Thursday, April 7, 2011
Pakistani cousins sing music of peace and beauty
Haniya Aslam (left) and Zeb Bangash have won critical acclaim in Pakistan and elsewhere
EXCERPT: (Zeb)rejects the perception of a Pakistan mired in backwardness and conflict. (She)says it's a misperception that many Americans hold. And she says that makes it difficult to engage with Americans.
HEAR THE MUSIC -- to hear some of this beautiful rare sound: here - evidently they will have a debut album and perhaps some videos available soon.
...We sat down with two flourishing female musicians from Lahore for their insights into making music in the time of extremism.
Singer Zeb Bangash and guitarist Haniya Aslam have chosen to write songs that are the antithesis of turmoil: Now working on their second album, the 32-year-old cousins have written a piece simply titled, "The Happy Song."
"Despite everything, there are beautiful things happening in this country," Zeb says, "there are moments of happiness, there's happiness all around, so we thought it might actually be nice to bring that together into a song."
The two women have won critical acclaim in a country where female musicians face challenges simply because they're women.
Their origins have also helped distinguish them. They are Pashtuns from the heart of the Northwest Frontier Province renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where tradition and custom have kept women largely out of the public eye. Pursuing a career in entertainment goes against the grain of the conservative Pashtu culture.
...The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Zeb says the obligation for artists like her is to keep "reclaiming" the space. Haniya says their work reflects the growing instability around them, but in an unexpected way.
"The more violence that starts taking place outside, the more sort of serene and calm our music begins to get. I think because it's a way of creating an alternate universe, right? You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in rather than the one you are in," she says.
The two were educated in the United States — Zeb attended Mount Holyoke and Haniya went to Smith College in Massachusetts. They are of a generation of Pakistanis that is comfortable connecting with many worlds.
Haniya Aslam writes original songs and performs ones she and Zeb learned as children when musicians from across the region would gather at their grandmother's home in Peshawar. Despite the turmoil in Pakistan, Haniya is optimistic about the future, saying, "I have to be. Absolutely, I am."
Their musical roots lie in a city where cultures have collided and merged over a millennium — Peshawar, a portal to Central Asia. Zeb says the intricacy of their culture gets lost in today's projection of Pakistan as "the most dangerous place in the world."
She rejects the perception of a Pakistan mired in backwardness and conflict. Zeb says it's a misperception that many Americans hold. And she says that makes it difficult to engage with Americans.
"Because they have their own idea, and then I think what's also happening is that the religion has come under attack," Zeb says. "And that is not something that we are completely comfortable with because no matter now progressive we might be, we have roots which are Islamic and we believe in those, at least a large part of us do."
Haniya chimes in that "you don't have the good Pakistanis and the bad evil Pakistanis divided in half, and one wears black and one wears white. It's just not that simple."
Haniya says she is optimistic about what lies ahead for Pakistan. "I have to be. It's something I've worked at for about three years now," she says with a laugh. "It will absolutely get better."
They live comfortably in a leafy neighborhood of Lahore with Zeb's mother and father, a retired general. But the two musicians have gained a following with their fluid ability to incorporate traditional songs from Afghanistan and beyond with their own modern composition.
They continue to make discoveries about their own work. The hit "Paimana Bitte," or "Bring the Chalice (and Let Me Be Intoxicated)," was not the folk song they thought it was when they sang it as children in their grandmother's parlor. The daughter of the composer for the Afghan King Zahir Shah heard them perform the song and told them it was one her father had written for the Court 40 years ago.
Despite all of the turmoil in their country, Zeb and Haniya have no interest in living anywhere but Pakistan, exploring their vast musical heritage and interpreting it for a new turbulent time.
Academy has slashed the number of Grammys that will be handed out.
Strictly from an artistic standpoint, I found myself intensely drawn to Haniya's and Zeb's alluring and calm musical brew. The vocal and instrumental strains just draws out a strong visceral response. I find myself naturally attracted to South Asian music-the rhythms, vocal and instrumentation is just naturally beautiful and unaffected. These women are making a powerful statement about freedom of expression and the power of the feminine through their music. It serves as a voice for their Pakistani sisters.
The voice is hauntingly sweet; the music jars the ears for its unusual repetition schemes while never losing its melodic trance quality. I love World Music, and these ground-breaking women in their city at the crossroads of the world are making quality music for us all. What is the name of the first album? And when does the second one come out?
No more war. If we're going to invest anything in the Middle East, it ought to be to foster the safety and well-being of women like these. Just ask Pete Seeger. There's power in song. Great power.
I pray for their safety. And wish them a long musical live.
James Karns wrote:
"You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in rather than the one you are in," Wise words from two very brave women.
Concerning the line "The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Zeb says the obligation for artists like her is to keep "reclaiming" the space.": I have such deep admiration for artists in countries like this.
Here in the US, it's easy to drift into and out of the role of 'artist, either for financial or superficial or dilettantish reasons. But to maintain this role in a country where being an artist could make you a political target--or a magnet for religious extremism, either of which could lead to death--then suddenly the role of 'artist' takes on a level of nobility that is hard to approximate here in the West. I have nothing but respect for these women. I'm sure they would say, "we're just doing what we feel we must," which would only make me respect them more.
Posted by CN at 5:12 PM