Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam don't really know what to call their music, but other people have labeled what they play "ethnic blues" or "art folk." They say most songs have just grown organically; one set of lyrics feels best with a blues touch or a jazz feel.
But it's not like playing music is an accident for these 30-year-old cousins. Zeb began singing at 8 and trained for years with one of Pakistan's elder statesmen of classical music from the region. And Haniya has spent much of her life composing and playing the guitar.
Zeb and Haniya: "We've been listening to a lot of stuff, and I'm sure that all we've listened to does reflect in our music. From rock to blues and jazz and folk, to also Bollywood, to ghazzals, folk Pakistani music and also classical south Asian music."
Their act began in college: they went to Mt. Holyoke and Smith Colleges in Massachusetts. The Pioneer Valley, as the area around the schools is known, is awash in music stores that still sell vinyl, moderately famous performing spots and venues where amateurs can play. They tried out the different styles, including this Clapton-esque number called Aitebar.
The song was made into a ground-breaking video both for what it does and what it doesn't do. The video doesn't have gyrating, scantily clad women like most Bollywood-inspired video fare shown in Pakistan. Instead, it shows a man and a woman dramatizing the song through modern dance.
Zeb and Haniya: "The basic concept is a woman who's ended the relationship and she's symbolically closing the house where she spent time with her partner, husband, we don't know, that's been left open. And as she goes through each room she relives a part of her relationship that coincides with what we're singing about, the emotion we're trying to express. So sometimes it's anger, sometimes it's hatefulness, nostalgia, freedom, some sort of tension."
The video and the duo are generating some buzz in Pakistan's big cities, which Zeb and Haniya say is pretty rewarding for a coupla girls originally from the boondocks.
Zeb and Haniya: "It's not a profession that a lot of people, especially from a certain education and social background would pursue. And that's been part of the excitement of doing this project, because it wasn't really something we did in rebellion or out of anger, but it just turned out being like that because we liked it and we pursued it. I think also when we were younger, music wasn't lucrative as a profession. I mean that's changing now. It's not very lucrative, but you can at least imagine trying to earn a living. And you can always hope for good things."
Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam's album Chup has sold out in Pakistan and is available online.
For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter, Islamabad, Pakistan.