Haniya Aslam was sitting in her family home in the turbulent, deeply conservative North-West Frontier province of Pakistan in October when a deafening blast shook the neighborhood, rattling doors and windows in their hinges. Tufts of black smoke billowed violently over the flat, gray rooftops of Kohat town. "Our handyman came in and said, 'Oh, it's nothing'," recalls Aslam. " 'They've only blown up a CD shop'." But for Aslam and her cousin Zeb Bangash, such attacks feel intensely personal.
The cousins, both 29, make up Zeb & Haniya, one of Pakistan's hottest pop duos, whose debut album, "Chup!" (Hush!), hits stores next month. But it's been quite a journey. In October 2002, the elected state government, led by a coalition of religious parties, banned music on public transport, incarcerated and evicted musicians and artists and condoned bomb attacks on music and video shops. Aslam and Bangash are at the forefront of a group of independent-minded Pashtuns who have harnessed the power of the media to beat back the conservative tide. Today the Frontier's capital, Peshawar, boasts two privately owned, Pashto-language TV channels and three radio stations—all set up over the last few years in defiance of the previous Islamist government. That the religious parties are out of power and a new, moderate interim government has been put in place by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf should certainly help. "The [Pashtun] people love to dance and have a good time," says Bangash. "The superimposition of extremist views has not been able to snuff out centuries of musical tradition."
Zeb & Haniya's brand of folksy music draws on that Pashtun heritage and can easily fit into the province's longstanding Sufic tradition. Their songs can be playful and sensual, addressing the themes of love and longing "to God through the conceit of a lover," says Bangash. Their song "I Stopped Crying" tells a careless lover: "Your conversation broke my heart/You glanced and turned your face away/Clouds rumbled but a little/Rain fell, this heart longed/ After a little while/I stopped crying." Bangash describes this as their emancipation anthem. "Sometimes it feels like the world has turned its back on you, but one's got to make the best of a bad situation with the faith that God never abandons," she says. Their music uses guitar, drums and trumpets, as well as more exotic stringed instruments like the sarod, to express "Western and Eastern melodies arranged for a global audience," says Bangash.
The foundations for Zeb & Haniya were laid in Massachusetts, where Bangash studied economics at Mount Holyoke and Aslam earned a computer-science degree from Smith, buying her first guitar in her freshman year. "I couldn't take lessons in Pakistan since all the instructors were men," says Aslam. "We used to get together in Zeb's dorm basement and fumble our way through." Four years ago, they recorded their first track, which became an instant Internet smash and wound up on mainstream Pakistani radio. "We were taken aback," says Bangash, who has been taking singing lessons since she was 8. "We uploaded the track to share with our friends; we had no idea it would become a legitimate radio hit." Their unexpected success encouraged the young women to cut an album with one of Pakistan's top producers. Since the summer, both have been traveling tirelessly across the country promoting their music.
The duo has since performed at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and as part of the lineup at MTV Pakistan's Independence Day concert in Karachi, which has the largest Pashtun population in Pakistan. "We've had Pashtuns come up to us and thank us for preserving our musical traditions," says Bangash. She credits Musharraf with boosting the success of women in Pakistan's music industry; his architect daughter, Ayla, is one of the leading patrons of Pakistani classical music. An arts enthusiast himself, Musharraf oversaw the establishment of the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi and the National Gallery of Art in Islamabad, and has now approved plans for a national museum for the capital.
Though they both live in Lahore, the duo's opportunities are still limited in the province. They grew up performing regularly for their family. Today they play in Peshawar only at family functions. "It's more a question of propriety than safety," says Bangash. "Even today Peshawar doesn't appreciate women onstage."
Much to their surprise, the two have been widely accepted by Pakistan's male-dominated music industry—except by a few. "Some of them think we're not serious enough and that 'this thing' is going to be abandoned after we get married," says Bangash. Two months ago, Zeb & Haniya were asked to perform at a private function in Lahore with exotic dancers. They refused. "We're not going to cheapen the music," says Bangash. Their family remains supportive despite the societal pressures. "People are so caught up in what is and isn't respectable that they forget to live," says Bangash. "You can't kill music; it's in every Pashtun's blood." And soon their album will be played on every Pakistani radio station.