A Pakistani Pop Star Pulls From The Culture's Musical Past And Present | KUOW News and Information

A Pakistani Pop Star Pulls From The Culture's Musical Past And Present

Sep 25, 2015
Originally published on January 4, 2016 12:14 pm

Here's a phrase you don't hear a lot in the US: "Pakistani pop music." In fact, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has a thriving music industry — and singer Zebunissa Bangash, or Zeb for short, is one of its stars.

There has been violence and threat to Pakistani culture since the country was founded 68 years ago, both for political and religious reasons. Zeb was never subjected to that scrutiny: She studied art history at college in the US before returning home to form a band with her cousin, Haniya. Their accessible pop songs found a devoted following.

"I'm sure there are artists out there who are fighting to do music," she says. "They certainly need recognition for that and they need support for that. But I'm not that artist."

Pakistan has produced generations of musicians like Zeb, who defy easy assumptions about art and Islam — whether they're performing Bollywood soundtracks or spiritual Sufi anthems.

"Artists are supposed to be dark, and they're supposed to be cool, and they're supposed to stay up all night," she says laughing. "A lot of times, I'm taunted by my colleagues and my peers. They're like, 'Oh, there you are, Miss Disney Princess. What's happening in your head?'"

More often than not, music and songs are what's happening in her head. But music isn't just for professionals in Pakistan: From lullabies to family gatherings to religion, music is a part of everyday life.

"I used to think that that's what all families have," Zeb explains. "I think even the way you recite the Qur'an itself, there is music embedded in it. You don't call it singing, but it does have music embedded in it."

Several years ago, Zeb appeared on one of the country's most popular TV shows and sang a song in Dari and Pashto, regional languages most Pakistanis didn't understand, accompanied by a traditional stringed instrument known as the rabab. The unorthodox performance was a huge success.

"The song that people have given me the most love for is [that] song," Zeb says. "That's when I started thinking about the beauty that is hidden, or that seems to be erased."

Zeb began studying the history of South Asian music after that. She says Muslim artists have often seen their work as a form of worship, in which creating beauty is about communion with the divine. She's begun working with a classical teacher, Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, to explore the music of the past and the culture that produced it.

"What kind of a world is it where this was not only appreciated but encouraged, and had lots of patrons?" she asks. "I'm interested in really exploring that and learning more about it."

It's a tradition a lot of the country's urban pop stars are losing.

"For some people, especially for the urban youth and for those who feel like globalized citizens, we feel completely disconnected from it," Zeb says. "But the more traditional societies, and especially in places like rural Pakistan, those traditions are still linked to something beautiful and something that was intricate and subtle."

And Zeb is not alone. She's part of a new generation of Muslim musicians that is looking to the past to try to create a more inclusive future.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Here are three words you don't hear together every day.

ZEBUNISSA BANGASH: Pakistan, pop music, pop music.

MCEVERS: That's Pakistani singer Zebunissa Bangash, doing a mic test for p-pops in our studios. She goes by Zeb, and she's a star in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

BANGASH: Music has always been a part of the Islamic interaction with South Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHUP")

BANGASH: (Singing in Urdu).

MCEVERS: For our series Muslim Artists Now, we've been talking to writers and artists about the role of art and expression in Muslim societies today. There has been violence and threat to Pakistani culture since the country was founded 70 years ago, both because of politics and religion.

BANGASH: I'm sure there are artists out there who are fighting to do music. They certainly need recognition for that, and need support for that. But I'm not that artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHUP")

BANGASH: (Singing in Urdu).

MCEVERS: Zeb studied art history in college in the U.S. before returning home to form a band with her cousin, Haniya. Their accessible pop songs made them stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZEB AND HANIYA SONG, "CHUP")

BANGASH: Artists are supposed to be dark, and they're supposed to be cool and they're supposed to stay up all night. And, you know, I start feeling sleepy at 10, and I like to wake up at dawn. And a lot of times I'm taunted, you know, by my colleagues and my peers, and they're like, oh, there you are, Miss Disney Princess, you know (laughter), like, what's happening in your head?

MCEVERS: Music and songs are mostly what's happening in her head. But music is not just for professionals in Pakistan. From lullabies to family gatherings, it's part of everyday life.

BANGASH: I used to think that that's what all families have, you know, I thought all families had live musicians coming over for Eid or for weddings, and I think a lot of Pakistani families do, actually.

MCEVERS: And it's also very much a part of religion.

BANGASH: Even the way you recite the Quran itself, there is music embedded in it. You don't call it singing, but it does have music embedded in it.

MCEVERS: Several years ago, Zeb appeared on one of the country's most popular TV shows and sang a song in Pashto, a regional language most Pakistanis don't understand. She was accompanied by a traditional stringed instrument known as the rabab, and it was a smash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIMONA")

BANGASH: (Singing in Pashto).

The song that people have given me the most love for is this song, and so I think that's when I started really thinking about the beauty that is hidden that seems to be erased.

MCEVERS: At that point, Zeb started studying the history of South Asian music. She says Muslim artists once saw their work as a form of worship. Creating beauty was about communion with the divine. Now she's training with a classical teacher to explore the music of the past and the culture that produced it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAL DIYAY")

JAVED BASHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

BANGASH: What kind of a world was it where this kind of expression was not only appreciated, but encouraged, and had lots and lots of patrons, and that was just the way to work? And I'm really interested in really exploring that and learning more about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAL DIYAY")

BASHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: It's a tradition she says a lot of the country's urban pop stars are losing.

BANGASH: So for some people, especially for the urban youth and for those of us who are like - feel like globalized citizens, we feel completely disconnected from it. But the more traditional societies and, you know, especially places in, like, say, rural Pakistan, those traditions are still linked to something beautiful and something that was intricate and subtle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAL DIYAY")

BASHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: Singer Zeb Bangash is not alone. She's part of a new generation of Muslim musicians that's looking to the past to try to create a more inclusive future. You can hear more from our series Muslim Artists Now at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.