To say that women have almost been non-existent in the cultural realm of Pakistan is to insult the contribution of divas like Noor Jehan, poets like Parveen Shakir, singers like Abida Parveen and film-makers like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. To say that a majority has not been able to break the glass ceiling in the entertainment industry would also be a rather sweeping generalisation. However, one must ask: in a country where rock ‘n’ roll is as popular as qawwali and musical diversity is cherished, why has an all-female band of musicians never hit the mainstream? Other than the very charming Benjamin Sisters, never once did we see a group of women taking up music for a career as a single unit.
Over the years, music producer Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan’s Nescafe Basement has almost taken shape of an ashram for upcoming musicians. While being at it in the show’s fourth season, the guitarist who is lovingly called Xulfi, decided to bring together 10 female musicians for a cover of John Newman’s Love Me Again. Within days, the song went viral, to the extent that it reached Newman himself, who tweeted his praises.
“Ten months ago, I had heard the song on the radio. I immediately thought a bunch of girls should sing it. The song had that vibe to it,” Xulfi tells The Express Tribune.
He recalls how during auditions, he saw drummer Mishal Faheem get excited seeing the drum kit set up. “The moment I heard her play, I decided I will go with an all-girls ensemble,” he maintains. Show veterans – pianist Maham Riaz, violinist Amal Nadeem, guitarist-vocalist Maria Fatima and sitar player Arfa Chaudhary – soon joined Faheem and helped with handpicking the rest of the pack.
“I then came across Kristin Kinaria and got her to help with the acoustic guitars and vocals. Then I met this ukulele player from NCA, Jannat Sohail … Sumaira Waris, the tabla player, shocked me! I thought what has kept her hidden for this long!” Xulfi recalls.
Singer Anna Salman and bassist-vocalist Sanya Shahzad were the last to join in, and all things fell in place. “We had to prepare them and I acknowledge the role of my male players who helped all along.” Xulfi says, today, the result is for the world to see. “Everyone is sharing it. Newman himself did! Nothing could be bigger than this!” he says.
Fatima has been part of the show from its third season. She feels Nescafe Basement is a platform where artists express themselves freely. “Xulfi bhai deserves the credit for making the song even more amazing!” she adds.
Peshawar-based Riaz says the experience was something she will remember all her life. “I hope we’re able to inspire more girls to live their dreams,” she says. Chaudhary concurs with Riaz, saying, “I always knew the song would do well but had no idea that it will receive so much appreciation.” The sitar player can already see Pakistani women redefining limits.
Shahzad was always the odd one out in school; the one who would be too scared to even speak. “It feels so surreal … Loved every second of this journey,” she gleefully says.
But the idea of women empowerment sells and we have always seen how marketers worldwide make a joke out of it, using the struggle for their own commercial motivations. Xulfi, however, sees it differently. “I thought if I could prepare a group of girls to perform this song, it would be revolutionary. It would make a statement about the country that won’t need any explanation.” He says the girls in the song are true professionals who play at festivals and competitions with their own bands. “And it’s not just these girls. Their parents, too, deserve credit for letting them chase their dreams.”
With additional input from Mehek Saeed in Lahore.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2016.