Uncovering the rise of contemporary female musicians

August 2, 2020

Long gone are the days when (the late) Nazia Hassan or Hadiqa Kiani alone defined music in terms of the female gender. Instep looks at some of the new faces.

(Clockwise from top left): Aima Baig, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Natasha Noorani and Zahra Paracha, Slowspin, Wooly and the Uke and Momina Mustehsan

The ‘Nazia’ Factor

Some would argue that the great (late) Ahmed Rushdi and those who worked with him started music in Pakistan. But removing the filmi music genre, the pioneers of pure pop music were siblings Nazia and Zoheb Hassan. Nazia, dubbed by some as the nightingale of Southasia, gave listeners music ahead of its time – working with music producer Biddu. Ditto for some of their music videos such as ‘Pyar Ka Jadu’ and ‘Aag’.

Nazia-Zoheb’s courage to make music at a time when Pakistan was still under Zia’s regime propelled others to pick up musical instruments and go where their heart desired. A great example would be the Vital Signs, with whom our fascination continues to exist 30 years since their debut single, ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’.

Nazia Hassan, having given several albums, passed away much too soon but to this day her music remains effective; FDVM, a French electronic act who visited Pakistan to play several shows made an edit version of a Nazia Hassan song – ‘Disco Deewane’ - and as they played it at their shows, they managed to elate an unknown crowd that has grown to adore the foreign electronic act.

Nazia Hassan’s pop baton lived on, not via Vital Signs, or other popular acts such as Awaaz, Junoon or Ali Haider; throughout the nineties, we had artists like Hadiqa Kiani as well as The Milestones (featuring Candy Perera, Ali Tim and Ziyyad Gulzar) releasing records. While Hadiqa continues to lead from the front, evolving as the times go by, The Milestones - after two solid records – ended their run. Singer Candy Perera moved to Canada for good. Like Kiani, the lesser acknowledged Fariha Parvez also gave us a bounty of music and is still doing it.

Eastern and/or folk giants like Abida Parveen, Humera Channa, Tina Sani, Nayyara Noor, Runa Laila, Noor Jehan, Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum and others like them filled the void left by lack of contemporary female acts like The Milestones or a Nazia Hassan. Others ignored the rich piece of musical history.

“The phone rings in the
middle of the night
My father yells, ‘What you gonna do with your life?’
Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one
But girls, they wanna
have fun...”

Rushk, a music group originally featuring Ziyyad Gulzar (of The Milestones fame), Uns Mufti (chief songwriter) and Nazia Zuberi (on vocals) released the brilliant Sawaal, first in the early naughties with the (second) re-release having taken place in 2006 in Karachi. Rushk has now gone from a recording act to one that can perform as well with a slicker line-up and new songs in the voice of Tara Mahmood as well as original singer Nazia Zuberi. For a time, Rushk was the anomaly with cutting-edge music videos like ‘Behti Naar’ and a female vocalist apart from the phenomenal debut album they put out, twice.

As time passed by, the naughties saw the birth of acts such as Annie and Rabi Peerzada. They made their debuts with full-length records but the music and lyrics left a great deal to be desired.

It is obviously impossible to list down every female act that has/had come up but the great change arrived in 2008 with an act called Zeb and Haniya, an all-female duo who wrote and performed original music.

Releasing their debut album, Chup in 2008, Zeb and Haniya got the ball rolling for female musicians. Another act that had a similar effect was Overload – that unveiled its second album, also featuring a female vocalist (Meesha Shafi) – titled Pichal Pairee and released it independently on the Internet by 2009 sans a record label. The band didn’t break up but both Mahmood Rehman and Meesha Shafi (musicians and partners in real life) left the outfit after just one album.

Both Zeb and Haniya and Meesha Shafi had a profound effect on the industry. What was – at least for a time - a male-dominated space, started opening up. Both acts first appeared on Coke Studio in its early years, making a mark that has put them on a pedestal for other female acts to follow.

While Meesha Shafi and Haniya Aslam at present continue to work on their debut EPs and Zeb Bangash pursues a vivid solo career, their presence and the birth of a film industry enriched the musical scene overall.

“I come home in the
morning light
My mother says, ‘When you gonna live your life right?’
Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones
And girls, they wanna
have fun.”

In the last decade, female artists have emerged from shows such as Coke Studio. Chief among them is Momina Mustehsan who is one of the breakthrough stars of the show.

Every song post her Coke Studio debut is a smash hit. One big example is her track with Bilal Saeed, ‘Baari’ that has generated 75 million views on YouTube alone.

However, Mustehsan is not the only Coke Studio success story.

Zoe Viccaji, who first began her career by singing in English, became a member of the Coke Studio house-band, also in its early years with original producer Rohail Hyatt. Using the platform to increase her knowledge of eastern music, Zoe has become a full-fledged solo artist with several singles, shows and an album to her credit. She was followed by her younger sister Rachel, who has been a part of the latter years of Coke Studio as well, and has come into her own as a singer, featured on the program as an artist as well as house-band member a couple of times.

But if Mustehsan, and the Viccaji sisters were thrust in the national (and international) limelight via Coke Studio, others who blew the house down with their respective Coke Studio appearance(s) include artists like Aima Baig. Just in her mid-twenties, she broke through Coke Studio and is at present a coveted voice in film music. Baig is the voice behind films such as Teefa in Trouble and Parey Hut Love (among countless others) and has plenty of awards to her name.

