How Zeb Bangash Aims To Reintroduce South Asian Musical Forms

Zeb Bangash discusses her journey in music, the challenges she faced as a female singer, what it takes to sustain in a high-pressured industry, and her endeavour to revive and reintroduce Khayal, a South Asian musical form. 

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Zeb Bangesh
Zeb Bangash does not believe in pushing boundaries for herself. She goes where curiosity takes her, and rightly so. "I tried being a warrior type for a couple of years. It made me angry, and it made me miserable," she says when I ask her why. 

Bangash, who extracts the most out of what is happening rather than what ought to happen, eventually finds paths open up for her. The singer-songwriter from Lahore has earned her place in the music industry with her work spanning across Pakistan and India. A well-known face from Coke Studio, Bangesh has also given her voice to some popular songs in the Hindi films like Madras Cafe, Fitoor, Highway and Manto among others. 

In conversation with SheThePeople, Zeb Bangash discusses her journey in music, the challenges she faced as a female singer, what it takes to sustain in a high-pressured industry, and her endeavour to revive and reintroduce Khayal, a South Asian musical form. 

Zeb Bangash Interview

What led you to pursue music?

Music and singing have been an intrinsic part of my personal expression. I got this from home; we often joked that we are a family of amateurs with an enthusiasm for music that rivals professionals. At some point, while I was still at school, people around me started asking me to sing and giving me special attention because of it. Looking at this, my father made sure that I was involved in some musical activity or learning wherever we were posted. So, since childhood, music has been a serious hobby.

As I grew up and my interest developed, so did my audience, and the encouragement kept me going, pushing me to learn and express myself more. It went from singing to my family to singing to friends, to making songs with my cousin, to cutting an album, coming to the Coke studio, singing in Bollywood and finally finding my teacher and developing my voice. It all feels so seamless. Truth be told, I did not do anything specific except stay focused on what road was opening up for me, and that led to other roads. As for inspiration, anything can inspire me if I am in the mood to be inspired.

How challenging was it to break into the music industry initially? And now that you’re a popular name, what are the challenges you face at present?


Oh, the industry welcomed me with open arms. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the warm reception, to the point that I thought the roadblocks for women I had heard of might have been a thing of the past.

I realised a little later, however, that as a female artist, once you enter, you are almost immediately on your way out. There seems to be a constant, very short turnaround for women because the prime spot in marketability terms continues to be the ‘fresh face” spot. 

Once that novelty ends, there are forces that are pushing you to either conform completely or become some rebel icon. If you don’t have the appetite for either and want to retain the space to keep redefining yourself, it’s an uphill task. Entering is easy; staying is tough.

Before I ‘made it,’ I was in the company of fellow musicians; even if they were difficult and we had personality clashes, even if there was some level of sexism in the interactions, ultimately, they really supported my work and believed in me as an artist. Perhaps because we were all aligned on our commitment to producing good music. However, the industry is aligned with many other aspects, not just creative expression. 

But I survived - with a little help from my friends. Now I feel that the challenge is and always is to keep my own perspective intact without anger, silly competitiveness, resentment, or any sense of entitlement. My practice, my work and my relationships take up most of my mind space these days, and once you’re in that zone, the part of the market that wants you aligns itself with you.

When we, as young women, enter the industry, we are ambitious and impressionable, and without guidance and support, we become vulnerable. The challenge is to believe in your gift and not let yourself break under the pressures for good. 

How do you blend the world of Urdu and Hindi music across nations?

It's simple, really. I'm able to blend languages because I just don't think of languages; I think in terms of the notes, musical forms, and musical peculiarities in a song, and sometimes, if I feel that those work well with peculiarities from some other language or tradition, I just mix them. Or they mix themselves up oftentimes.


Please tell us about your endeavour to revive and reintroduce Khayal, a South Asian musical form, as a healing practice. 

I always loved Classical music, but keeping my context in mind, having any chance of being able to learn it was as much of a fantasy as becoming a professional figure skater. The universe did respond to my desire; however, and almost six years into my musical career, I met Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami and started training with him. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he is a unique master, teacher, and practitioner who is an expert on the 49-note Khayal system. He also happens to be the direct descendant of Mian Saamat, the sole student of Hazrat Amir Khusrau and, within his generation, the only one in the family who trained in khayal for 50 years.

He’s basically a living museum with a super authentic perspective on this ancient music, its purpose, and its method of transferring. Within a couple of years with him, I recognised that what was being imparted was far more than just musical scales, raags, wadi-sumwadis and so forth. This wasn’t mere entertainment or performance. In fact, it is a highly sophisticated and intricate system of frequencies and microtones that was developed with the intended purpose of personal development, meditation, self-actualisation and enlightenment. This practice, along with giving you a voice, can bring positive changes in one's perspective and one's actions. In short, it was a healing practice. Since then, I've been most keen to share this perspective on the practice with the world and for more and more people like me to benefit from it. The Center for Cultural Vibrancy in Baltimore, Dr Homayra Ziad from Johns Hopkins University, has jump-started the first Healing Khayal residency in May.

Do you feel like the dynamics are evolving within the music industry in terms of outreach?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t have existed as a singer without it as long as one is aware that a lot of music and good musicianship is found in the unrecorded world also. As long as listeners don’t feel like they know the music from a place because they streamed some song lists from there. And as long as artists don’t get carried away with pandering to “growth” in terms of numbers and virality, because that could ultimately affect our own expression. It's tough to hold yourself back when something does really well or fails really badly in the digital world.

Do you feel dynamics have changed with respect to Indian female voices getting more representation?


In my humble view, female voices were always important, especially in the film industry in India. There has been a lot more independent expression and different kinds of voices on soundtracks and all now. I also feel that, generally, the space for independent music has really grown, and there are many more female artists, which is just fabulous.

Any musicians who inspire you?

Anginnat (plenty). Anything beautiful in a voice or expression will inspire me. I always have some song/voice in my head. Right now, it's Portishead.

Is there a project/ performance closest to your heart?

Not yet released. Two projects that are coming up this year are both very, very close to my heart. One of them is my debut solo album.

What is your advice to aspiring musicians?

It's great if we can know our voice and perspective well. Also, stay away from people who praise you too much. Wherever you find space for you, take it with your ears and heart open.

Suggested reading: Tu Jhoom: How Mansa Pandey Sang Her Way To Nation’s Heart

women in music female singers Pakistan Female Artists Zeb Bangash