Zeb Bangash - At Her Career High

The nightingale of Pakistani music scene, Zeb Bangash started her career with a Kohat-based band made in collaboration with her cousin Haniya. The band ended when Haniya bid Farwell to singing leaving space for Zeb to expand her career as a solo artist. Today, Zeb Bangash is a name that needs no introduction in the music space. With a strong vocal range and a melodic voice, the artist continues on an ever-evolving musical journey that has set a benchmark for many aspiring musicians. Zeb is not only a soulful singer but a talented music composer too. She has composed magnificent tunes that were explored by musicians across the border - making her the first ever Pakistani artist to compose music for an award-winning Bollywood film.

Her music is an eclectic blend of many influences, from her pure classical roots, but uniquely drawing on contemporary, world music and film scoring. From lending voice to film and television soundtracks to locking across-the-border projects, from record-breaking Coke Studio hits to being a part of Brooklyn-based music group Sandaraa, Zeb’s body of work is diverse and speaks volumes of her artistic skills. Her latest song for a beverage company, Dil Ki Baat has received widespread acclaim and appreciation. Read on to explore more about the singer in an exclusive conversation with MAG:

Icebreaker! How is Zeb as a person behind all the glitz and glam of the industry?

If you ask my friends and family they might tell you something else but I feel like I am an introverted extrovert; I love meeting people and going out and engaging with the world at large but I also need my private time, where I can be with my own thoughts and hide from the world at home.

You’ve been a prominent name and a constant in the music scene since quite a while now and rightfully so, how will you describe your journey so far?

It’s been an amazing journey of unexpected twists and turns so far. One thing I can say is that nothing happened as I expected it, things that should’ve happened easily came with so many hurdles and mostly didn’t happen, but I never lost heart and kept focusing on my music. The opportunities that have come to me have been far beyond my expectations!

How will you describe the music that you create and your creative process?

Choices are tough for me. I always struggle when asked to pick a favourite colour or a favourite restaurant to eat at. Similarly, in my musical taste, I’m attracted to various kinds of musical styles and expressions and have always been unsure of how to describe my genre. Truth be told I don’t think in terms of fitting myself into a genre anymore. I try to incorporate my musical influences in my singing and am interested in how I can synthesize my creative tastes and come up with something that’s just truly mine.

What would you be doing right now, if it wasn’t for your music career?

I could have maybe answered this question with a lot more clarity if you asked me five years ago. At this moment, music is such an all-encompassing part of my life and psyche that it’s tough to say. I don’t know, I could have been doing anything between being a business woman and a travel blogger.

How does it feel to be the first Pakistani musician ever to music direct an award-winning Bollywood movie? How was the overall experience?

Right from when I first joined the industry didn’t cone just as a singer but also as a composer and as someone who was curating tunes from under-explored musical styles from all over the region into the mainstream. This aspect of me was not picked up majorly locally but it was immediately noticed across the border. From my very first trip their people were not only commenting on my voice but also my style of Urdu composition. I got a lot of attention there from the fact that I had co-composed these tunes or I was thinking outside the box in terms of choosing material from other languages also. I did have a sense that I might get an opportunity to direct music there but I didn’t know it would be so soon and with such a stellar amazing group of women. The takeaway for me was not just that a beautiful and important film was made and fun creative collaboration but most importantly I also really gained lasting friendships with creative with people like Anvitaa Dutt (the lyricist of the film who has come up with her second directorial masterpiece Qala) and the director Alankrita Srivastava (who went on to do amazing series like Bombay Begums and Made in heaven). Both these women went on to do ground breaking beautiful and brave work and I feel blessed to have been a part of their initial journeys and feel blessed to know them personally and creatively.

You’ve done osts for dramas, title tracks for films at home and in Bollywood, solo albums, concerts and what not! Is there anything left with respect to your music career to check off your bucket list?

I don’t know where to begin with, I have a weird condition and I don’t know if you would call it ambition or delusion but every year I feel that my real career has only just started and I’m always looking forward at what opportunities are laid out ahead, and the possibilities of what can be done. There really is no real bucket list, there never was because all I wanted to do was music and that’s what I’m doing but my mindset is always to do something different something that doesn’t let me get bored with my own self.

Which famous musicians do you admire the most?

