Kohat, a small town located in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North West Frontier Province), synonymous with Al-Qaeda and Taliban, where music-making is an outrageous affair, is where Zebunissa Bangash hails from, where she would regularly visit her extended family. This is where she heard the love song, Laili jaan, dileh ma kardi wairan, by Afghani popstar Ahmad Zahir. Known as the Elvis of Afghanistan, Zahir’s simple song in 1977 was popular among Pashtuns and non-Persians in Balochistan. Bangash grew up listening to it from her grandmother, her parents, and at family gatherings. “It says ‘Laila, you’ve made my heart desolate’. Everyone sang this around me. It was a happy feeling,” says 35-year-old Bangash, in a conversation from Brooklyn, where she’s making music and performing with her band Sandaara.
More than three decades later, in 2013, Zahir’s song was repacked with a Cuban guy drumming up a storm. Performed by Bangash and her cousin Hania Aslam, of the duo Zeb and Hania, in Coke Studio Season 3, it had Rohail Hayat at the helm. The two had by then become Pakistan’s first all-woman band.
Four years later, the song has a Hindi version, in Alankrita Shrivastava’s much-talked about film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Lyricist Anvita Dutt has turned the song into Leli jaan, bina puchhe hai, while Shrivastava has placed it in time-worn alleys and enclosures of Bhopal. As for Bangash, the composer and singer of the piece, she has clarinet player Michael Winograd deliver a Chaplenesque prelude, which when combined with rabab player Sadiq Sameer’s strumming, Patrick Farrel’s accordion and Ankur Mukherjee’s guitars and double bass, has resulted in a groovy piece finding airtime and attention on social media. “Since it was a story set in Bhopal and I come with some Pashtun heritage, I thought it would be nice to have Afghani elements in the fabric of the film’s music. Alankrita wanted to bring the old and new worlds together and see that tension in the story, which is why you hear a diversity of sounds. It has this whimsical quality to it, with the modern flavour in place,” says Bangash, who has composed the film’s soundtrack comprising three pieces. While Leli jaan remains the most popular, Ishqiya is a Nazia Hassan style disco piece sung by Neeti Mohan and Jigi jigi, an age-old piece by Haji Saifuddin, has been turned into a sensual folk song in Malini Awasthi’s voice, lending “naughtiness, gravitas and old school command” to the film.
It was two years ago that Shrivastava decided to get Bangash to compose for her film. “I had heard Bibi sanam from Coke Studio and knew that’s the sensibility I was looking for,” says Shrivastava, who met Bangash in a Bandra cafe three days before she was to leave for home and handed her the script.
Shrivastava had a clear blueprint. Bangash was inspired by the script right away. “Alankrita had done her homework. For every song and every situation, she had a very clear idea of how she wanted things to sound,” says Bangash, who made sure that live musicians were used in the studio.
Bangash grew up in Lahore. After her training under Pakistan’s Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, she experimented with a variety of sounds while studying in Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. With her cousin Aslam not far away at Smiths, an evening of song and talk resulted in Chup in 2007, a debut that had Pakistan sit up and notice their work. The duo’s popularity grew across the border, in India, as Coke Studio found an overwhelming reception. Bangash performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in India (2014) after the duo performed at the SAARC Bands Festival (2011). The live performance at Delhi’s Purana Qila didn’t find many takers as the popular songs went off key, but whatever the girls recorded became a hit. For now though, Bangash and Aslam work separately. Aslam is in Canada and Bangash in Brooklyn and Lahore.
With the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association banning the entry of artists in India, Bangash could not come to India for the release. She says it’s a risk and an opportunity cost. “Bringing someone for you (in India) is a risk. Coming for us (from Pakistan) is a risk. We work together because the art speaks to us, not just because we are Pakistani or Indian. And in that process, with artistic integrity in the background, you don’t even realise you are building bridges, or may be being provocative. That’s because of your commitment to the art. Art itself is provocative,” says Bangash, “If you can keep yourself true to your art, within that moment, then truth transcends. And it will speak to people regardless of where they are from.” Bangash is currently working on other Indian projects.