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Thu April 7, 2011
Music News

Music In The Time Of Extremism

In Pakistan, radical clerics have unleashed a religious fervor that is chilling secular voices and diminishing free speech.

Two high profile murders — the governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January, and the only Christian Cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, in March — have people from the political class to the artistic community feeling the pressure of the religious right.

We sat down with two flourishing female musicians from Lahore for their insights into making music in the time of extremism.

Singer Zeb Bangash and guitarist Haniya Aslam have chosen to write songs that are the antithesis of turmoil: Now working on their second album, the 32-year-old cousins have written a piece simply titled, "The Happy Song."

"Despite everything, there are beautiful things happening in this country," Zeb says, "there are moments of happiness, there's happiness all around, so we thought it might actually be nice to bring that together into a song."

The two women have won critical acclaim in a country where female musicians face challenges simply because they're women.

Their origins have also helped distinguish them. They are Pashtuns from the heart of the Northwest Frontier Province renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where tradition and custom have kept women largely out of the public eye. Pursuing a career in entertainment goes against the grain of the conservative Pashtu culture.

Haniya, a graduate of Smith College, however, says she doesn't necessarily see herself as "secular."

"I don't see myself as religious or secular," she says. "I think we all inhabit a space which really straddles both of them. I don't think anyone here is entirely this or that or the other."

Zeb and Haniya performed one evening this week at a U.S. Embassy event in Islamabad. They are vying for the chance to tour the United States as part of a State Department cultural exchange.

The U.S. is spending millions of dollars on public diplomacy in Pakistan.

There is alarm from Islamabad to Washington that tolerance for secular life in Pakistan is fast retreating as evidenced by the shocking murders of the governor of the Punjab and the Minority Affairs Minister.

The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Zeb says the obligation for artists like her is to keep "reclaiming" the space. Haniya says their work reflects the growing instability around them, but in an unexpected way.

"The more violence that starts taking place outside, the more sort of serene and calm our music begins to get. I think because it's a way of creating an alternate universe, right? You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in rather than the one you are in," she says.

The two were educated in the United States — Zeb attended Mount Holyoke and Haniya went to Smith College in Massachusetts. They are of a generation of Pakistanis that is comfortable connecting with many worlds.

Their musical roots lie in a city where cultures have collided and merged over a millennium — Peshawar, a portal to Central Asia. Zeb says the intricacy of their culture gets lost in today's projection of Pakistan as "the most dangerous place in the world."

She rejects the perception of a Pakistan mired in backwardness and conflict. Zeb says it's a misperception that many Americans hold. And she says that makes it difficult to engage with Americans.

"Because they have their own idea, and then I think what's also happening is that the religion has come under attack," Zeb says. "And that is not something that we are completely comfortable with because no matter now progressive we might be, we have roots which are Islamic and we believe in those, at least a large part of us do."

Haniya joins in, "You don't have the good Pakistanis and the bad evil Pakistanis divided in half, and one wears black and one wears white. It's just not that simple."

Haniya says she is optimistic about what lies ahead for Pakistan. "I have to be. It's something I've worked at for about three years now," she says with a laugh. "It will absolutely get better."

They live comfortably in a leafy neighborhood of Lahore with Zeb's mother and father, a retired general. But the two musicians have gained a following with their fluid ability to incorporate traditional songs from Afghanistan and beyond with their own modern composition.

They continue to make discoveries about their own work. The hit "Paimana Bitte," or "Bring the Chalice (and Let Me Be Intoxicated)," was not the folk song they thought it was when they sang it as children in their grandmother's parlor. The daughter of the composer for the Afghan King Zahir Shah heard them perform the song and told them it was one her father had written for the Court 40 years ago.

Despite all of the turmoil in their country, Zeb and Haniya have no interest in living anywhere but Pakistan, exploring their vast musical heritage and interpreting it for a new turbulent time. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Pakistan, radical clerics have unleashed religious passions, passions that have led to the killings of a governor and the only Christian minister in the Cabinet. Those murders have quieted secular voices and jeopardized free speech. From politicians to artists, people are feeling threatened.

NPR's Julie McCarthy sat down with two popular female musicians in Lahore, who provide some surprising insights into making music in a time of extremism.

(Soundbite of song, "The Happy Song")

JULIE MCCARTHY: Zeb Bangash singing and Haniya Aslam on the guitar. They have won critical acclaim in a country where female musicians face challenges simply because they're women. Their origins have also helped to make them unique. They are Pashtuns from the heart of the Northwest Frontier, where women pursuing careers in entertainment cuts against the grain of a conservative culture. The two cousins are now making their second album.

Beautiful. What's the name of that?

MS. HANIYA ASLAM (Musician): Well, the working title is "The Happy Song."

