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HomemusicSongs of lost stories

Songs of lost stories

Pakistani singer-songwriter Zeb Bangash is busy working on a documentary recording of music maestro Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami with Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan. Afew years ago, Zeb and Pakistani musician Ali Sethi (of Pasoori fame) initiated a project to record him and produce his first album.They reached out to Brennan who came to record him with his sons at their home. A documentary project on Ustaad Saami was made a part of therecording. A work-in-progress, they hope to complete the project soon.

Apart from this, Zeb recorded her debut solo album in Los Angeles this winter and plans to release it next summer. The album got her to work with some of her favourite people, including musicians such as Benjamin Lazar Davis, Bridget Kearney and Michael Winograd. Describing it as both a deeply personal album and an experimental sound, she says, “It’s a sound and perspective that is me but my audiences have never heard me like this before.”

Recently, Zeba became the voice for Saaf Hawa, an anthem commissioned by Air Quality Asia (AQA). Having witnessed perfectly livable cities become toxic with respect to air quality, she cares deeply about clean air in South Asia. “Climate change presents a future of consequences to be borne by our children. Last year’s disastrous floods are proof,” she says. A heartfelt ode to clean air written and rendered as a love song, its lyrics were penned by Mir Ali Hussain, and the track was composed and produced by Shantanu Moitra. Grammy-winning Arab violinist Layth Siddique also features on the track with which AQA launched a clean air movement in collaboration with the United Nations Campaign: Breathe Life to Inspire South Asians to collaborate across borders to achieve clean air.

Zeb started her career around 2007-08 along with her cousin Haniya as a way to stay connected with home while in college. A few years later, the duo cut an album with pop sensation Mekaal Hasan and suddenly found themselves in the middle of mainstream attention post-Coke Studio. With time, the band retreated. After their break-up 10 years ago, Zeb got deep into her vocal training, exploring folk music, playing with different global bands and testing herself with playback gigs. More than a decade ago, Zeb also began training under Ustaad Saami, a master of the centuries-old Delhi Gharana.

Paimona and Bibi Sanam are among the first songs that introduced Zeb to the world. Ironically, both do not belong to mainstream South Asian languages. Over the years, Zeb has recorded songs in Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, Turkish, Persian and Saraiki. She worked on the live Punjabi folk series Verha Sessions, a platform she conceived to sing folk tappay and Sufi songs in the environment and sound that reflects the true vibrancy of the culture. Her last Coke Studio song, Roshe, a rendition of Habba Khatun’s Kashmiri classic, is also very close to her heart. “I love singing in different languages, there’s always something new to learn: the expression, tonality of voice and the scales, phrasing, all of it changes with even a light shift in dialect,” she says.

Since 2013, Zeb has also co-led Brooklyn-based ensemble Sandaraa, with virtuoso clarinetist Michael Winograd. Inspired by Dari, Pashto and Baluchi music, the band recreates folk music with new arrangements that incorporate klezmer elements with sounds of various West Asian regions. “The idea was to connect musically to celebrate regional ties that in today’s time feel bizarre or unusual but have been a part of our shared histories,” says Zeb. While telling lost stories through music was an incredible experience for her, playing with Sandaraa has also been a way for Zeb to understand her own heritage.

Over the years, Zeb has been the voice behind some great musical hits in movies such as Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), Madras Café (2013), Fitoor (2016), Highway (2014) and more. While having worked for both Pakistani and Bollywood films and television series, she also got the chance to sing for some of her idols, including A R Rahman. The opportunity to collaborate with Shantanu Moitra and Swanand Kirkire after listening to their Parineeta album on loop for months was another small miracle for her. Her upcoming album includes fresh renditions of popular Bollywood songs of yesteryears. 

(Published 01 October 2023, 00:50 IST)

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