when the economy is doing great (in contrast to other European countries) it makes it even more enjoyable. Being hard working and loyal to my country of birth puts Pakistan in a very good light. I can not count how many times I have been told that "my views on Pakistanis have changed after meeting you". At the same time I am comfortable with me being Pakistani (I am not Germanic or Slav or Chinese for that matter).I am married to a Pakistani (from Pakistan) and practise Urdu and Punjabi at home. I visit Pakistan as often as I can after my parents wrapped up their business and moved back to Pakistan in their golden days. This has enabled me to understand my country of origin in a much better way. I am deeply impressed by Allama Iqbal and The Quaid. I even named my child after Quad-e-Azam. With love, Pakistan Zindabad!
Ghazi
Dec 13, 2012 06:18pm
Well said, Faisal.
Cynical
Dec 12, 2012 09:07am
Why should he owe anything to Pakistan? He was not born here, not raised here , not educated here, not made his carrer here. For him to owe anything to Pakistan, he should have to, in some way receive some benefit from Pakistan. I like his spirit and his honesty that is the way to appreciate the generosity of a host country and its people who cherish a composite culture as against some mediavel monolithic culture.
Hamayun
Dec 12, 2012 11:23am
There is no substitute for hard work.
Insaan
Dec 12, 2012 01:31pm
Bravo Zeeshan. I hope the situation in Pakistan will improve for everyone's safety in our lifetime.
Erfan
Dec 12, 2012 12:37pm
I can understand your feelings but they are not because of any negative connotation towards Pakistan in the article, but your own insecurity. I live in America as a Pakistani Muslim and I can tell you that this country offers you whatever you can achieve without bias towards your ethnicity or faith. I lived most of my life in Pakistan and love Pakistan as my motherland, but, let's be honest; if an African Christian/Hindu/Buddhist comes to live in Pakistan, how would we treat him? How do we treat those who are different from the majority population? What Pakistanis don't understand is that to progress, it needs to shed it's prejudices and malice towards it's minorities and make every man, woman and child, no matter what their faith or ethnicity, a stake holder in the welfare of the country.
AHA
Dec 13, 2012 07:34pm
What is a country, really. Is it just a piece of land. Or is it something that gives you respect, dignity, safety, freedon of expression, freedom of choice, freedom of belief, treats you fairly, rewards you for your efforts, makes you want to do more, makes you believe that with your efforts and hardwork you can achieve anything.
AHA
Dec 13, 2012 07:37pm
We love 'Lucy', the great mom.
Ghazi
Dec 12, 2012 02:11pm
I am a Pakistani. I was born in Pakistan. I went to school in Pakistan and then I went to the U.S to pursue higher education. I am almost done with my education and I have found a good job. But it doesn't end there. I can practice my religion freely with a "Shia" Muslim to my right and a "Sunni" Muslim to my left. I can talk to my next door neighbor freely about anything I want. I can go to a grocery store without any fear of being cheated on the price. I can boast about myself being a Pakistani without any backlash. There is something called "respect for other human beings" in the American society which I truly admire. Yes, I am all out against the drones and the useless war on terror. They are serving no purpose and killing innocent civilians every day-an act of terror in its own right. Yes, I am at odds with the American government. But just as much as I am at odds with our sorry excuse for a government. We like pointing the finger of blame at the West for everything in our society. What we don't realize is that the evils that exist in our society far outweigh what happens in the west. Granted, there are people in the U.S who break the law, do terrible things and commit fraud, corruption, nepotism, etc. But not to the extent that we Pakistanis go to. We have no one to blame but ourselves. Our country is in need of a nation. At least I can sit here in the United States and act as a good ambassador for my country, and so far, I think I'm doing an okay job. I remain hopeful that a day will come when we will realize the error of our own ways and become the nation that we were destined to become.
Raja Farhat Abbas Chib
Dec 12, 2012 11:27am
Mr,his parents were born in Pakistan,he orignates in Pakistan,his ancestors i guess are buried in Pakistan and theirs no need to insult Pakistan,thank you very much.Good or bad its still our country.Pakistan Paindabad
Cynical
Dec 12, 2012 01:58pm
Your autobiography is out of context as far as this article goes.
ishrat salim
Dec 12, 2012 02:01pm
The point this article is trying to make is....normal people are successful in America because nobody tries to use influence / source to get anything achieved...it is just hard work that is recognized...law is for all....we must recognize this fact & face the truth....there is nothing wrong with Pakistan, but there is too much wrong with inner us.....that ! we must change.....we must support people with talent, hard work & honesty not intimidation.....is there any recognition of merit in our country ? so , why blame Pakistan, it is us who use all sort of source to PUSH sons & daughters through use of influence...get any work done through short-cuts.....& the list is long.So do not blame Pakistan, but us....please !
Cynical
Dec 12, 2012 02:09pm
Our ancestors (for that matter of all of humans) came from some savana land near the rift valley in east Africa. Should we feel insulted when someone says something negative about Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia. Come out of this myopic view of life, look at the big picture. And this gentleman has not spoken a word against Pakistan.
Amir Bangash
Dec 14, 2012 01:27pm
All Pakistanis do not hate America or Americans but people do have differences with their policy makers.Every Pakistani is not eager to get US visa but few out of 180 millions try to get some better job or living. Please add your name to the tribe of Bangash.
Cynical
Dec 12, 2012 02:11pm
@Erfan Respect, my brother.
GhostRider
Dec 12, 2012 09:40am
Dawn or Zeeshan or anybody else does not portrat negative image of Pakistan, its us who do that. Just answer honestly, can an a Pakistani achieve similar success in Pakistan? I guess no, so atleast appreciate America for that. America is a superpower today because she worked hard to become one, and we wont be even be a stable state ever because we see thing through our own self-righteous myopic lens.
Justsayin
Dec 12, 2012 12:52pm
The title mentions America, how did Pakistan even come up? It's the faux patriotism of people like you that is offensive. Also, 'incantonation' is not a word.
BRR
Dec 12, 2012 02:58pm
Big deal.