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The balladeers of Bibi Sanam

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SISTER ACT: Zeb (left) and Haniya draw inspiration from a variety of Central Asian sources

Identity is something of a Rubik's cube for the popular sister act from Pakistan, Zeb and Haniya. They may seem 'disjointed' at first, but once the 'puzzle' is solved, the two come across as a beautiful and well coordinated act.

Hailing from the Northwest Frontier Province (or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as it is called now), the two Pashtuns are first cousins. After completing their education in the US, they now live in Lahore and their music is a medley of sounds and influences that would be at home anywhere - from India to Iran.

The music of Zebunnisa Humayun Bangash and Haniya Aslam borrows from their childhood memories - of being entertained by Afghan musicians, qawwals and even by their grandmother who was fond of film songs of the pre-Partition era.

It's the "nomadic quality" of their music that makes it stand apart and difficult to slot in any particular genre. Bibi Sanam, their biggest hit till date, is an Afghan folk song while Paimona was written for the Afghan king in Dari and Pashto. Nazar Eylee is a cover of a Turkish classic while Aitebaar is a bluesy, flirty number reminiscent of the smoky clubs of the '50s.

"Initially, we'd get a little flustered when people would ask us about the genre of our music, and we'd say, 'songs', that's what we sing, " giggles Zeb, the singer of the group that performed as part of the South Asian Bands Festival at the Purana Qila last week.

Haniya, younger by a month, pitches in: "It was only when we were in the States that we got to know the meaning of the word 'genre'. Now, of course, we can say that music from both Indian and Pakistani films was a huge influence. Movies of the '50s and '60s had a lot of rock 'n' roll, funk and jazz, and these sounds unwittingly found their way into our music. "

Elaborating on what it comprises, Zeb continues, "What we were familiar with could well be called 'global music'. We grew up listening to local fare, besides of course Pakistani, Indian and Western music. And yes, even Pashto and Kashmiri folk genres. Anything and everything was part of what we were creating. "

Their listeners too helped them identify the sounds in their music. "After Paimona, a lot of people from Afghanistan got in touch with us. As did people from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran. They all said we were playing their music, " smiles Haniya.

But music was not really a childhood dream they were pursuing. It happened by chance - when the two were away from home, studying in the US. Zeb read economics and art history at Mount Holyoke and Haniya went to the Smith College in Massachusetts to study computer science and anthropology. "It was fall break and both of us were homesick, broke and stranded. So, to cheer ourselves up, we started singing and that's how Chup, our first song, came about, " recollects Zeb.

The two made an impromptu recording on Haniya's computer and mailed it to a friend in Pakistan. It wasn't long before the song went viral, and gained instant popularity among Pakistani students in America. It also became a rage on radio stations back home.
And no sooner did they touch home ground in 2007, the cousins found themselves in the recording studios of Lahore - courtesy one of the leading Pakistani musicians and record producers of Lahore, Mekaal Hassan, "who really believed in our music". And soon, the girls had some of the best musicians in Pakistan working on their new album.

"Frankly, we didn't know how big these guys were, " says Zeb. "It almost didn't sink in till after the album was over, " adds Haniya. "It was like being caught up in this snowball effect. A friend of ours played them for Mekaal, and Mekaal played them for John Gumby, and so on. They pushed us into the studio to record. And soon we had all these incredible musicians on board. We were just stunned. "

If Chup (2008) with its easy-to-sing and feel-good compositions, was a runaway success, their appearance on Coke Studio in the second and third season made Zeb and Haniya the darlings of the netosphere, nationalities no bar. Be it the concert halls of Malaysia, Italy, France, or the music festivals in the US and Norway or even in the bastions of Carnatic music, Chennai and Coimbatore, people were familiar with their music, despite not understanding the words. "In Chennai, we'd prepared explanations for each song, but the crowd was already familiar with what we were singing. It was unbelievable, " gushes Zeb.

It's not difficult to see why the two get the attention they do. Zeb with her prettily made-up eyes, rose-pink lips and eyecatching rings and, of course, her silky, voice, and the more serious-looking, no-fuss Haniya with her guitar and ideas would not be out of place in a small town in America or even India. But the fact that they are Pakistanis, and musicians to boot, has perhaps brought them more attention than their music. Zeb nods, "That bit is actually getting a bit tiring. We never asked for it but it invariably becomes the hook of every story on us. "

Adds Haniya, "We have now stopped reacting. Earlier, we'd get upset because we thought that music should be the focus - not us. But we soon realised that as long as the spotlight gets diverted to our music, it's fine. If somebody comes because we are an all-girls rock band, and then ends up liking what we are playing, it's okay".

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