Photography: Mohammad Farooq
Photography: Mohammad Farooq

When we discuss Pakistani music, we generally talk about Urdu and Punjabi numbers while largely ignoring the beauty and sweetness of songs composed in other regional languages. Not long ago, I was travelling to the Kaghan Valley by bus and the driver started to play Hindko songs. Although I did not understand any of the lyrics, the melodies somehow added to the breathtaking scenery all around.

Zeek Afridi became a household name when he sang the Urdu/Pushto version of the folk song Bibi Shireeni. The Peshawar-born lad belongs to the Afridi clan and was recently in Karachi to perform at a Thespianz Theatre event when I got a hold of him for a tête-à-tête about his life and career. His humility and soft-spoken attitude impressed me just as much as his singing talent.

How did you become a singer?

The singer who shot to fame with the upbeat version of the folk song Bibi Shireen says lasting peace in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is only possible through cultural exchange

ZA. During my school years I was very active in extracurricular activities, especially singing competitions, so my friends encouraged me to take it up as a career. I enrolled with Ustad Ehsan, a well-known classical singer in Peshawar at the time, and learned how to sing.

Did you face any family opposition?

ZA.  I belong to the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns who have no custom of music or dance. These arts are usually more in practice by the people of Wazirstan, Bannu and Swabi. So naturally there was a great deal of resistance at first.

Why did you choose to sing Bibi Shireen?

ZA. Again, my friends insisted that I experiment with and sing Bibi Shireeni which is a popular Pushto folk number. With the passage of time, our folk songs require innovation as the youth increasingly turn to more modern music. There is a dire need to try out something new and I’m very thankful to the people at AVT Khyber who kick-started my career by being the first to air my improvised version of Bibi Shireen. My popularity just skyrocketed after it was aired.

It brought about a revolution of sorts not only in KP but in Afghanistan as well. Before the song went viral, Peshawar and other markets were occupied by Indian music CDs but Bibi Shireen replaced them all. Frankly speaking, our aim was to compose such a hit composition that it would challenge the Indian monopoly, and we succeeded in doing just that.

Are you hounded by ‘real-life Bibi Shireenis’ (female fans)?

ZA. (Laughs) Yes, not one but many. They would call and say ‘tum khud bhi khoobsurat ho and gatay bhi acha ho’ (you are beautiful and sing well too). I’m shy and reserved so I keep my distance from them. Now, I’m a married man and my wife is from my clan. She is also a huge fan.

You allegedly left Pakistan after receiving death threats. Is that true?

ZA. No, it’s not. I was already abroad, studying for a degree in Management Sciences between 2006-09, when my brother received an anonymous text message on his cell phone which said ‘yeh kaam chor do, warna hum khud churwa lain gay’. Such threats are a common phenomenon for artists in Pakistan.

How did you go from being a local celebrity to an international one?

ZA. An Anglo-Indian lady was conducting research in Pakistan on folk music when she came across my version of Bibi Shireen in a taxi she was travelling in. She later emailed me an invite to perform at the Asian Mela in London. When I sang it in front of a crowd comprising Indian/Pakistani/British community members, I received a huge round of applause and it led me to sign a deal with a well-known recording company for a new album and video. I also did shows in Birmingham, Yorkshire, London etc.

How do you view the future of music in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?

ZA. It is downright pathetic due to the poor law and order situation. To begin with, the KP government has stopped issuing NOCs for concerts out of fear of terrorist attacks. Secondly, the issue with copyright is a big problem in Pakistan as pirated versions of our albums are easily available in the market.

I have to say that I’m more respected in Afghanistan than Pakistan. I was invited three times as a state guest by the former president Hamid Karzai as almost 60pc Pashtuns reside in Afghanistan. All over the world, artistes are free from prejudice and they are respected and honoured.

Have you received any acting offers?

ZA. When I was a lecturer at Government College, Peshawar, I received an offer to act in a drama production. I have no interest in acting but was forced by the college principal to accept the offer. But after doing a single episode, I quit. If there is a film offer, I would gladly consider it.

Which singers do you listen to?

ZA. I listen to Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ahmad Zahir and Nashnas (Afghanistan).

Do you think artists can play a role in promoting peace in this region?

ZA. They definitely can. This is a critical time for Pakistan and it needs to promote and cultivate ties with neighbouring countries. Artists from both India and Pakistan have come together despite political conflict. In much the same way we need to tap our films and music (especially Pushto) to come closer to our Afghan brothers. I’m sure lasting peace is only possible through cultural exchange.

What other popular songs have you sung besides Bibi Shireeni?

ZA. Musafir, Sharang and Beautiful Afghanistan are my other popular numbers.

Song lyrics

Bibi Shireenai zyari gulay rabanday wa chawa sur shaal joora lasoona Bibi Shireenai

Oh my sweetheart, yellow flower, Put your red shawl and both of your hands on me *

Ya me da zana sara zaan ka ya me sur shaal ka ao che de proot pa zulfo yama Bibi Shireenai

Either make me your soul, your second self or make me your red shawl, so I can remain/stay on your long hair

Raza da zaroono jawari kroya ba zra balay ao ya ba zra baylam mayena Bibi Shireenai

Let’s gamble on our hearts — either you lose or I’ll lose my heart, beloved/lover

Janan zama laka mashoom de mata pa yao khabara sal qasama khoree na Bibi Shireenai

My beloved is like a child (she) swears a hundred times for a single thing

Janana somra pa ma garaan yeche ta rawaan ye ao za de shmeram qadamoona Bibi Shireenai

My beloved, how dear you are to me When you are going/walking, I count your steps

Bibi ShireenaiZyari gulay rabanday wa cha wa sur shaal joora lasoonaBibi Shireenai

  • Repeat

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 5th, 2015

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