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instepinterview! Music matters with Zeb Bangash

The singer-songwriter talks to Instep about working as a music director for the award-winning film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, the problem of patronage in music today and why our cultural history binds

instepinterview! Music matters with Zeb Bangash

In the age of social media stardom and obsession, Zeb Bangash is an artist who has managed to stay true to her passion and values. More about craft than about followers, Zeb is known for speaking her mind. She openly criticizes the creative interference of the corporate sector as they ‘seemingly’ provide logistical support to the music fraternity. She also finds the expectations that come with making public appearances – including how the ensemble one carries overshadows their body of work – bizarre.

None of this will keep her from achieving great things. Zeb’s first Urdu-language track, ‘Farz Karo’ with international band Sandaara has received a wonderful response and she recently represented Lipstick under my Burkha (LUMB), a Bollywood film she lent her expertise to as soundtrack composer, at a film festival in Japan.

In between running errands in her hometown Lahore and preparing to fly out to New York (for international collaborations she is choosing to keep under wraps for the moment), Zeb makes time to speak to Instep. In this conversation, she talks about her experience of working across the border, the music that has and continues to inspire her, and why distant lands and music seem distant only because of nationhood and global politics. An excerpt from that conversation…

Instep: Since releasing in 2016, Lipstick Under My Burkha (LUMB) has bagged 18 international awards and participated in over 60 film festivals across the globe. What was it like to work as a music director for such an acclaimed film?

Zeb Bangash (ZB): Whenever I’ve worked on a project with very high expectations about the professional outcome, it has never really worked out. On the other hand, when I work without any kind of pressure, the outcome tends to exceed my expectations. Strange stuff, but life is similar; I feel there is always a certain amount of magic associated with applying yourself without expectations. LUMB was such a magical passion project. Not just for me but for everyone involved and the main person behind that was the captain of the ship – the director – Alankrita Shrivastava. Alankrita wanted to make this film and she stood by it with love and integrity right till the end. I put in a lot of heart and dedication in its music and wanted it to reflect me.

In a sense I wanted to give a part of myself to the film and tried to make the sound distinctive and unlike what audiences had heard in Bollywood. I am grateful that the audience appreciated the music and critics noticed that it sounded novel. I am so proud of this film and humbled to be a part it. Since its release, I hadn’t met Alankrita, who I grew very close to, for nearly three years, so it was wonderful to meet her again last month. The trip was hosted by the Japan Foundation in honour of the film, which incidentally also won the Spirit of Asia Award’16 presented by the foundation. I can’t describe the elation and gratitude I felt seeing the movie being showcased at a special screening at a sold-out show in Japan and getting to observe firsthand, the audience’s overwhelming appreciation for it.

Instep: You’ve had a very successful run across the border by being a part of projects that were firsts for Pakistan. But we don’t see you engaged in typical work being done. Why did you take such a different approach to Bollywood, and what do you think you’ve gained and lost in the process?

ZB: One reason could be that my independent ventures in music were already successful in India before my first Bollywood project. Right since Zeb and Haniya bootleg recordings were put up online we’ve had a fan-base in India, which kept growing over the years. By the time I got my first Bollywood gig I had already had several successful tours in India performing my original songs to audiences who were singing along and those were such amazing experiences.

Secondly, for me music from Bollywood never felt foreign. When I was growing up, everyone in my home was listening to and singing Bollywood songs so I view it as my own. Hence, my excitement related to Bollywood had more to do with participating in its illustrious legacy and growing as an artist.

You know, I also feel that the industry treated me differently. Haniya and I were noticed as both singers and as songwriters. From the very beginning my voice, as well as my compositions and renditions, were being noticed and appreciated. So in that sense, they treated me a little differently as compared to playback singers. I’ve been fortunate to get opportunities to collaborate on brilliant projects. The successes were blessings and happy coincidences, but my experience in Mumbai enriched me in a deep way, both personally and professionally.

Instep: Where do your influences come from?

ZB: It comes from my family. I had a very rich musical background growing up. Coming from a family of music fanatics, apart from what my peers were listening to, I was also exposed to a lot of Irani, Afghani and Turkish music. Not to mention classical and semi-classical music, ghazals and old Bollywood music. That being said, I don’t look at my work as experimental – it all very comfortably sits together in my mind because that’s the kind of soundscape I grew up with. Also, it’s about time we acknowledge that this is ‘perfectly normal’ for a Pakistani because like it or not, all these influences are a part of our cultural heritage. Our cultural history binds us to lands and music that seem distant today only because of nationhood and global politics. Music is being delineated in very strict terms in today’s world, but our songs and music also have shared histories.

Instep: Don’t you think that the audience today should be taught to learn to love classical music, lyrics and the intricacies found within it?

ZB: Yes and no. A love for classical music must be taught and instilled and since our educational system and government truly does very little to teach music appreciation, specifically of our own, this is a point of concern.  However, lyrics with depth and beautiful tunes in songs are most definitely appreciated in Pakistan. And I state this because over the years, it has been proven to me several times, most recently with the overwhelming response we got for Sandaraa’s rendition of Ibn-e-Insha’s ‘Farz Karo’. So many people commented on how lovely the lyrics were. A few years ago, we were renovating our house during the winters, which also happens to be the popular wedding season in Lahore. I observed that every night I was having trouble falling asleep because of the loud auto-tuned-nursery-rhyme-esque songs blaring from some elaborate marquee in my neighborhood. However, every morning, I would be woken up to a beautiful lilting melody sung by Madam (Noor Jehan) or Lata or Pathanay Khan or Mehdi Hassan with really thought-provoking poetry coming from the phones of the builders and carpenters who started their work at dawn.

As a musician, I couldn’t help but notice that the music, poetry and vocal performances featured in these playlists were much more sophisticated. That’s when I started realizing that the masses have better taste in music, more so than a lot of the educated elite who put the money behind music. So the problem is of patronage. The patrons’ taste in music has deteriorated and they are getting increasingly disconnected from the culture of the land. It is true that people today, sadly, are less accustomed to hearing even semi-classical forms than they were a couple of decades ago. But all is not lost and the majority of Pakistanis still appreciate good lyrical content and overall sureelapan. We need producers, patrons, sponsors, cultural enthusiasts and the media to step up and show some pride.

– Zeb Bangash portrait by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Ahmed Sarym

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