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Spotlight: Zeb and Haniyah

They’re not your regular run-of-the-mill girls next door, although they may certainly look it. These ladies have a secret: they can sing! Not only that, but they can do it pretty darn well. To anyone who has an avid interest in the Pakistani music industry, Zeb and Haniya are no strangers: they’re the voices behind the radio and Internet hit, Chup.

Having just recorded their much-anticipated debut album, produced by music maestro Mekaal Hasan, recorded in Digital Fidelity Studio in Lahore and featuring the musical skills of popular drummer Gumby and guitarist Shallum (of Fuzon fame), Zeb and Haniya seem ready to take the music industry by storm. Considering that they have just the right ammunition — they ooze talent and have the support of some of the best in the industry — one can’t wait for this storm to arrive.

What comes as a welcome surprise is that Zeb and Haniya are refreshingly natural: they do not have any false airs about them and neither do they overdose on confidence. Zeb is the primary vocalist with Haniya also on vocals and the guitar. My first impression of Zeb was that she seemed shy, but as the interview progressed she displayed her more outgoing side. On the other hand Haniya, from the first moment onwards, seemed to want to make sure that everyone around her was comfortable enough.

Finding two very good female musicians — itself a rarity in this country — working together, I couldn’t help but wonder how far back do they go together and how did the band form? “I think I met her when I was three months old,” says Haniya seriously with a twinkle in her eyes. “Actually our mothers are sisters, so we are first cousins. And we were born exactly a month and three weeks apart.”

As one of the most popular songs downloaded on the Internet and having gotten generous airplay, the song Chup is one of Zeb and Haniya’s most popular songs. Written and composed during a break when they were in college, Haniya was visiting Zeb at college during one of their breaks and “we went down to the basement and we found an abandoned bookstore there. And over there Haniya got her guitar and started playing. That is the place where we made Chup for the first time,” said Zeb.

“We started writing songs and I had not written any before that. But by the time we finished college we had around four songs,” adds Haniya.

When did you guys decide to get into music professionally? “Mekaal (Hasan) was my friend’s friend. I met him randomly and was pleasantly surprised at how accessible and what a nice guy he is,” says Zeb. “He was kind enough to get us into the studio and record us two songs. I remember on our way back he handed us a CD and after listening to it we were really excited. It sounded like a real song! He really pushed us actually, always telling us that we should take our music further.

“The recordings that we got from Mekaal, we put them on the Internet to give it to our friends,” says Haniya. “About a year after that someone said that it is being played on the radio. I don’t know who put it there but someone heard it on the Internet, pulled it off and started airing it.”

About how they would describe their overall sound now, especially the one in their upcoming album, Zeb says, “It is more arranged as it has been six years now. And we really had a lot of time to think about where we wanted to go. Not to mention the fact that we had the country’s leading musician arranging and helping us shape up the songs. I think for a good three or four weeks we just jammed with them.”

“It is bluesy, in that the bass is there in most of the songs,” adds Haniya. “All the instruments are live. Gumby is great, he is not doing the straight four-by-four beat in any of the songs. Each song has come out very different.”

“And there is also a lot of folk touch to it along with a lot of jazz and blues,” says Zeb about the album. “We have at least two songs that are about women’s liberation and there are some romantic numbers too, a few naughty numbers and some playful ones. We also have kind of a fusion thing going on and a bit of classical in the album.”

With the kind of music that you have, have you considered performing live? “The kind of music we have isn’t a large crowd kind of a thing, very high-energy rock music usually does the trick,” says Haniya, adding, “our music is slightly more mellow, more intimate and so a medium-sized crowd would find it more suitable.”

“I don’t think that bigger crowds will be the problem. I think basically it would be the kind of crowd. I mean it is not bhangra,” says Zeb. “I know that we are probably not Atif Aslam for sure.” At this point I disagree with them as I am of the opinion that they do have what it takes to deliver a performance to a large crowd — all they need is a good set of back-up musicians and a decent sound system.

As women vocalists are extremely few and far between in the Pakistani pop industry, what do Zeb and Haniya have to say about it? “I think the whole scene for women musicians is so limited that sometimes I get thrown off by comparisons of this one and that one,” says Zeb quite seriously. “I think our categorical thing is that we are very excited about women and whether you are Arooj (Aftab) or not and whatever you are doing, it is so great to see so many people come up because it is part of the industry that has just not developed.”

“The more women come up, it will be easier for other girls to take to the field”, continues Haniya. “There are going to be more players, more role models.”

Having recently performed in both Islamabad and Karachi and wowed audiences in both cities, Zeb and Haniya are predicted to be the next big thing. Not only do they deliver a mesmerising live performance, but they have the right mix of talent and attitude to go. And more important, they also have the backing and the support of those who have been around in the industry for a long time.

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