Around the Institute

“Roaming the World Trying to Find Best Friends” an Interview with Zeb & Haniya

April 12, 2012  • ADS Works

Zebunnisa Bangash and Haniya Aslam (Zeb and Haniya) are a singer/songwriter duo from Pakistan. Their music speaks to a shared base of human experience while innovatively evoking the rich and textured soundscapes of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. They are fellows here at Anna Deavere Smith Works and recently connected with ADS Works curatorial assistant, Ethan Philbrick, to chat about their upcoming projects, as well as the politics and potentiality of musical friendships.

This is the first in a series of interviews that will be conducted with current ADS Works fellows. Over the next few months, we will be posting these conversations in hopes of cultivating a more sustained dialogue about artistic excellence and social change. Stay tuned to this space and check back frequently! 


Ethan Philbrick: I heard that you were recently in India collaborating with the popular Indian musicians Shantanu Moitra and Swanand Kirkire. Can you tell me more about this collaboration? 

Haniya Aslam: Well, on this recent trip, we flew into Bombay and stayed in a place outside the city that was completely quiet and beautiful and we basically had a song-writing, composing, and lyric writing session. The four of us spent about 3 whole days together and we completed some tunes that each of us had come up with separately, wrote some tunes together, and then went down to Bombay and went into the studio and got some rough demos down.

E: What is your working relationship with Shantanu and Swanand like? What is your process like?

Zebunnisa Bangash: We actually weren’t doing that much “work” at all, just more like joking around, eating lots of food, star-gazing, and listening to other music. I think it felt like we were spending the least bit of time working, but then we would go and play and it would turn out that Haniya would have some tunes and Shantanu would have some tunes…

H: …and that’s the thing about music I feel, it’s not a sort of “work” work – you don’t have to sit at a desk with a suit for it to be work. I mean, one of the nights we spent about three hours just sitting outside and looking up at the sky – Shantanu is very interested in astronomy – and Swanand actually ended up writing a song about being up in the sky.

E: Right, and that ends up being the “work”…

H: …yeah, and it’s beautiful and it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t spent those three hours sitting outside.

Z: And we also had a lot of conversations. We have conversations about the youth. We had conversations about courage, and hope, and about history, and heros…and those topics ended up becoming themes and inspirations for the project, both lyrically and musically.

E: There is a Youtube clip of the two of you, Shantanu, and Swanand performing a song as part of the Dewarist television series (an Indian music television show that showcase cross-cultural collaborations, see below). I’ve noticed that the clip generates a lot of responses about how wonderful it is to see Indian and Pakistani musicians collaborating. For example, here’s the most “liked” comment on the video:

“Great to see Pak-India artists combining so beautifully. If these artists can make such magic with music, so can we with improving our relations. Thumbs up for indo-pak relations :)”

Can you talk a bit about how you feel about the political resonances of this project? Why is this collaboration important for you and how do you go about thinking about the politics of it?


Zeb and Haniya perform “Kya Khayal Hai” with Shantanu Oitra and Swanand KirKire for The Dewarists

H: To begin with, no matter what you do, your placement, your location, and who you are will politicize your work. Even with our own music—Zeb and I—we didn’t set out to be Pashto women on a…you know…mission… or whatever, but that’s how people read it. When we went there [to work with Shantanu and Swanand in India], we knew that the media would be interpreting it this way and we made a concerted effort not to overtly politicize the song [that we performed for the Dewarist episode] itself.

Z: … but you know, I don’t know if its politics… but there was something really moving, for both Haniya and myself, and I think Shantanu and Swanand felt the same way. India and Pakistan have this very peculiar relationship where the two cultures are kind of obsessed with each other….and that came across in the Dewarists episode. We met them for the first time, but we had so much to talk about, because, you know, Swanand knew more Urdu poets than Haniya and I combined, and we were just as excited about Bollywood music.

H: Yeah, there are so many connections, so many bridges between the cultures…but there is also something that’s clicked between the four of us as a group that is really special. I think it’s because the four of us, individually and collectively, seem to want to break through something. A lot of the conversations were also about what were taught as kids and what we’ve learned along the way, sharing information and trying to come up with an aggregate of our knowledge to figure out what’s actually happening. I think we’re all sort of doubters at some level, trying to get at something else through each other.

Z: …and musically also, we really get along. For instance, I sometimes feel that Swanand and Shantanu understand us musically a lot better than some musicians here [in Pakistan]…it’s something really special, and you never know exactly why or how that happens.

H: I think as musicians, we’re basically roaming the world trying to find…

Z: …best friends.

E: Fantastic. What are some of the challenges facing female musicians in Pakistan today?

Z: A lot of people will ask us about how tough it is to be a woman in Pakistan and come out and play your music, but when we speak to female musicians from France, or from Norway, or even the States, it’s just as tough for them.   If they don’t have a gimmick, or are not the right body size, or ready to wear the kind of clothes that everyone else is…it’s seldom about the music. But I think, having said that, the entire industry is changing all over the world. It’s a very exciting time to be a musician. In some ways you can do your own thing and find your own audience because of the Internet. You can be scattered all over the world. I think there are a lot of women doing that right now and that’s what we’re trying to do.