Others began their careers independently with some soaring higher than others. Among them are all-girl bands like Garam Anday and Biryani Brothers – with the former making a strong albeit controversial mark with their Haniya Aslam-produced single, ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’ and its music video that echoes a patriarchal world turned upside down. For Garam Anday, fans of grunge-punk, the single is a beginning.

Another all-girl group Biryani Brothers, on the other hand, features Lahore Music Meet co-founders Zahra Paracha and Natasha Noorani. Biryani Brothers has not only covered acts like Poor Rich Boy, but have given us original songs like ‘Ikisvi Sadi’ and ‘Sab Theek Ho Jaye Ga’. Both girls are also pursuing solo careers with Zahra Paracha a member of Sikandar Ka Mandar with her juicy guitars while Natasha Noorani is (a) electronic artist (b) playback singer (c) singing in mainstream via acts like Strings (‘Hum Dono’ off Thirty) and films, just to point out some of her work.

Woole and the Uke, featuring Janat Sohail Aziz, is another act to follow with songs like ‘Monster’, ‘Circus’ and the 2020 release, ‘Watch’, a collaborative single with Poor Rich Boy and the recent, ‘Circle in a Circle’.

Younger artists like Maria Unera have caught attention as well, having appeared with Josh’s Qurram Hussain in a music video called ‘Aajana’ as part of Cornetto Pop Rock. She has gone on to perform at Levi’s Live and is also featured on Danyal Zafar’s album, Blue Butterfly.

Natasha Humera Ejaz is another excellent example. Known for making music under the moniker Stupid Happiness Theory, the multi-talented Ejaz can sing, write and produce songs. From her debut with a single at age 22 to her appearance on Uth Records and Lussun TV, Ejaz is growing in rank as an artist. She appeared on the soundtrack of the animated film, Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor with two songs and also voice acted in the film.

Having released three records, Extra on Cloud, It Might Get Glitchy, Till the End of Time, Ejaz is also a member of an all-female acapella group Gintaara and is also present on the soundtrack of Bench, an upcoming film from Usman Mukhtar where she has played producer/music director and singer. Ejaz has also appeared in collaborative efforts from films like Mein Azad Hoon to indie acts like Gentle Robot and Sikandar Ka Mandar respectively.

Another Natasha without whom this story would be incomplete is Natasha Baig. She originally comes from Hunza Valley and appeared on the horizon a while ago. But her Coke Studio effort, the collaboration with Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad called ‘Shikwa/Jawab-e-Shikwa’ put her in the league of extraordinary singers. Not wasting the opportunity of appearing on Coke Studio 11, she has gone on to release her full-length Sufi album, Zariya and has also been a part of Paanch – The Mixtape featuring artists such as Sounds of Kolachi, Jimmy Khan, Chand Tara Orchestra and Mughal-e-Funk with the latter two nothing short of super-groups.

Other compelling artist is Slowspin, who has put out several EPs and has won a Lux Style Award in the category of Best Emerging Artist. Singer-songwriter and producer, Slowspin has taught herself how to produce your own records and is the shining example of an ethereal voice, matched by electronic music that is experimental yet manages to merge with her vocals like a charm.

Mekaal Hasan Band, led by producer Mekaal Hasan, also changed the game when they went with an Indian female vocalist, Sharmista Chatterjee, to form an Indo-Pak band. It also features other musicians from India like Gino Banks for their third record Andholan. Given how difficult it is for musicians in India and Pakistan to travel to each other’s vicinities, Hassan also plays with Madam Humera Channa – who has her own following as well – when he can.

No story on music is complete without Quratulain Balouch, who does not find the acronym QB endearing. Quratulain became the voice of a nation in 2011 with the soundtrack of hit TV serial, Humsafar; ‘Woh Humsafar Tha’ became nothing short of an anthem. Since then, she has worked across the border and at home appearing on Coke Studio and Cornetto Pop Rock leading to some prominent collaborations with the likes of Umair Jaswal, Noori and Ali Azmat. In addition - with a dynamic voice - Baluch is also known for singles like ‘Akhiyaan Nu Rehn De’, ‘Dhamak‘ and ‘Bewafaiyaan’.

Roots and Ifra, who appeared on Pepsi Battle of the Bands in its resurrected mode had female vocalists but didn’t make for a winner or a runner-up. However, it did help in putting them on a national level. With Roots, it is not just the electro-pop synth driven music but the presence of Rutaba Yaqub that makes them wee bit different from others. Yaqub began as one of the backing vocalists on the earlier seasons of Nescafe Basement before coming into her own, arriving on Pepsi Battle of the Bands with her band, Roots. Well-known for the single, ‘Pagal Sa’, in 2020, Yaqub has released an EP called Shit I’ll Never Finish.

IFRA emerged from Faisalabad but couldn’t make the cut on PBOTB because while the female vocalist, Ifra, had blown the judges away, her band didn’t. No worries because this Faisalabad band has gone on to perform at Lahore Music Meet and looks set to do great things in the future.

Other artists without whom this list would be incomplete include vocalist Nimra Rafiq (SOK), Maha Ali Kazmi, Sameen Qasim and Co, Kaghaz featuring Amna Nizami, Anna Salman and the All-Girl Band, the multi-tasking Sara Haider as well as Iman Shahid, Mahak Qayyum, Farheen Raza, Ifra from I.F.R.A. and the emerging Midnight Kitchen, a music group that features Raania Durrani, Dilawar Hussain, Rakae Jamil, Terrance Kenny and Faraz Hussain. A special mention goes out to Nimra Gillani, who sang ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani’ from the yet to release Zindagi Tamasha and is a member of Gintaara, as well.

Uncovering the rise of contemporary female musicians