Singer-songwriter par excellence, Zeb Bangash talks to Instep about working on a pop record, her love for poetry and how her relationship with Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami has taken her on a transformative journey.
The last time I sat down with Zeb Bangash for an extensive interview was in 2014 and she was just starting out on her own sans Haniya – who had moved to Canada to pursue music education and now resides there.
Between then and now, Zeb has managed to do some extraordinary work. From film soundtracks (like Manto) to television OSTs, Coke Studio, jingles and her work with the music outfit Sandaraa, the singer-songwriter has been on creative spree, creating work that is not only original and innovative but also has lasting value.
Running into Zeb at the inaugural edition of the FocusPK conference at the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi, where she was both speaker and performer, we agreed to meet on Sunday, less than 12 hours before her performance with Zohaib Kazi’s Karma Kolective.
We’re meeting for breakfast and Zeb arrives five minutes early, looking lovely in a yellow outfit, and she quickly places her order before I bombard her with dozens of questions. Throughout the process, Zeb is forthcoming, articulate and self-assured. She comes across as a thoughtful artist, constantly looking to add more layers and meaning to her narrative as a musical storyteller. But she’s also got a wicked sense of humour and is not looking to be pigeonholed into one particular genre or idea or philosophy.
Our conversation opens with Sandaraa, the multi-cultural project that is both dreamy and celebratory without garishness that can spoil proceedings. After putting out a five-track EP earlier this year, the band is looking to diversify by adding Urdu poetry to their repertoire.
“I really feel that a lot of us write our own lyrics,” says Zeb. “But in the past 20-25 years, especially with this Internet explosion and the global culture we’re part of, it’s all English-based. So our relationship with Urdu has really deteriorated; it’s not the same as it was. It has weakened. Haniya and I always struggled; we were very particular and while it’s nice to have your own voice because the simplicity works sometimes, I think lyrically strong content is important.”
The process of adding Urdu meant Zeb’s own relationship with the language gained a sense of discovery. She went through poems that she likes; it involved reading a lot and revisiting and unearthing, a process that Zeb enjoyed as is palpable from the shine in her eyes. It meant creating original compositions around those words and it is a process that is close to Zeb’s heart.
“The Urdu repertoire has been really well-received, both by desi audiences and non-desi audiences so it’s an interesting thing for me to see because we started off with a world music zone and it’s still world music but it’s a novel approach to the genre.”
Between quickly ordering breakfast and telling me why my drinking half a dozen cups of coffee and not eating is not a great plan, what is also palpable is that Zeb Bangash is at ease with herself and her surroundings and she knows it too.
“The biggest thing I feel very excited about is that I’m kind of feeling more at ease with myself as a vocalist. And the biggest reason for that is my Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami.”
When I ask Zeb to expand on her relationship with the legendary Saami sahib, she speaks with respect and reverence for the man whose way of being is inspirational to all those who have met him with an open heart.
“He’s influenced me as an artist and as a person. It has been one of the most transformative events of my life. The timing was also serendipitous, the way everything happened. It was just around the time Haniya left when I finally contacted him and was able to find him. Right from the beginning I knew the experience of being present around him was special but I didn’t know how much it would impact me as a person and as an artist because it opened my eyes to how intricate and well thought-out our tradition is.”
Zeb’s interest in folk and tradition is also something worth exploring. When I ask her where this curiosity comes from, she retorts by saying: “Why do you drink so much coffee?” and we both laugh before she gains a somber perspective on the issue and adds, “I don’t know. It’s not premeditated. Perhaps it has a little bit to do with the fact that I was very, very close to my grandmother from a very young age like maybe 4 or 5 years and I hung out with her all the time. My interest in music comes from the fact that she used to sing. My interest in poetry stems from the fact that she used to recite poetry. Maybe because of that initial interaction in my childhood, I’ve always been drawn towards old world traditions. Also, I feel like there is something mysterious and mystical about it.
In Pakistan, we do not really take interest in our traditions in a way that you see in most other places. It’s inexplicable, especially musically speaking. The more I delve into it, the more convinced I get that this is the only way forward.”
While the journey of Zeb and Haniya as a duo is on hold as Haniya pursues a solo career (a glimpse of which can be heard on the soundtrack and sound design of Mehreen Jabbar’s Dobara Phir Se) Zeb is also expanding her musical repertoire exponentially by opening up to all kinds of projects. From experiments like Zohaib Kazi’s Karma Kolective to film and TV soundtracks, jingles, corporate-funded popular shows like Coke Studio and much more, Zeb is an artist who is willing to learn and unlearn as time goes by.
“For convenience, and for getting the story out or for quickly packaging something, we are very quick to categorize things like the idea of Pakistani music having a signature sound when there is no such thing. There was a specific Zeb and Haniya sound, the way the two of us interacted created a particular genre or point of view. But when Haniya left, Haniya will now do things that are Haniya. And you can hear that in the new DPS song. Its not like a Zeb and Haniya song and even with my work, it sounds like Zeb. Limiting myself to being a specific kind of artist will be limiting for my art. I think you can only make a choice when there are options available to you. Also, there is no one facet to a person. I mean, I might love to read poetry but maybe I also love reading Jughead comics. There’s fun and value in both things in my life.”
Explaining that a lot of projects happened in an organic manner, Zeb noted, “None of these opportunities I sought out but rather they came to me and I went with it. I did film music, OSTs, I did jingles, I made jingles, I got other people to sing jingles. I worked with other vocalists and I started collaborating with others.”
This brings us to the big news of this story: Zeb is working on a pop album and though she can’t reveal more at this juncture, she does admit that she’s not looking to be any one thing like “a Pushto singer only, or a soulful singer only”.
“I’m an artist and there are certain things that the market offers you that you participate in. There are certain things you will create yourself and present to people and there are certain things you do as seriously but you will never even present to people. And all of these aspects of music, I wanted to have in my life. And the spirit remains the same. I want to be as true and as aware and present in anything I do and that for me is the challenge and the goal.”
Moving towards industry dynamics and the age of social media where fans often trace your every move, Zeb has managed to strike a balance of sorts. And she is quick to point out just how supportive and dedicated her team is and how they make it possible for her to stay connected.
“I can’t always do it and my work requires me to sometimes disconnect but they make sure that something or the other is communicated to my fans so that’s how I’m navigating my way. I’m not very keenly open on social media; that’s just not who I am. I won’t say I’m private because I’m open in person but I still have anxiety issues uploading what I ate for lunch or dinner. The anxiety doesn’t come from sharing; it comes from being addicted to the sharing because what I see around me, it can really overtake everything else, mentally and that’s not something I can be a part of because I have a lot of internal work to do, a lot of training and much more.”
As we come to the close of the interview, I ask Zeb, who is, among other things, working on a pop music album and setting up studio in Lahore, if she ever worries about this fame, this ascent to the top to slip away?
“No, because of my practice,” she says. “Because everything that is happening to me, I’m not doing it very consciously even today, even though I’ve moved to Karachi, I’m doing the jobs that are coming to me. What I’m aggressively doing is my practice (with my Ustaad) and I think that keeps me secure. I feel like I’m growing as an artist and I learn something new every day.”