Winter sunshine played across the road as I entered Zeb Bangash’s house in Lahore’s cosy Cantt neighbourhood. As I was shown to the drawing room, the golden sunlight that filtered through the windows lent the surroundings an aura of welcome and comforting warmth.
Once Zeb arrived, the conversation flowed like a river, about all things that makes the soul of a musician believe in serendipity more than actual plans, and the multilingual language of music. Clad in a casual pink top, Zeb describes herself as “a definite seeker, student and mushkil pasand — someone who faces challenges with a sense of humour.” Her journey from Miss to Mrs took place in August 2018 when she tied the knot with Dr Imtiaz Mubbashar, which she revealed on social media.
“The 2008 debut album Chup with my cousin Haniya led to Aaja Re Moray Saiyaan in Coke Studio Season 9,” she says. “I feel very lucky because I started this serendipitously and it was also by sheer chance that I became a musician. Today, I feel blessed to have had a chance to play different roles in the music industry. Every day brings a new adventure for me.”
After her recent marriage, Zebunnissa aka Zeb Bangash retraces her long and winding journey in music — from Zeb & Haniya to multilingual, multinational band to music director. But the best years of her professional life, she thinks, are still ahead of her
A double major in Economics and History of Art with diversified other interests, Zeb learned music for five years under Ustad Naseeruddin Saami. Before that, music was a hobby for her and she had never really thought about herself as a musician.
Fast-forward to director Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha which was released worldwide in 2017. Zeb shares her experience of working with the project: “The process as a music director was really special. It is rare in this industry and I got to work in Bollywood with a woman who’s got a similar mindset as mine. I went to work with lyricists, the editor, the director and actors of course. It was the first time that I actually used other female vocalists for my songs. I’m really interested in revisiting forgotten histories and cultures and inserting them into contemporary music. The story was set in Bhopal, India, which has a very strong link to Pathan and Afghan cultures. I wanted some of the history to reflect as well as modern elements to be there.”
Zeb is one of the few Pakistani artists who have had the chance to work with renowned Indian music director A.R. Rehman. It is almost magical to hear about her journey as a debut playback singer for Madras Café (2013) and Highway (2014), and what she learnt about production and playback singing. “During my college years in the US, 60 percent of the music that I used to listen to when I was homesick was A.R. Rehman’s. Of course, it was a huge milestone in my musical career. But at the same time, I was struck by how grounded he is. And you know what was the most amazing thing? He knew Zeb & Haniya’s music! I was utterly surprised to say the least. He said, ‘Oh, I know you guys’! We were at his place and he turned out to be a really sweet and down-to-earth person. I was really happy to see that. He said, ‘You know I really like your music.’ I said okay [laughs] that was kind of surreal.”
The knowledge she gained from the process was how to use the mike and the expressions to use while playback singing for films. “You have to kind of embody the character. I wasn’t singing as Zeb, I had to bring Zeb into that particular character of the film whom I was singing for,” she says.
I wasn’t singing as Zeb, I had to bring Zeb into that particular character of the film whom I was singing for,” she says.
Bangash talks with passion about making fusion music with Sandaraa (Pashto for song), the band which she formed with Michael Winograd. “Our music is very spontaneous and experimental. Also, when it comes to music, instead of being bilingual, I’m multilingual. You connect not just with the people on a personal level, but you connect to parts of the identity, land and history just by knowing a song.” That is also how the band Sandaraa came into existence. “A serendipitous meeting with Michael Winograd, out of the blue, led to the sharing of similar ideas about forgotten traditions and folk traditions, languages, poetry and expressions. With Sandaraa, we initially wanted to play Balochi, Seraiki and folk songs. But after we developed our sound in four years by working together in Brooklyn, we decided that we should start our own music. But then, the question of what language to use came up and we decided that it should be Urdu which is pretty much listened to and read throughout South Asia. We decided to use it when Michael got the Chamber Music America Grant and was asked to write original music. They gave us the grant and wanted us to write original music. They never had original music put to Urdu poets, so it was a novel thing.”
Urdu literature excited Bangash and she started off with Farz Karo — the poetic works of Ibne Insha — and elaborated about what’s in store in the future from Sandaraa. “We have some new poets both from India and Pakistan as well as those from the pre-Partition era — Mir Taqi Mir, Miraji, Ahmad Faraz, and Shahida Sadaf from Karachi. I realised that the whole band worked better — even though they could not understand the actual lyrics — if they knew the themes and rhythms they were working on. They had an in-built rhythm of Urdu. So it was so easy for them to create the rhythms around the poetry.”
Sandaraa toured the US from October to November 2018 and performed live in cities including New York and entertained diverse crowds. Menswear designer Munib Nawaz, inspired by Sandaraa’s Farz Karo, created an entire collection which he showed at the Hum Bridal Couture Week in December. Zeb opened the ramp show with her performance.
In films, Bangash also sang Naache Re for Parwaaz Hai Junoon released last year. In the past she has also lent her vocals to earlier major commercial releases such as 2015’s Bin Roye, Ho Mann Jahaan, Manto and Verna (2017), as well as Highway (2014) and Fitoor (2016) across the border. Also among her achievements is winning the LSA (Best Original Soundtrack-TV Series) trophy in 2016 for Diyaar-i-Dil.
Zeb was featured in the Indian Rolling Stone in its June 2018 issue, was part of the European cultural heritage celebrations arranged by the EU and EuroVillage PK 2018 set up in Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA), Islamabad, and sang the lullaby Chanda Mama for a multinational brand, the latter making her reminisce about her childhood and fond memories. “I’m immensely lucky to be doing what I love. I just have fun with it and I’m still very curious. I shy away from the very idea of having a genre/label and any particular plan. I’m still in the learning curve and all I want to do is music, music and more music.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, January 6th, 2019