Podcast: The Healing Charm of Zeb and Haniya's 'Urdu Blues'

Zebunnisa Humayun Bangash (L) and Haniya Aslam (R), also known as Zeb and Haniya.

This is the latest installment of a series of podcasts entitled Another Pakistan, a co-production of the Asia Society and the Watson Institute at Brown University, with support on the ground from Aman ki Asha. Click here to learn more. Scroll to the end of this post to listen to the podcast.

LAHORE — Zeb and Haniya could set you to wondering all over again why musicians aren't asked to run the world. In their studio in Lahore, we are puzzling over such questions as, how they make it look so easy to teach us new songs? to call fresh tunes on stage — as so few can do off-stage?

It's a version of the question you ask yourself watching the Ramallah Concert by the fusion orchestra of young Arab and Israeli virtuosos that Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim assembled. How is it that musicians win our hearts leaping boundaries that our political and religious "leaders" are bent on reinforcing?

Zebunnisa Humayun Bangash and Haniya Aslam, as you've probably heard on NPR by now, are the Pakistani first cousins, ethnic Pashtuns, who went off to college in New England (Smith and Mount Holyoke) and got so homesick that they took to writing and recording songs to ease the pain of being stranded and broke in Western Massachusetts. Inadvertently they found themselves a network of passionate fans on the Web — first of mostly South Asian students all over North America, then of Pakistanis and Indians back home, then in the Gulf, and then in America and the online and record-buying universe.

They were drawing on a wide spectrum of live music they'd absorbed in their grandmother's house: the songs of the Afghan diaspora through the 1980s, Persian and Pashto repertoires, ghazals in Urdu, pre-Partition movie music from Bombay, Sufi songs. And they were liberated by an enthusiastic performance culture that did not distinguish between high and low, or pop and serious music. Elvis Presley and the Beatles must have been Pakistanis at heart, they were so good. "Until I went to the States," Haniya is saying, "I didn't know what a 'genre' was."

Suddenly it was said that Zeb and Haniya had invented a genre of their own, under the umbrella of "world music." Call theirs "Urdu Blues," or "Lahore Hip-Hop." Part of the miracle here is that they could take so much, so fast from American rhythms, chords and forms and produce a song sound that is received back home as "authentic" fruit of Pakistani tradition. So what, I am asking, allows "fusion" to work so well in music, when it's so hard to imitate in other public spaces?

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Christopher Lydon is the host of Radio Open Source, a conversation on arts, ideas and politics from Brown University's Watson Institute.

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Christopher Lydon is the host of Radio Open Source, a conversation on arts, ideas and politics from Brown University's Watson Institute.