Although Zeb Bangash and Shamali Afghan had been working on this project for over a year, in the wake of the devastating takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, followed by the persecution and the hunting of artists in the country, the project — an EP titled Love Letters from Kabul — acquired a whole new significance.

They had to release something to show solidarity, the bond shared by Pakistanis and Afghans through a shared culture, especially across the border region.

Zeb is one of the most popular, multi-lingual artists in Pakistan. While Shamali is a popular singer in Pashtun music circles in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he still requires an introduction for those that don’t follow the Pashto music scene in both the countries.

Shamali is the son of famous Pashtun singer Ustad Shah Wali. Born in Afghanistan, Shah Wali was already a popular artist in the country before migrating to Pakistan. He’s somewhat of a legend, having sung hundreds of songs in Pashto, Dari, Farsi and Urdu. By the mid-’80s he was considered one of the top Pashto singers in Pakistan.

With Yaar, Zeb Bangash and Shamali Afghan send love and support to the people of Afghanistan from Pakistan

Speaking to a section of the press about her connection with Shamali, Zeb Bangash mentioned that she had learned two of her most popular Pashto covers, Paimona and Bibi Sanam, under the guidance of his father.

Shamali was in Kabul when Covid-19 broke out, and ended up travelling to Pakistan. He and Zeb began working on their collaboration, hoping to release a collection of songs that highlighted Afghan-Pakistan Pashun heritage as a way to bring the people of both countries together through culture.

Their first offering from this collaboration, Yaar, is a fresh rendition of a “soulful Afghan classic dating back to the middle of the 20th century,” according to the description of the song which also elaborates on its contents: “[In Yaar] While praising a lover for beauty and looks, Zeb and Shamali here give birth to a fresh spirit of sacrifice.”

The song has been composed by Ustad Ghulam Dastagir Shaida and sung by Zeb and Shamali, who also plays the harmonium on the song. The rabab and baglama (or saz, an Ottoman long-necked lute) has been played by Waqar Attal, the Afghan tabla by Javed Khan, sitar by Rakae Jamil, bass guitar by Amir Ajmal and, finally, Saad Sultan, who has also produced the song, is on the keyboard.

Yaar heavily uses double tracking on Zeb’s vocals. It’s an audio-recording technique in which a singer sings along with their own pre-recorded vocals and it produces a bigger, stronger sound, giving an almost choir-like feel to the vocals.

The song is short and sweet with a verse and chorus sung separately by both Zeb and Shamali and then together. The song follows a distinctly Pashtun music rhythm and beat and each of the instruments mentioned earlier sound quite clear in the recording.

My only critique is that it ends rather abruptly; with the slow build-up, you expect the song to go on a little longer. It’s a sentiment expressed quite nicely in one of the top comments of the song: “I can’t get enough of this beautiful piece of art, unfortunately it’s too short… It ends right when your heart starts opening up…”

Exactly when your heart starts opening up, indeed.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 17th, 2021

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