By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad
“We have been doing music together since we were six years old – as long as I can remember,” says Haniya Aslam, as her cousin Zeb (Zebunissa) Bangash sits beside her.
“It started out as a fun thing at family functions.
“Music was very much a part of our family set-up – my father was an aficionado and all my uncles could play an instrument.
“Our grandmother was also a big influence – she was a poet and was fluent in three languages.”
While certainly not a typical Pakistani upbringing, it’s hardly exceptional among educated urbanites.
We are not into politics, but as Pakistani women we feel it is important to dispel the stereotypes abroad
Despite the growing threat of Talebanisation across the country, most Pakistanis remain a serenely liberal and tolerant lot.
The country’s top music acts such as Junoon, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami and Atif Aslam are South Asian superstars and have a strong international following as well.
Addicted to their Bollywood movies and Pakistani pop music, many are at ease with privately imitating their idols.
But, like all other professions in the country, music remains male-dominated.
For women it is another matter altogether – raised eyebrows are the least possible obstacle.
Some have broken the barrier, none more so than the late Nazia Hassan, who took the sub-continental music scene by storm with her pop music in the early 80s.
There have been others who followed in her footsteps, although none have been able to reach those dizzying heights.
That may account for all the hype surrounding Zeb and Haniya, Pakistan’s first all-female music band.
Another is the fact that their debut album, Chup (Quiet!), was recently released to rave reviews in Pakistan’s major newspapers.
But the most startling fact about these girls, for Pakistanis and the world at large, is their origin.
Both Zeb and Haniya are ethnic Pashtuns, and their families hail from the town of Kohat in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
That region has, of late, become synonymous with the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
“We’ve never lived there, but we do keep going back for family functions and get-togethers,” Haniya explains.
How accurately the militants represent the cultural identity of the Pushtuns is one of the mostly hotly debated topics in the region.
Zeb and Haniya are a living and vivid example of how much more there is to the Pushtun sensibility than the images of gun-toting renegades.
But that is all by default – the girls say they are here to be recognised for the quality of their music, not their background.
So far they seem to have struck all the right chords as the praise keeps on coming from the media.
“It all started five years ago when we were in college in the US and starting writing songs,” Zeb explains.
The girls were then undergraduate students at Smith and Wesleyan college.
“I started experimenting with different instruments and sounds,” Haniya recalls.
“Zeb had been taking singing classes for a while and we got together to record some songs.”
That might have been that, Haniya says, if not for the decision to upload the songs on to the internet.
“When we got back to Pakistan, we found out that some of the local FM radio stations had actually been playing them.”
Since 2001, Pakistan has seen a boom in local radio channels which broadcast both local and international talent.
‘Take the plunge’
“That got a lot of our friends encouraging us, so we decided to do it more seriously,” Zeb continues.
“That is when we decided to try and make and album.
“Before we knew it Haniya had put together 10 songs and we had taken the plunge.”
While the girls work as a team when it comes to the music, Zeb says Haniya is the main music writer and sings in a few of the songs on the album.
“I help out as much as I can, but I am basically a vocalist,” she says.
The pair say that local musicians have also helped them out a lot in the making of the album, which generated a response greater than the girls ever expected.
“We were a bit overwhelmed – it just took a little while to sink in,” says Haniya.
“The first time we played in a concert, we were hooted at initially.
“But when the music started the response was stupendous. It was gratifying as our music is not typical Pakistani pop.”
The pair say they felt especially pleased when Pushtun boys and girls thanked them for promoting the culture.
In fact, that may well be part of the girls’ appeal – their music blends western and eastern influences seamlessly.
Paimona, a Pushtun ballad about love, rendered with a blues influence, perhaps best illustrates this.
The music is soft with a lot of blues influence and some eclectic pop flavour.
Nadeem Farooq Paracha, Pakistan’s leading music critic, says the pair have “broken new ground being an all-female band” but cautions that the music is good, not extraordinary.
“I wouldn’t like to discourage them though – they need to keep on working. I think they can produce better music than this.”
Both Zeb and Haniya are self-deprecating when it come to their musical career.
“It’s just started and while it’s going well I think we have much room for improvement,” says Haniya.
“We are not into politics, but as Pakistani women we feel it is important to dispel the stereotypes abroad.
“Pakistani women do face problems and discrimination, but I think we are strong enough to stand up for ourselves.
“As musicians, I think this is especially clear when people get to know we are from Pakistan.”