“I was waiting for a song like this because it really allows you to put in that emotion that is very local. Because many-a-time you have to tone it down. If I were to sing with that emotion in a pop song, it would just sound really wrong. They’d be like, what is she doing?” says Pakistani singer-songwriter Zebunisa Bangash to me over the phone from Baltimore in the United States.
The song she is referring to is 'Woh Umeed Ki Manzil'. It’s her collaborative effort with Texas-based Rameez Anwar, a musician and music producer, whose previous work includes doing the soundtrack for the award-winning Pakistani short film Rani.
Although born, bred and based in the US, Rameez was born into a family with a rich musical heritage. His grandfather is the legendary Pakistani filmmaker, writer and music composer Khwaja Khursheed Anwar. The song and video can be seen and heard on YouTube.
I decided to have a chat with both Rameez and Zeb about the song. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
To me, 'Woh Umeed Ki Manzil', with its classic old-school vibe sounds more like something Khawaja Khursheed Anwar would do, rather than Rameez, who’s a millennial in his early 30s. How did this come about?
Rameez: There were a lot of threads that pulled me in that direction. Obviously, the legacy of my grandfather is omnipresent in our house. I was back home playing the piano when my father came up to me and sang the opening line for me. This was a boyhood dream of my father.
He wanted to be a film composer. I couldn’t imagine doing the song any way else. It was also a chance for me to explore my roots and do something different from what I was doing at the time.
Around two, three couplets came from an original poem my dad encountered at the end of a novel we haven’t been able to source. My khalu added a few lines, but the bulk of the lyrics came from Asim Raza.
The song has a very old-school vibe in a way that’s not retro pop. Do you think that audiences today have the appetite for it?
Rameez: I do think there is space for it. There’s been tremendous feedback from the diasporic South Asian community with regards to the song. I think it speaks to that yearning, when you grow up in another culture, to reach back to your roots, despite the complicated relationship you might have to your country or parents’ country.
It shouldn’t be hard because you have films such as La La Land (2016) that traffic in nostalgia, or even going back a few years to the black-and-white silent film, The Artist (2011). I don’t think anyone expected a silent film to be at the top in 2011, but it resonated with people.
I think we get caught up with what people think the audience wants, or what the expectation is. When I was pitching this to [some] people in the industry there was a lot of skepticism. But I stuck with my gut feeling and I’m happy. It’s been really encouraging so far.
Zeb: What’s lovely about Woh Umeed Ki Manzil is that it’s not pretending to be an old-fashioned song.
Rameez is like old-school music directors. He’s a classical music pianist. He’s learned sarangi for many years. That means he knows the western cannon but he also knows all our raags, scales and their temperaments.
The reason why you could have orchestras and sitars work so well together is because, in olden times, music directors knew how to bridge these two worlds. They knew both equally well. He’s the only person I know, in today’s time, who has been able to do this.
That’s why it feels that the song has been picked from that world and put into this world, even though it’s 100 percent original. He’s also such a meticulous person. He’s more like his grandfather in the studio than I was ready for.
Now that Woh Umeed Ki Manzil is out, can we expect any more music from the both of you this year?
Rameez: I was in Lahore last winter and I worked on something I’m really excited about. It’s a much more up-tempo, upbeat, more poppy kind of sound, but it’s definitely got some classical raag-based elements.
There is an interlude that’s entirely in Raag Bhopali and it just becomes pentatonic out of nowhere. That I recorded with Baqir Abbas who played the bansuri [flute], whom I’ve worked with on a few songs, Kami Paul on drums, and Uncle J on violin. I think it was a pretty stacked roster. That’s due to come out next.
Zeb: There’s tons of more music coming. I’m very close to Sandaraa [Zeb’s collaborative project with a bunch of musicians from around the world based in Brooklyn] right now. I think this fall we’re going to start reconvening. If not personally, then probably on Zoom.
Also, Baltimore is such an exciting city for anything creative. It’s got a great music community. I’m quite excited to collaborate here as well. Of course, there are many things from Pakistan that have yet to be released. It’s going to be a musical year.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 9th, 2020