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Back home again with Haniya Aslam

In a rare interview, Haniya Aslam sits down with Instep and talks about what it takes to write and compose a feminist anthem such as ‘Main Irada’, its purpose, learning audio engineering in Canada and

Back home again with Haniya Aslam

In a rare interview, Haniya Aslam sits down with Instep and talks about what it takes to write and compose a feminist anthem such as ‘Main Irada’, its purpose, learning audio engineering in Canada and feeling blessed.


Haniya Aslam’s worst nightmare is when she stops learning. The magic, the innovation, experimentation, happens in the studio.

She tells me this and a lot more over a cup of tea as we chat about Coke Studio 11 and her return to Pakistan after living in Canada for five years.

As I listen to the audio recording of this interview, it is obvious that though Haniya is articulate, genuine and intelligent, she has made, with her presence, skill, talent, kindness and work, the music scene both better and hopeful in the short and long run.

Her relationship to Coke Studio, she confesses, is inextricably linked. “Coke Studio forms the boundaries between the phases in my life.”

During the first six seasons of Coke Studio, under Rohail Hyatt’s tenure as producer, she returned with Zeb Bangash multiple times as a featured artist.

Moving to Canada in May 2013, she and Zeb came to Karachi and recorded ‘Laili Jaan’ for Coke Studio 6. “I went back to Islamabad and three days later I flew out.”

Haniya Aslam moved back to Islamabad in December and ten days later got a call from Ali Hamza for Coke Studio 11. It began from being a featured artist to being on the audio team and being the second guitarist and much more.

Since she’s also on the audio team and has spent the night before sleeping in the studio, I ask her to tell me about what the post-production process is like for Coke Studio 11.

“It’s clean up, mostly. The songs are still one-take but it’s about taking out slight noise and then mixing and mastering. Also, a lot of it is making sure it syncs up with the video and stuff like that.”

Haniya Aslam is a guitarist (who plays other instruments as well), composer, sound designer, mixer, lyricist and singer-songwriter. Did I miss anything; I ask her?

Apparently I have. She’s also an “audio engineer.”

Within music, Haniya plays many roles as the aforementioned clears up. When asked why, she says: “Because of my personality; I don’t like to do just one thing. I love to learn.

I literally feel like I’m stagnating. In these five years that I’ve been in Toronto, I did audio engineering, I did guitar repair; I really want to get into luthiery (which is guitar-building) but it requires work that could put my hands in danger. I haven’t gotten into that yet. I got into all these instruments, for instance, a mandolin and picked up two, three other instruments that I’d play at home in Canada.”

‘Main Irada’ – the feminist anthem that broke new ground

In addition to playing about five instruments on about ten songs (guitar, banjo and so on) on CS11, Haniya Aslam broke new ground by composing ‘Main Irada’ – the first song in the long history of Coke Studio that featured an equal number of men and women performing together. Haniya composed it and co-wrote the lyrics with Bilal Sami, who she tells me also wrote the Zeb and Haniya number ‘Rona Chor Diya’ and says: “We joke now that he’s the best feminist lyricist in the country.”

What is the story of the song, I pose to Haniya?

“I was working on a sort of anthemic tune when these guys (producers) got in touch; I sent it to them.”

Did you come up with ‘let’s do a feminist anthem’ or did the producers come up with it?

Haniya is forthcoming in her answer and notes: “It was actually them, which is the surprising part, and when they came back to me, my thing was of course, why didn’t I think of that type of thing?”

It was a task that excited her at first but also scared her later on.

“It was a song that had to – at some level – be able to speak to every Pakistani woman, if not every woman who understands the language. It had to be universal, but not too universal, specific, and yet not too specific. There’s a poem called ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou about celebrating women and it’s literally a list of all these traits of a woman, her grace, her strength, sensuality – all the fantastic attributes. But that poem gets a bit physical.”

She adds: “I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the female form. There’s enough of that.”

The women of ‘Main Irada’: Wajiha, Mehr, Haniya, Amrina, Rachel, Shamu Bai and Ariana.

The women of ‘Main Irada’: Wajiha, Mehr, Haniya, Amrina, Rachel, Shamu Bai and Ariana.

As for the song, at the end of the day, for Haniya, it is “about a woman who can listen to it at the beginning of her day, when she has low energy and feels a little spike. As a songwriter, if ‘Main Irada’ charges up even five women, it’s done its job.”

On ‘Main Irada’, a number of female artists come together such as Haniya Aslam, Rachel Viccaji, Shamu Bai, Ariana and Amrina (with the latter three featured on Coke Studio Explorer) as well as the house-band.

Gender equality was one of the things that made her so happy.

It made me so happy. Initially, they were planning something melodramatic for the stage but then decided to pull in the Explorer girls.

Shamu Bai came, I heard her voice and she blew me away. I didn’t know Ariana and Amrina were going to be there. I think I had been told but it didn’t register. And then I turn up on the set and I saw all these women. There was Insiya Syed (photographer) and Amna Zuberi (assistant photographer) and it not only made me feel happy, it felt normal. Not like when you’re the only woman in a bunch of men, which is often in my life. In anyone’s life in a slightly different field. It felt extraordinary.”

