Despite the promise of Taliban 2.0, new footage of the Taliban beating women on the streets and images of musical instruments shattered by the Taliban depicts a picture that we have all seen before. Some artists have allegedly gone into hiding, while others are seeking shelter on the internet by digitizing their work and sharing testimonies with others who cannot return home.
The artists and their persistent pleadings have helped Afghans and Pakistanis to see through the lies and reevaluate their positions on what is first and foremost a humanitarian disaster and then political instability.
Shamali Afghan and Zeb Bangash are two well-known figures in the Afg-Pak music industry that continue to draw inspiration from and give back to their homeland while living thousands of miles away. Shamali, although having lived in Toronto, grew up hearing Afghan legends from his Afghan father, Ustad Shah Wali, and Zeb, while having no direct connection to what we call Afghanistan now, feels linked to it because of her Pashtun ancestry and a ‘fortuitous’ kinship with Shamali. Both musicians recently collaborated on Love Letters to Kabul, an EP that explores Pakistan’s musical ties with its neighbors.
The Pashtun connection
“When Paimona initially came out, there were a lot of anti-Afghan and anti-Pakistan emotions in the comments area. Then there were the Indian users who chose sides. But they were all fans of the song,” Zeb Bangash remembered in an interview with The Express Tribune. “It was pretty intriguing for me because, regardless of how people feel about a country’s politics, they always react differently to its culture. A culture truly triumphs overall,” she remarked.
“This cooperation started a year ago. Shamali and I met by happenstance when we were pitched to record a Coke Studio song together,” the Sooha Saaha singer recounted. “I am acquainted with his father, Ustad Shah Wali. Our family’s favorite performer is him. “I learned Paimona and Bibi Sanam under his tutelage,” she gladly admitted.
Shamali, who was in Kabul when Covid-19 broke out, paid a visit to Zeb in Pakistan with his relatives. They wound up jamming for several weeks. “After having a great time making music, we decided to record a few tracks. “They all have a different significance and gravity now,” Zeb said.
The Dilruba Na Raazi singer recalled contacting Saad Sultan, who agreed to create the songs, and Hashim Ali, who consented to direct the music videos.
When asked if the musical link between Pakistan and Afghanistan can be utilized to heal the animosity that has grown, Zeb said, “Of course! Our genetic make-up has a connection to Afghan culture. All three Afghan Ustads profiled in this EP have either contributed to or played in Pakistan. PTV tapes are available through Ustad Nashenas. All of his cassettes would be in the possession of most of our parents and grandparents. Ustad Biltoon has performed here several times. So, like with travel, the change of music is a continuum and has been for a long time.”
Afghanistan’s artists tend to be as resistant to influence as its population is to occupiers, whether you call it the Heart of Asia or the Graveyard of Empires. And this may be determined by the manner in which they continue to express themselves. “The new aspect is that we opted not to incorporate too many new elements,” Zeb said. The traditional Afghan sound is lovely in and of itself, and the Pashtu saazina or Afghan saazina is a shared denominator on both sides of the border, so we felt it would be great to combine them.”
However, she stressed that the elegance of traditional designs did not preclude her and Shamali from adding their own spin. “There’s bass in there, keys in there, and some contemporary bits in there. It has a modern sound, yet it was created in a classic manner. We wanted the genuine Afghan tabla dhol and this Pashtu rhythm, which only individuals from Peshawar can get a hold of. So we got this wonderful tabla player from Peshawar, Javed Khan, and a great rubab player, Waqar Attal, as well,” explained the vocalist.
Zeb, who pledged in 2017 to keep her political opinions private, has now completely hidden them. “I feel that the finest things come out when we’re really engaged to our music and our goals aren’t predetermined,” she explained. “That was freeing. It is our privilege as artists, and we frequently give it up by diving into issues that political specialists can discuss better,” she went on.
But, if one’s work does not reflect current events, how can one connect with the audience or listener? “It makes me uncomfortable to hear incessant political criticism from people who can express themselves in other ways,” stated the singer. “Right now, I’d much prefer to create a song than have a political debate,” she acknowledged.
Regarding her EP making a political message – given the date of its release – yet being formed out of pure love for a city, Zeb stated, “As a student of history, I know that there is no scenario.” Things have always been the same in this planet. Famine, cruelty, and violence have always existed, but as artists, I believe we are fortunate to have a medium through which we can connect with people and help bridge gaps rather than driving them away with politics and alienating them.”