This is a really difficult question because there are so many brilliant people on this planet! Also it keeps changing and sometimes the musicians I admire may not really be famous but that they touch me. My all-time inspiration in music for past many years is my teacher Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, he is the only loving practitioner of an ancient art form and yet his capacity to be always humble and generous, kind of moves me.

Within the region I would take one name that really stands out the visionary musical genius AR Rahman Sahab. In recent time at home, I think Xulfi is brave to change an established loved sound for a platform and change it successfully that speaks of conviction and is definitely worth admiration. I’m listening to a lot of Billie Holliday as well as Nai Palm (of Hiatus Kiayote) these days. I love and admire the both these gorgeous singers.

Also a heartfelt shout out for my amazing producers Benjamin Lazar Davis and Bridget Kearney who I just recorded my solo album with.

While singing any song, do you require the creative freedom being given to you or you’ll be better off performing according to any particular directions?

It depends on the project but for most playback singing it’s better to have a mix of both – I need to have direction because ultimately I am serving somebody else’s vision and generally it will come down through two prisms, one is the film director or the drama director vision which is translated to the music director's vision and I have to serve both, so communication is good. Once I get a nice brief I do like to have some space to play around and give options. This becomes more exciting for me.

You’ve been the voice behind many sound tracks in Bollywood movies? What work ethics do they possess that you think are better than our industry?

The starkest difference is the attitude towards arts and culture. The way the work happens in the industry has to do with the enormous volume of work. It may not be the best environment for creativity but it’s come out of necessity. People are professional but also busy and they may not have time for retakes and endless jamming to develop songs the way they do here. In that sense, it’s more stressful and cut throat. But because people value learning, practicing and performing music there, the overall attitude towards practitioners is different from Pakistan. Here be it at the producer, sponsor, or agency level or for that matter performer level musical training is hard to find. A lot of the creative decision making happens based on personal choices. It’s a different work environment there.

Are you still a part of the Brooklyn based music group Sandaraa? Shed some light on how you became a part of it and what was the idea behind it?

Yes! Still on, still friends and our 10-year reunion is around the corner. Michael Winograd my co-band leader for Sandaraa has also worked with me on my solo album. As far as the idea is concerned we are a group of musicians who are all doing other things but are also invested in our local traditions and music. The idea was to connect all our music together to reconnect and celebrate regional ties that in today’s time feel bizarre or unusual but have been a part of our shared histories.

We’ve seen you singing in Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, Turkish, Persian and Saraiki etc. Do you think it is difficult to indulge in the perfect feel of the song with respect to the language?

If you have grown up with a language, then you have the sense of what doesn’t sound right but if you’ve just discovered a tradition it’s tough and scary to make those calls. You have to listen to a lot of references very keenly. And then re-listen. For me these were Makrani and Kashmiri songs. I am really thankful that even though I didn’t sing Roshe on Coke Studio the way the folk tune is generally sung and I even added a line of melody in the antara, people in Kashmir were generous and openly came out to express their love for it. Now whenever I meet a Kashmiri speaker outside of Pakistan they want me to do more Kashmiri songs, which is really humbling.

Tell us about some of your upcoming projects which are you really excited about?

Sure! I am really excited about my solo album which is going to be coming out in 2023. It’s a completely new sound for me and yet very me and close to what I am feeling/have felt in the recent past. I am also branching out, there is another semi-secret project that I am working on this year. I’ll let you guys know about soon but please pray it goes well. There is a lot of music making in 2023, hopefully it all comes out this year.

Lastly, any words of wisdom that you’d like to give to aspiring singers?

Nowadays due to the sudden surge in instant fame and instant success it’s tough for new singers to keep their motivation up and to stay with their expression, it’s tough to manage on a psychological level and they get a little restless when things aren’t happening. My two bits of advice would be that work hard keep trying, stay true to your practice and stick to your creative guns. Don’t change the essences of your expression for the markets sake but only if it makes sense to you in a creative sense. Things will happen whenever they are meant to happen. Take pride in your process. Also tons of love and prayers for your success!

Coordination: Umer Mushtaq.
Hair & makeup: Nighat Misbah@Depilex.
Wardrobe: Go.Snapp.
Jewellery: Coral by Tina & Bejewelled by H.A.
Styling: Tooba Sanawar Ali.
Photography: Hussain Piart.
PR: Alchemist.