Zeb and Haniya: Putting the romance back into Af-Pak

In the course of everyday Funoon business, we come across some great things, some ok things, and some really not-so-great things. But every now and again, there are some moments so extraordinary, that we are brought to wondering if we’ve been ruined for life – that nothing will top this.

Over the past three years, we’ve had exactly three such moments – in 2010, when 43 Manganiyar musicians from Rajasthan performed an aptly named seduction at the Barbican; in 2012, when Egyptian revolutionary band Eskenderella brought the house down at the Southbank Centre; and three nights ago – when Pakistani musicians Zeb and Haniya stole away the Alchemy Festival from the likes of Talvin Singh and Anoushka Shankar.

Zebunnisa Bangash and Haniya Aslam are cousin singer-songwriters from Pakistan, who came together during their college days in the US.  Their work cuts across genres – they’re inspired by Bollywood, folk, jazz and the blues – and transcends national boundaries – they sing in Urdu, Pashto, Dari and Turkish. Their songs include both original compositions and interpretations of folk classics. It has been said that far from having an easily categorisable style, their body of work is an emerging genre in itself – and one that’s especially easy on the ears. They came to prominence in 2009 with their album Chup, a collection of bluesy-pop and Dari and Pashto folk songs – the latter of which catapulted them to YouTube superstardom (more about those later).

We should note here that we’re not exactly lifelong fans of the band. We’ve always found their recordings pleasant, and interesting on an intellectual level – but not much more. Taking our seats in the midst of a sizeable contingent of Indian students, we found that they (although much more vocally) shared a similar scepticism (it all seems like such a long time ago now!). Our collective doubt hung heavy in the air for some time until the very able support act – John Baily, Veronica Doubleday and Ustad Atif, playing music from Afghanistan on the rabab, daf, tabla and vocals – gave way to the two.

And from that point till the moment when it seemed like the audience would clamber onto the stage and haul them back for an encore, Zeb and Haniya mesmerised us. We hung onto their every word – sung and spoken. In between songs, they told us delicious stories about their childhoods, their musical families, college years, their grandmother’s house in Peshawar where they were exposed to their most formative musical influences. Zeb broke her microphone at one point, and we thought we had never seen a more amazing thing.

And of course there was the music – enchanting, lilting melodies that transported us to beautiful lands in beautiful times. Zeb’s voice – which can sound somewhat strained in their recordings – seemed to unfurl in new-found dulcet glory, gliding effortlessly above Haniya’s acoustic guitar and the cleverly chosen cello accompaniment.  But it is Haniya – who seemed to us not unlike an artisan at work, and almost wizard-like (perhaps craftmanship and wizardry are manifestations of each other) – who holds all the heart and soul of their music together with her intelligent and precise arrangements.

The set started off in India, with the teasing Ahaan, inspired by Bolywood legend O. P. Nayyar. This was followed by The Night Song – an introspective piece from their forthcoming album. And then that moment of almost brutal heart-melt Chal Diye. Written as a tribute to Haniya’s adopted city for a time, Chal Diye celebrates Islamabad’s rolling hills, clear skies, and unspoken dreams. Beautifully sung, it caught in our throats in a most unexpected way, and moved many (or so we hear…) to choke back a tear or two.

See a great live version of Chal Diye here:

There were also cover versions of Turkish singer Barış Manço’s Nazaar Eyle (Look at Me), and the wonderful Leli Jaan by Afghanistan’s Ahmed Zahir.

And the evening rounded off with those eternal crowd-pleasers, and the two songs that have come to be associated most with Zeb and Haniya – the Dari/ Pashto Paimana Bitte (Bring me the Glass) and Dari Bibi Sanam Janem (My Love). It’s impossible to choose between the two, so here they are both.

 

For those of you who missed it, you’re in spectacular luck. Highlights from the concert and an interview with Zeb and Haniya will be aired by presenter Saima Ajram on the BBC Asian Network – this Sunday 28th April at 4pm. Check here for further information.

For our part, we hope Zeb and Haniya will come to London again. They leave behind at least a Purcell Room’s-worth of confirmed fans who eagerly await their return.

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