Two Girls and a Guitar: Zeb and Haniya's Debut Album

Who would have thought that two ladies and a guitar would cause so much stir in the Pakistan music industry? Here is a review of their recently-launched debut album.

The cousins two discovered their inkling towards music at an early age, with Zeb having trained under Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan since 1998, and Haniya discovering music and the guitar at college in the United States. It was here, in one of the abandoned basements of a university dormitory, that songs like Chup came to life. The response they got was overwhelming and the cousins took it from there.

From abandoned dorm basements to coffee shops, Zeb and Haniya have worked their way into record stores countrywide. Their freshman release Chup is a myriad of jazz, blues and rock with a pinch of folk thrown in. But have they matured from their live performances into a field where anything close to a woman is either token eye-candy or the so called damsel-in-distress?

In an outstanding display of chivalry, it was some of the top male musicians in the industry who held the door open for these ladies: Mekaal Hasan, Shallum Xavier, Louis ‘Gumby’ Pinto, Omran Shafique, Hamza Jafri, Sameer Ahmed and Sikander Mufti (from Co-Ven), are just some of the musicians. Fulfilling the duty of brass instruments here is Hildegen Øiseth, an established Norwegian Jazz musician. His trumpets serenade the songs and their lyrics, and quite frankly if you remove his contribution to the album, it would sound incomplete and unfinished. These gents did everything from contributing music to help on production details on this album, and one wonders if there was a case of “too many cooks spoiling the broth” here.

Thankfully, under the careful eye (and ear) of Mekaal Hasan, everything is in proportion. Shallum’s input on the guitars clearly pays off. He doesn’t come in and make everything stronger, in fact the guitars are lighter, carrying the vocals instead of leaving them behind. The same goes for Gumby, who doesn’t come in smashing at the drums, he adapts to the group’s sultry sound quite easily, and the rest follow on. Likewise, each other contributor brings their own style, but adapts it to the group’s.

It was certainly an interesting move to release Aitebaar first and not the title track, Chup, for their music video. This bluesy track is filled with a groove that, although upbeat, reflects the subject of the song. Although the music video to this track is talk of the town, it sadly is nothing but a glorified Khattak dance. Yes, the dance is good, it’s great, and not to discredit the hard work and efforts put in by Saqib, Josh and Omar, but it distracts the viewer away from song which is a shame because this is probably the second best track on the album.

Not to cast as a stereotype, but what girl group album is complete without a ‘girl power’ track? Rona Chor Diya is where the duo attempts to channel the likes of Destiny’s Child’s Survivor or Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Thankfully though, the girls don’t break the glitter out or some insane beats for that matter, the track is simple, guitar-based with interesting lyrics. This track is more about empowerment rather than power.

Paimana Bitte is a gem of a track. Originally a Pasthun/Darri folk song, the girls get everything right here. It’s the kind of track you’d want to listen to after along tiring day at work. With its almost lullaby-like vocals and careful trumpets by Øiseth, this track is about yearning and love, and is the perfect number. Ahaan showcases the singing talent of the girls; the song feels like a continuous and catchy sigh and speaks of stealing glances and hearts. She Na Sakay is probably the most upbeat track in the album with an almost swing like feel to it. Kahan is its complete opposite, starting off with a simple drumbeat and just drones on and on. Kabhi Na Kabhi is a poignant track, carried through by the vocals and the smooth and sultry trumpet provided by Øiseth. Chal Diye can be best described as a slow acoustic ballad that soothes the listener into the lyrics.

Though the title track starts off the album, I’ve kept its critique for the last for two reasons. Chup is one of the two songs that defined Zeb and Haniya, and the original version was much chirpier than the one on the album. This is probably where Zeb and Haniya fans will disagree on. Should they have settled with the original track and not tampered with it? Or did the “jazzed up” version live up to the original. To be fair, the group is now releasing their first record and with such talent involved, it would be a shame if the track was left as it is. The previous track suites the smaller environment of coffee houses and colleges, whereas the new track is all set for the big league. The essence of the track is not lost though, which is a good thing. Also with Babar Shaikh all set to direct the video for the track, it will surely be an interesting watch.

The album closes on Ban Key Touri Jogan, a track that starts slow but picks up a very fusion-like sound, showcasing the singer’s tutelage of classical music. Now their act is in the big leagues with the likes of Ali Azmat, Fuzon and Mauj (to name a few) who have either recently released new albums or are in the pipeline — the duo has some heavy competition awaiting them. But they already have good help and support, their tracks are fan favorites on the radio and they attract healthy crowds in their shows.

The album itself does not let down but there is some disappointment in seeing how Pakistani record labels market their bands. If one were to visit Zeb and Haniya’s website, they get a much closer feel to the group’s music than the one depicted on their album. The picture on the back of the album, for example, is a much more relaxed and truer image of the two women than the one on the front — juxtaposed in darkness and big, bold, manly letters. Clearly the record label needs to let their bands be true to themselves.

But a book can’t be judged by its cover and a band (in this case) not by its album cover. Zeb and Haniya are all set to be heard out loud and clear, across the radio, on the telly and on your music players. They will be anything but chup from now on…