Twenty-odd years ago, Huma Khawaja emerged in all her androgynous glory into the spotlight. Her hair slicked back, wearing a baggy suit with a bright red shirt, she stood on a heart-shaped stage and sang a love song which proceeded to become a Valentine’s Day special.
Henceforth, every February, regardless of the government’s stance on the day that celebrates love — and thereby antagonises so many in our land of the pure — the song is belted out on TV and radio.
Dil ki lagi may have originally been sung by Nazia Hasan but Huma, singing it while Aamir Zaki strummed the guitar, made it her own. Those of us old enough to have witnessed Pakistani pop’s heyday particularly remember the song. The younger generation of Pakistanis, however, are not familiar with Huma or her melodious brand of music. She is back on the music scene to rectify this.
I sit across from Huma in a crowded restaurant in Karachi, and her appearance is barely any different from the way she looked two decades ago on that crimson stage. Her hair is still short and swept back. She is petite and she still has a penchant for androgynous sartorial statements, wearing a casual baggy shirt with basic cotton pants.
She hit the limelight more than 20 years ago. Then she just… disappeared. Now, her world having turned upside down, Huma Khawaja is back to remind youngsters about her first passion: music. But can she fit into the new soundscape?
I have come to meet her after listening to her recently released single, Malang, and it’s a lighthearted number reminiscent of pop songs of yore. Huma’s preferred genre of music hasn’t changed.
However, Pakistan’s music landscape has changed drastically from back when Huma would record songs and perform a few gigs before rushing back to her whirlwind life as a member of the cabin crew of Emirates Airlines.
Albums are more or less redundant and music listeners’ attention spans have shortened. The time when a single song would rule the charts for weeks is over. The internet has taken over, churning out an endless flow of entertainment, and music itself has become a smorgasbord — experimental, proudly eccentric, complex EDM, Indie, fusion and ballads.
How is Huma ever going to find her groove in this all-new soundscape?
Her answer is prompt — this is obviously something that she has thought about at length.
“The magic lies in sticking to doing what you’re good at,” she says. “I could try out new genres of music, simply because they are trending right now but, because I won’t be being true to myself, eventually I’ll get busted. So I’ve chosen to continue making the kind of music that resonates with me.
“Now, a lot of people talk about how Indie music is all the rage in Pakistan but it is listened to only by a small fraction of today’s Gen-Z. The rest of Pakistan will still gravitate towards a bhangrra number when they want to celebrate or a Bollywood song by Arijit Singh when they’re going through heartbreak.”
She continues: “I perform in front of crowds that include young people as well as middle-aged men and women. I need to come up with songs that they enjoy and that play everywhere — in clubs, in cars, buses, rickshaws! I need to create music that appeals to everyone.
“While working on Malang, I observed that heartbreak was in the air rather than love. So many couples around me were breaking up. So I had a song composed and written about a girl who is breaking free and is ready to explore life and move on.”
The song was released about three months ago on YouTube and Huma hired an LA-based record label to ensure that it gained visibility in Pakistan.
“Basically, Google looks at the analytics within a particular region and decides upon how to advertise your song, placing it in between the most popular videos in the form of an ad. It turned out that the most-watched videos in Pakistan were from the children’s YouTube channel Cocomelon! My friends started sending me videos via WhatsApp of how they heard my song while their children were watching TV!”
Long before Google analytics even existed, Huma had ridden the waves of popularity while Pakistan went through a musical revolution. Young singers were emerging, new sounds were being explored and musicians were only just awakening to the visual impact made by music videos.
In the midst of all this, in the early ’90’s, Huma became part of an all-girls band, Symphony, backed by Blazon, an advertising and production company co-owned by actor Asif Raza Mir. Samra Raza Mir — Asif Raza Mir’s wife — would help in composing the songs and writing the lyrics.
“We raised quite a few eyebrows,” Huma laughs. “An all-girls band was an unacceptable notion for many, in those times. We got our break in the show Gold Leaf Rhythm Whythm [it curated, produced and broadcast Pakistan’s first music videos] and had fun while the band lasted. Eventually, though, everyone went their own ways. Samra got pregnant with Ahad and I moved to Dubai.”
How does she think the musical scene has changed in Pakistan?
Huma points out the obvious: “The internet has given people so many choices now that their attention spans have shortened. Earlier, a song would be around four-minutes-long. Now, a two-minute-long song works well, and then it usually gets edited a bit more to form a one-minute Instagram reel.
“People also don’t remember songs for too long. ‘Forgetting’ is the new norm. I mean, I don’t remember a single song from the last season of Coke Studio!”
I interrupt here, reminding her of the slew of hits churned out by Coke Studio last year, some of which proceeded to become global sensations. She pauses. “No, I’m talking about Coke Studio before that, when one episode featured four or five songs. No one remembers them. That’s just the way things are.”