MCCARTHY: Good working title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCCARTHY: "The Happy Song." We're in a not-so-happy time right now in Pakistan. Is it relevant to the unhappiness here at the moment?

MS. ASLAM: It is relevant for myself and Zeb. I mean, this is the world we're living in. This is the situation that we're surrounded by. And, you know, we're responding in some way or the other. This song, we just wanted it to be a lovely, pleasant song that, you know, that makes you smile and makes you feel good.

MCCARTHY: Zeb Bangash puts it this way.

MS. ZEB BANGASH (Musician): Despite everything, I mean, there are beautiful things happening in this country. There are moments of happiness, and there's happiness that's all around. So we thought maybe it be nice to actually bring that together into a song.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Their repertoire is as melodious as it is versatile.

(Soundbite of a music)

Ms. BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Zeb and Haniya performed Tuesday night at a U.S. Embassy event in Islamabad, vying for the chance to tour the United States, part of a State Department cultural exchange.

The U.S. is spending tens of millions on public diplomacy here. There is alarm from Islamabad to Washington that tolerance for secular life in Pakistan is fast retreating, as shown by the high-profile murders of the governor of the Punjab in January and the Minority Affairs minister in March.

The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Back in Lahore, Zeb Bangash says the obligation for artists like her is to keep reclaiming this space. For her part, Haniya rejects being called secular.

MS. ASLAM: Well, I don't see myself as secular, really. I mean, these labels, I don't really - I don't see myself as religious or secular. I mean, I think we all inhabit a space which really straddles both of them. I mean, I don't think anyone here is entirely this or that or the other.

Yeah, personally, I want there to be peace so that everyone can do exactly what they want to do, just like we're doing.

MCCARTHY: You want there to be peace. There isn't peace.

Ms. ASLAM: There isn't peace, no.

MCCARTHY: In fact, the outlook looks even more violent. Does your work reflect that?

Ms. ASLAM: I mean, the more violence that starts taking place outside, the more sort of serene and calm our music begins to get.

(Soundbite of song, "A Calm Song")

Ms. BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. ASLAM: I think because it's a way of creating an alternate universe, right? You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in, perhaps rather than the one that you are in.

(Soundbite of song, "A Calm Song")

Ms. BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: The two went abroad for school, Zeb to Mount Holyoke, Haniya to Smith College. The 32-year-old cousins are of a generation of Pakistanis that connect with many worlds. Their musical roots lie in a city where cultures have collided and merged over a millennium: Peshawar, a portal to Central Asia.

Zeb says the intricacy of their culture here gets lost in today's projection of Pakistan as the most dangerous place in the world. She rejects the perception of a Pakistan mired in backwardness and conflict. Zeb says it's a misperception that many Americans hold, and says that makes it difficult to engage with Americans.

Ms. BANGASH: Because they have their own idea. And then I think what's also happening is that the religion has come under attack. And that is not something that we are completely comfortable with, because no matter now progressive we might be - I mean, we do come from...

Ms. ASLAM: We have roots...

Ms. BANGASH: ...we have roots which are Islamic, and we believe in those. I mean, you know, or at least a large part of us do.

Ms. ASLAM: You don't have the good Pakistanis and the bad, evil Pakistanis divided in half, and one wears black and one wears white. It's just not that simple.

MCCARTHY: Are you optimistic about what lies ahead here?

Ms. ASLAM: I mean, I have to be. Yes, I absolutely am. I mean...

MCCARTHY: Well, is that sort of willful optimism?

Ms. ASLAM: It is, definitely. It's something I've worked at for about three years now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ASLAM: And I've succeeded. It's getting better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ASLAM: It will absolutely get better.

MCCARTHY: They live in a comfortable home in a leafy neighborhood of Lahore, with Zeb's mother and father, a retired general. Despite all the turmoil in their country, the two have no interest in living anywhere but Pakistan, exploring their vast musical heritage.

(Soundbite of guitar tuning)

MCCARTHY: As Haniya tunes her guitar, Zeb says they've recently discovered that one of their hit songs was not the folk song they thought it was when they sang it as children. It was written by the composer of the court of the Afghan King Zahir Shah 40 years ago. It's in Dari, a Persian dialect.

MCCARTHY: I'd like it if you could play us out.

Ms. BANGASH: Yes. It's called "Paimana" - "Paimana Bitte."

MCCARTHY: And that translates to mean?

Ms. ASLAM: "Bring the Chalice."

MCCARTHY: "Bring the Chalice and Let me be Intoxicated."

Okay, here we go.

(Soundbite of song, "Paimana Bitte")

Ms. BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Haniya Aslam and Zeb Bangash, fitting comfortably into the rich mosaic of Pakistan's musical tradition, and interpreting it in a new turbulent time.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Paimana Bitte")

Ms. BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.