A Pakistani Pop Star Pulls From The Culture's Musical Past And Present Though she's made careful study of the history of South Asian music, Zeb Bangash's career defies easy assumptions about art and Islam.

A Pakistani Pop Star Pulls From The Culture's Musical Past And Present

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Here are three words you don't hear together every day.

ZEBUNISSA BANGASH: Pakistan, pop music, pop music.

MCEVERS: That's Pakistani singer Zebunissa Bangash, doing a mic test for p-pops in our studios. She goes by Zeb, and she's a star in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

BANGASH: Music has always been a part of the Islamic interaction with South Asia.


BANGASH: (Singing in Urdu).

MCEVERS: For our series Muslim Artists Now, we've been talking to writers and artists about the role of art and expression in Muslim societies today. There has been violence and threat to Pakistani culture since the country was founded 70 years ago, both because of politics and religion.

BANGASH: I'm sure there are artists out there who are fighting to do music. They certainly need recognition for that, and need support for that. But I'm not that artist.


BANGASH: (Singing in Urdu).

MCEVERS: Zeb studied art history in college in the U.S. before returning home to form a band with her cousin, Haniya. Their accessible pop songs made them stars.


BANGASH: Artists are supposed to be dark, and they're supposed to be cool and they're supposed to stay up all night. And, you know, I start feeling sleepy at 10, and I like to wake up at dawn. And a lot of times I'm taunted, you know, by my colleagues and my peers, and they're like, oh, there you are, Miss Disney Princess, you know (laughter), like, what's happening in your head?

MCEVERS: Music and songs are mostly what's happening in her head. But music is not just for professionals in Pakistan. From lullabies to family gatherings, it's part of everyday life.

BANGASH: I used to think that that's what all families have, you know, I thought all families had live musicians coming over for Eid or for weddings, and I think a lot of Pakistani families do, actually.

MCEVERS: And it's also very much a part of religion.

BANGASH: Even the way you recite the Quran itself, there is music embedded in it. You don't call it singing, but it does have music embedded in it.

MCEVERS: Several years ago, Zeb appeared on one of the country's most popular TV shows and sang a song in Pashto, a regional language most Pakistanis don't understand. She was accompanied by a traditional stringed instrument known as the rabab, and it was a smash.


BANGASH: (Singing in Pashto).

The song that people have given me the most love for is this song, and so I think that's when I started really thinking about the beauty that is hidden that seems to be erased.

MCEVERS: At that point, Zeb started studying the history of South Asian music. She says Muslim artists once saw their work as a form of worship. Creating beauty was about communion with the divine. Now she's training with a classical teacher to explore the music of the past and the culture that produced it.


JAVED BASHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

BANGASH: What kind of a world was it where this kind of expression was not only appreciated, but encouraged, and had lots and lots of patrons, and that was just the way to work? And I'm really interested in really exploring that and learning more about it.


BASHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: It's a tradition she says a lot of the country's urban pop stars are losing.

BANGASH: So for some people, especially for the urban youth and for those of us who are like - feel like globalized citizens, we feel completely disconnected from it. But the more traditional societies and, you know, especially places in, like, say, rural Pakistan, those traditions are still linked to something beautiful and something that was intricate and subtle.


BASHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

BANGASH: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: Singer Zeb Bangash is not alone. She's part of a new generation of Muslim musicians that's looking to the past to try to create a more inclusive future. You can hear more from our series Muslim Artists Now at npr.org.

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