E:   Last time we talked, you mentioned that you have another project that is also in the works. You described it as an album that will musically explore the cultural connections that span Central Asia. Can you talk a bit more about it?

Z: The interest in that project came about after we started getting a huge amount of fan mail about two Dari songs that we perform, Paimona and Bibi Sanam [Dari is a Persian language that, along with Pashto, is an official language of Afghanistan].   And it wasn’t just from Afghanistan where we had expected it to come from, but also from Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikstan. In Afghanistan people thought we were Tajik, and here, a lot of people thought we were Iranian.

H:…and that’s something that was really interesting initially because Persian speaking people are historically very proud of their heritage and their language specifically, so if you are singing in their language and you’re mispronouncing things, it’s blasphemous. I was scared to put it out—I was like, “oh my god the Afghans are going to hate us, the Tajiks are going to hate us”—but the response was completely opposite. They really appreciated the fact that we had picked this music and used this platform to put it out. Also, just the fact that they couldn’t really locate us was amazing—they didn’t know whether they should be loving us or hating us, whether we were from their own country, or from the good neighbor, or the bad neighbor. It somehow sort of placed us outside of geopolitics. 

Zeb and Haniya perform “Paimona” for Coke Studio

E: Yes, there’s something really special about not being able to be located…

H: Absolutely—Instead of being disowned, we were actually being owned by all these different people. It was something that was stupendous and we’re still trying to come to terms with that…

Z: …and the funny thing is that when we were doing these songs, a lot of people loved the songs, but they would always advise us against releasing them because they said we would be “limiting our audience,” but the response was exactly the opposite. For the third season of Coke Studio [a popular television show that films diverse Pakistani musicians collaborating in live studio recording sessions], we performed another Dari song and we also did a version of a Turkish song that we really liked. We actually had some local journalists writing on blogs saying, “It’s beyond me why they would do something like that,” but the response to both these videos was phenomenal. A lot of people—especially when we go across the border to India—scream for the Turkish song. They’re always like, “Nazaar Eyle, Nazaar Eyle, Nazaar Eyle!” For us, it was really unnerving—we didn’t understand why people were responding to this music the way that they were, and that sparked the interest in understanding the history of our cultures.


Zeb and Haniya perform “Nazaar Eyle” on Coke Studio

H: Now that we’re into this project, we’re reading up a bit on other Central Asian countries and the things that we complain about, about being disconnected from the countries around us and feeling isolated, the youth in Uzbekistan are saying the same, and the youth in Afghanistan are saying the same. All one needs to do is reach out and begin some dialogues.

Z: And most importantly, I really love the music. I’ve always loved it. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always been exposed to it, but I remember around three years ago, there was a Turkish folk music concert that the embassy in Islamabad had arraigned, and I was moved to tears. I was thinking in my heart, I want to connect to this music somehow.

E: So what exactly will the project entail?

Z: We plan to visit Central Asian countries—work with musicians, travel the cities, have conversations, and jam—and then pick up tunes that we like, that resonate with us. Part of it will be trying to rework those melodies in our own way and part of it will be maybe creating our own melodies from what we’ve learned. We also want to spend some significant time in Istanbul, since it has so many great conservatories and is a hub for that kind of music, and learn about the different maqams [the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music], Haniya wants to learn the baglama [a Turkish long neck lute], and I want to learn some of the vocal techniques that they use. That’s the plan. We’ll have a travelogue, put it up as a blog, and we’ll be making a feature length documentary as we go.

E: It sounds fantastic. What would you say that you learn about life and the world from making music with people?

H: Well for me, because my beginnings in music were very much on my own—7 or 8 years of sitting in a room with my guitar and writing songs—the moment other people entered the picture, I realized how one has to let go—how you can’t control what you’re trying to create, or you can only take it so far and then you let it pass on to the other person. That’s also been the most exciting thing for me, creatively—how your music simply transforms when you put it into someone else’s hands, and that process never stops.

Z: The greatest sources of inspiration in my life are the people that I’ve met. So for me, to be able to extend that into music has been the most rewarding thing because I learn everything about myself—about where I am at this point, about where I want to be—when I jam with people and when I hear people play. Also, because as Haniya said, we didn’t have that opportunity for a very long time. I was training as a vocalist, but it was always just me and my ustad [Urdu title for a teacher or expert, especially musical]. In this project, we actually get to have these kinds of musical conversations, and it’s funny because if you play with someone and it clicks, then you’ve made a friend for life. I especially felt that when we were in Turkey, because all we had to say was, “Hi, we’re musicians,” and so many people were ready to help and connect us to other musicians, and then once we connect with those musicians, it made us feel at home. It’s like the whole world is your home when you’re a musician and you’re willing to play with other people.

H: Also there’s an intrinsic trust. I don’t know if it’s just amongst musicians, or other creative people also, but when you find someone that you click with creatively, you let go of so many things—you let go of gender, you let go of presumptions. You place this very basic, instinctive trust in that person. I don’t think it’s emotional or intellectual; it’s something else entirely.

E: Indeed. Thanks so much to both of you for taking the time to talk. I can’t wait to hear more as these projects emerge.