Zeb Bangash has played a vital part in popularising Coke Studio, with tracks like 'Paimona Bitte', 'Chup' and 'Rona Chor Diya' - performed with her cousin Haniya as Zeb & Haniya - serving as some of the music show's earliest massive hits.

It wasn't surprising then to hear word of her impending debut as composer on Coke Studio 10. Yet, for reasons unclear, Zeb is absent from the ongoing season. Instead, she joins Meesha Shafi, Atif Aslam and Fawad Khan this year at Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands as a guest musician.

In conversation with Images, the acclaimed singer-songwriter dishes on why she'd had to jump ship. Read on:

Images: You were reportedly a part of Coke Studio’s tenth season as one of the music directors. What went wrong?

Zeb Bangash: I’m not too sure myself. There was talk of my participation as a composer for the ninth season too, since I’ve been a music director for films in India and Pakistan for a few years now. The team seemed excited to include me since I would have been the only female musician to work in a production capacity on Coke Studio; I was also moved to know that they noticed and acknowledged my accomplishments.

I was called in September, followed by a few informal meetings and by fall they told me they’d love to have me on board. There were no contracts signed, but I started working on it out of good-will, in fact, I put in a few entries as well. I didn't get any concrete explanation, but by January it emerged that it wasn’t going to work out. 

Images: Do you think such attitude is a reflection of how respectful brands are to their ambassadors?

Zeb: Look, what happened this year made me upset. I can’t lie about it. But for me the consequences are not so drastic. There was an emotional connection that seemed to be severed but that’s it really. The problem is a larger one... of mentality. If we want to support Pakistani music and want it to grow, we can’t just support hits and stars and put money behind them. Music can only grow when all practitioners of music are dealt with respect and professionalism, across the board.

Zeb Bangash says her verbal agreement to feature as a music director on Coke Studio 10 fell through with no explanation
Zeb Bangash says her verbal agreement to feature as a music director on Coke Studio 10 fell through with no explanation

Yes, music can now make money, yes, there are corporations backing it up, and in many ways it captures a significant place in the imagination of being Pakistani today. Yet, when it comes to granting musicians respect, our systems have not changed significantly since the Zia years. In fact, in many ways the exploitation and creative limitations have gotten worse for the most part. Why is that? We should self-reflect.

Images: When you speak of self-reflection, who do you think is in dire need to do that – musicians or the brands?

Zeb: Having worked abroad, I can’t help but make comparisons about how people working in the music industry are getting treated here. I’m not talking about stars, I mean the session players, traditional musicians, engineers, composers, lyricists – the ones who build the backbone of the industry.

When you look at the kind of intimidation and exploitation that happens in this section, it’s really appalling.

How you speak to the artist, how much creative space is awarded to the artist, how is that communicated to them, how you engage them? How you negotiate with them? What kind of out of studio relationship you build with them? Respect in the treatment and engagement of artists is seriously lacking; especially for non-stars in larger platforms.

Images: Take us through your journey with Coke Studio; how do you think the energy changed as Strings took over?

Zeb: I have not had any personal problems with them and we have had an amicable interaction. However I felt I was part of the community when Rohail [Hyatt] was around. I think [he’s] been a part of the success, there’s a reason why his music stands out and is so memorable, despite half as much as marketing. Obviously this season, I didn’t feel that inclusion; I am aware I could be voicing a minority’s point of view; I’m just talking about my experience.

Zeb sang a Nazia Hassan tribute on Pepsi Battle of the Bands this Sunday
Zeb sang a Nazia Hassan tribute on Pepsi Battle of the Bands this Sunday

Rohail’s forte was that he really was able to connect to a larger group of musicians. I think there will always be someone who won’t agree [with his vision], but I had a wonderful time working with him on this show. I feel I’ve been a part of Coke Studio’s journey and evolution, and I take pride in it.

Images: And now we saw you as a part of Pepsi Battle of the Bands... tell us about your track?

Zeb: I wanted to lend my support in whatever way I could. My song is a tribute to Nazia Hassan, but I was given space to play around with it and make it my own. I really enjoyed the creative freedom and being able to pick my own team to work with. That was amazing.

I’ve wanted to do a fun, happy, peppy song and there was absolutely no resistance from the producers, which was refreshing. I also got to collaborate with musicians from Karachi after a long time; we were in the jam-space day in and day out. It was special.

Images: Lastly, what do you think you’ve enjoyed the most being a part of Pepsi’s re-launched initiative?

Zeb: I’ve enjoyed performing to a live audience because that is how the show is recorded. You take so much from the audience’s energy. Apart from that I’ve also been inspired by the contestants. It was heartwarming to see that band culture is not over as a lot of people will make you believe.

All over Pakistan, young people are getting together to play music and write songs. That kind of self-expression is what keeps our contemporary voice alive; I had started believing that we had lost it. I am happy to witness that it’s very much alive.

We just have to nurture it and support it and I’m confident it will resonate with all of Pakistan and beyond in time. The producers [at Battle of the Bands] help with the production of a sound that the bands themselves want, there isn’t a super-imposed sound and that's great to see.

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