Earlier, Huma moonlighted as a musician while her job with Emirates Airlines took up most of her time. Based in Dubai, she would sporadically return to Pakistan and perform in shows and put together albums. What led her to return to Pakistan after spending 17 years flying all over the world?
“The coronavirus pandemic happened,” she says, “and for months, airline cabin crews everywhere were stuck in their homes. Our salaries were halved but it didn’t matter, because all we were doing at that time was buying groceries and going back home. I heard that the airline was considering making some of their staff redundant but I didn’t really expect it to happen to me, since my retirement age was still far off. However, one day I just got called to my office and was told that they had to let me go.
“For about two days, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t just lose my job, I lost my home, which had been provided by the airline, my friends, the country that I had been living in for 17 years. They gave me some time to wrap things up and, for a month, I went to the US to unwind and get my mind sorted.
“Then, I returned back to my apartment in Dubai, and sold off my things and packed up before returning to Karachi. Music had always been my passion but, about six years ago, due to a policy change in Emirates, I had ceased to perform professionally in concerts or release new songs. Now, I decided to make my passion my profession.”
She continues: “While I was in Dubai, a lot of my friends from Pakistan from the acting and music industry would crash at my place. My house was like a mini-studio, stacked with all sorts of instruments, so that when my friends came, we would all jam together. I would even pick and drop people from the airport, take them shopping and to dinners. They would utilise my credit card, promising to pay me back, but never bothering to.
“Now, I reached out to these industry friends, telling them that I was back and if they would like to collaborate with me. They all told me that they would call me back but they never did. I tried contacting them again before I just stopped and fell into a deep depression.
“I have always been a very positive person and, for a while, I didn’t even realise that I was depressed. I just stopped looking forward to anything and felt that I couldn’t last long. The behaviour of some of the most respected names in Pakistani showbiz had thrashed me to that extent.
“Eventually, my old school and college friends, who are not part of show business at all, helped me get better. I decided to return to music full-time and keep myself mentally strong.”
The pretentions of her so-called showbiz acquaintances may have hurt her but Huma still found a few good men — and women — who were genuine.
“There have been some people who have stayed by my side. Hadiqa Kiani is my dearest friend. Stylist Wajid Khan has supported me endlessly. Sajjad Ali, who also moved back from Dubai to Lahore back in 2019, sat me down and gave me a long pep-talk. Vaneeza Ahmed encouraged me to get back on my feet. I will always be thankful to these people for their guidance, which continues to be there.”
It was Huma’s friendship with Hadiqa that recently steered her towards TV. “Hadiqa was talking to someone on the phone and she told that person ‘Yes, she’ll do it’. The next thing I know, I was with her on the set of a drama that she is currently working on with Wajahat Rauf! It was a tiny role and so I went along with it.”
She pauses. “I’m not sure, though, if I’ll ever want to turn towards acting more seriously. Like I said, one should do what one is good at, and music has always been my passion.”
She adds, “I never really left music and singing. During my last six years with Emirates, it was generally implied in the company that employees should not be visible in other professional capacities on social media. It wasn’t a written rule, but it was obvious that this is how the management felt. Before this, though, I was always dabbling with making new songs and recording them.
“I went to great pains to release two albums even while I was living in Dubai, recording the songs during my two-day short trips to Karachi. I would collaborate with lyricists and composers based in Karachi, paying them beforehand so that, when I came to Karachi, I could quickly record the songs. Sometimes, this worked. Many times, it did not.
“These music professionals — some of the biggest in the business — had the habit of disappearing when I would be in town. It would take multiple trips to Karachi and countless delays before a single song could be recorded. I still persevered.”
Now that she’s back in Pakistan for good, Huma’s learnt from her bad experiences and is working with professionals that she feels that she can trust. Malang, for instance, has been produced by Ali Mustafa, whose claim to fame includes working with singer Bilal Saeed and several Bollywood hits from when he was based in Dubai. She also relies on the support and guidance of her cousin Nadeem J., CEO of the media group Team NJ.
It has been a year-and-a-half since her life went through a 180-degree turn and she moved back to Karachi. Has she settled in easily?
“Yes, I have, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss flying around the world.” she confesses. “For years, I had a hectic routine, where I would be coming back home, and then leaving for a flight after a few hours. It was quite normal for me to be in four countries in a span of 72 hours. To date, I can’t sleep through the night and end up dozing off in the day. That’s just how my routine was as part of the first-class cabin crew. I used to love it.”
Luckily for Huma, she’s now placed her sole attention on her ‘other’ love: music. She’s already planning the video for her next single. And she tells me that she’s about to record a ‘Bollywood mash-up’ for corporate concerts.
“Sometimes I travel outside of Karachi for concerts and the client does not have enough money to pay for the band. We then just plug in pre-recorded songs while singing live, according to the clients’ demands.”
After having faced obstacles and endured emotional turmoil, it seems that Huma Khawaja is finally rediscovering her groove.
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 3rd, 2023