How did she go about the song?

“For ‘Main Irada’, the music came before,” recalls Haniya. “I don’t really write pop anthems. I have a melancholy vibe running through most of my music so it is always a challenge for me to write a pumping, happy, upbeat song, which this isn’t either exactly but I was experimenting with that kind of structure.”

She adds: “I’ve realized with anthems, you pull back. You have to simplify because if you make it complex, you’re making your audience narrow so when you pull back and make it simpler, with each line so simple, that you could draw in a large group of people to sing it. I came with a basic composition and just thought how to structure and arrange it. And the rest of it, I was just thinking, I found myself surrounded by just the right mix of people. Rachel (Viccaji) is just a vocal harmonizing genius and the house-band is amazing. Bilal Sami, I have infinite trust in. Having so many female voices doing their own things without a second of discord, creating a joyous harmony. For me, a great metaphor for how women can achieve their own potential while supporting other women around them. I heard a great saying in Canada that really struck a chord: ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’.”

‘Main Irada’ is a song, as it becomes obvious through the course of this rare interview, will remain close to Haniya’s heart.

Haniya Aslam on the set of Dobara Phir Se with Mehreen Jabbar.

Haniya Aslam on the set of Dobara Phir Se with Mehreen Jabbar.

I broach the subject of feminism and how it has a convoluted perception in Pakistan, just to see where Haniya stands and she says politely: “What shocks me is that it’s women who act that way. And it is because you are put in an insecure place where your feet aren’t solidly on the ground so you have to constantly navigate and negotiate. It’s like everything is about men. No, feminism is about lifting women, not pulling men down. It’s a very simple thing but I don’t know why it threatens people. I don’t understand.”

She adds: “Girls at Dhaba, Fearless Collective, they are all so inspiring. I’m so proud of what they are doing. I wasn’t able to participate myself and that’s also one of the reasons I was excited about working on a woman’s anthem. I was like these guys have already created a momentum. I just want to add my little push at the back so from admiring our old Pakistani feminists from WAF (Women’s Action Forum) days to this new generation, I hope it’s all heading somewhere.”

Moving to Canada and studying music production

Moving to Canada in 2013, Haniya enrolled in a small school called Trebas in Toronto and did a one-year diploma in audio engineering and music production.

Studying had a lasting impact on the musician.

“There were a lot of holes in my knowledge of music including studio, live and technical,” says Haniya. “I couldn’t communicate to the engineers exactly what was needed because I didn’t know what was needed. Sitting in class, most of my class fellows were 18-year-old boys, but I was the most enthusiastic and there were so many times when a light bulb just lit up over my head and I was like ‘oh my God, if I knew this, this could have happened’ and it was a good decision to do it when I did.”

She followed it up by setting her own studio called Citrus Audio and for a year did pro bono work followed by paid work, diversifying her portfolio by working on web, TV and film content.

“The school I went to, I figured, would have a good network in place and I was proved right. I got pulled in to some projects through the school.

Mehreen Jabbar came along as this amazing angel that she is and the two feature length films I worked on (so far) – Lala Begum and Dobara Phir Se – are both hers. I got to do sound design, mix and stuff on one and the title track and the entire background score for the other.”

Back home again

Personal and familial reasons brought her back home. I ask her to expand and though she seems to be a private person who doesn’t like to air things, Haniya leaves me with one story.

“Canada is a heaven where everyone would love a chance to go to. I love Toronto to bits, it’s my second home now. The first three years were bliss, perfection. But then you realise that every situation has its pros and cons and where Pakistan is chaotic with people in your face, Canada is the opposite. It’s overly ordered and you’re alone most of the times. Even human contact. When you meet friends, you make sure to hug because you can go for days without anyone touching you. And that’s not like getting sun for a very long time. In Pakistan, you get distracted by so many things, like belligerence or anger, all of it drives you; you’re feeling something. But there, when all of this falls away, it lets you look into life and realize how things are meaningless and go on a whole different level of losing hope.”

Back home in Pakistan, Haniya feels incredibly blessed. Being part of the house-band, where she is playing five different instruments, to her it personally feels like a bigger honour – to play with some of the best musicians in the country on the biggest platform with the best equipment available and to just be able to play music.

She listens to Pakistani music and did so during her time in Canada as well. From the newer lot of artists she is a fan of Faris Shafi; Ali Sethi and Nabeel Shaukat’s ‘Umraan Langiyaan’ drove her insane for a few months. Abdullah Siddiqui, Gentle Robot, Ali Suhail, Biryani Brothers. She calls them: “super fantastic.”

As for the future, says Haniya, “I went with an open mind and I’ve come back with an open mind. There’s a buzzy, vibration in the air; you just have to keep working on your own self and positioned in a way that you get hit by upcoming opportunities and then you decide which ones you want.”

– Coke Studio photos by Insiya Syed

Maheen Sabeeh

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