Everyone—and every sound—is welcome at Pakistani singer-songwriter duo Zeb & Haniya’s table. Back in their youth, their grandmother’s living room in their native Peshawar would echo with laughter, snatches from cassettes, and rousing sing-a-longs as uncles, aunts, and cousins sat in post-pilaf bliss.
“We heard everything growing up: old Bollywood filmi hits, folk music from all over, even American and British classic rock from our cousins,” recalls Haniya with a smile. “And there was always live music in Peshawar, and lots of Afghani musicians performing, during the holiday of Eid or at weddings, and of course, at our grandma’s place.”
“We also heard a lot of English-language pop music, from Elvis to Cliff Richards,” Zeb adds. “Everyone around us was a music lover. And everything was welcome.”
They keep this hospitable, openhearted spirit alive—and open new avenues for Americans to savor and understand Pakistan’s Northwestern regions. The cousins—lifelong friends and longtime musical collaborators—bring a highly listenable, global sensibility to earthy originals and sounds from the Eastern edge of Central Asia, continuing an unsung tradition of strong female artists making an impact on Pakistani popular music. They will tour with their band of young, respected Pakistani rock and jazz musicians in September and October 2012 as part of Center StageSM (www.centerstageUS.org).
An initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Center Stage brings compelling contemporary artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan to the United States to engage the American people in cultural diplomacy as a way to create opportunities for greater understanding. Administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with funding from the Asian Cultural Council, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, this public-private partnership is the largest public diplomacy effort to bring foreign artists to American stages in recent history.
"Zeb and I are very excited about our upcoming Center Stage tour,” Haniya says. “In our experience, music and arts cut through political and ideological differences easily, and are the most effective means of connecting people. We hope to use this tour not only to perform for diverse American audiences, but also to have dialogues and conversations to help promote understanding and diversity."
“As a family it was really quite funny,” Zeb explains, recalling those long, post-dinner evenings with her family growing up. “We’d transition smoothly from an old Afghan song, to pop songs.”
“Our entire family is all music lovers,” notes Haniya. “Everyone sings, and a lot of people are self-trained instrumentalists. My uncles taught themselves to play harmonium and percussion, for example.”
Haniya followed in their footsteps, picking up the acoustic guitar and taking inspiration from artists like Suzanne Vega and Leonard Cohen. Zeb was encouraged via voice lessons, as her military family moved from place to place throughout South Asia. Though Haniya was shy about her songs, she and Zeb began playing together for supportive family.
The two cousins’ music didn’t come into full flower, however, until they both found themselves at college in New England, homesick and longing to reconnect with the music they loved. They began recreating those homey musical evenings, but with Thai feasts and dorm-room jam sessions for friends. They wrote their first song together while stranded during a blizzard. The music making often got so loud and involved that neighbors would come knocking, asking even once soft-spoken Haniya to pipe down.
When Zeb & Haniya returned to Pakistan, they found something that might surprise many Americans: A warm welcome from the Lahore music scene for the talented young female performers. One of Pakistan’s best-loved producers wanted to work with them, and their 2009 debut Chup!, included some of the country’s hottest musicians. Their elegant yet catchy renditions of romantic Dari and Pashto folksongs garnered millions of YouTube hits, spots on television, and excited interest from everywhere, including Bollywood.
In fact, women have long played a major role in the region’s music scene, both pre-Partition and after the establishment of Pakistan. Female pop stars and folk idols are nothing new, say Zeb & Haniya. “A lot of women got a lot of fame,” explains Zeb. “They became very well respected and had amazing careers, not just as singers or performers, but as composers and film producers.”
“Their stories were definitely inspiring, because these women did things just the way they had to do it,” Haniya reflects. “I think having someone like that make it—and many of these female musicians were from very ordinary backgrounds—helped us believe that it could happen again.”
It seems to be happening for Zeb & Haniya. When not recording or working on a large travel and music project chronicling Central Asian culture, the duo perform regularly to enthusiastic audiences in both major cities and smaller, more remote areas. In an echo of those vibrant family gatherings that shaped their art, Zeb & Haniya returned to their home region to play a concert for a women-only audience. Instead of the usual demographic of college students and urban professionals, they found themselves singing to a whole different kind of audience.
“You had grandmas, mothers, daughters, all equally loud,” Zeb recalls with a chuckle. “I couldn’t hear myself. Living in Lahore, even we end up thinking that the girls will be more timid in places like Peshawar. But they just weren’t fazed by anything. They came backstage, wanted pictures with us, and insisted we sing more in Pashto.”
“I’ve never seen a more energetic crowd of women in the world,” smiles Haniya. “The audience was out of control, but it was so nice to see women letting loose, singing dancing, completely letting go.”
Center StageSM will bring 10 ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan to the U.S. for month-long tours from June-December 2012, connecting artists with diverse communities across the country. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings. Keep up with Center Stage by liking the program on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/CenterStagePage) and following us on Twitter (@centerstageus).
Center StageSM is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and with additional support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. General management for Center StageSM is provided by Lisa Booth Management.