Artwork by: Emil on Instagram
For this month’s issue focusing on music, we interviewed some of the most brilliant female artists in Pakistan who excel in singing, song writing and music production. The ladies who are leading the way and leaving a Hansel & Gretel-esque trail behind for others to follow. So we talked to them about their workings, inspirations, processes, hurdles faced as a female in the industry, advice for those to come and some of their favourite pieces of music by female musicians in Pakistan.
This piece serves as way to thank them for their amazing work, help them share what they have learnt, and create a resource for aspiring artists in Pakistan who need this sort of community and guidance. Let’s begin!
Artists featured: Natasha Humera Ejaz, Zahra Paracha, ShaeGill, Natasha Noorani and Zaw Ali.
On getting started in music:
Natasha Humera Ejaz: I started consciously writing pretty much in conjunction with learning how to play guitar when I was 15. It went hand and hand with learning the instrument. I was always a performer and basically sang through my entire life. It started with performing for every unsuspecting guest that ever visited us, and then in school, and then everywhere in Islamabad I could go with a guitar, and then in any play I could be in – you get the gist. I released my first song “Today is a place” the year I made it to music school and never looked back.
Zahra Paracha: I started playing the guitar when I was 12 years old. Wo pura eik craze aya tha, if you remember, of Jal, EP, Call, all these amazing bands back then. Rock, and pop and Noori and everything was just so cool. Holding a guitar was like the coolest thing. So I was like, yeah, I really want to do that. I picked up the guitar uss waqt and I just kept at it and never really let go.
When it came to actually producing music, I started doing that when I was in college and I came across like a bunch of brilliant musicians, uss say pehlay it was really tough to come by musicians. I was also such an introvert, and I kept to myself tou music bajati bhi thi tou ghar pay beth kay. It was one of those things, an activity only shared with myself, you know, an introverted thing for me.
But when I was thrown into college, I was like, oh shit, I have to talk to people, I have to interact with people. But it was a really nice time. I got to meet so many talented people. And that’s also where I met Natasha and we started doing covers. Eventually we started making original songs and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a hell of a ride. I think every time I’ve joined a band, it’s mostly been for me to try a new thing in music.
On hurdles and how to jump over them:
Shae Gill: The problem that I faced didn’t really have anything to do with being a younger female musician. It had to do with my anxiety and my fear of messing things up. I’d go into my head about ‘what ifs’. What if I don’t hit the right note? What if I forget the lyrics? People have always admired and praised me for my singing, since I was 5, but somehow instead of feeling confident in myself, I started feeling pressured to always do well, which made me want to run away from it. Shaegilll started in my friend Imaan’s tiny hostel room and it was such a comforting thing at the time. It evolved so quickly though, and I realized I’d have to work on overcoming my stage fright. I’m still struggling with it, but I make sure to question all the fears that come up.
Natasha Humera Ejaz: Unfair standards of work, pay and treatment is every Pakistani musician’s woe (barring A-listers who have to suffer years of mistreatment before they can get to that point, after which I’m sure they experience A-List level mistreatment). It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and there was a time all I saw was just people pulling people down. Women pulling other women down. It’s really hard to find a nurturing professional environment to work in for either gender to be honest, but the scale is tipped. And it leads to sexism and objectification at times. It’s subtle in some cases and obvious in most. Growing up as a young woman who happens to make music in Pakistan, I genuinely just missed the presence of other women in my pursuit of a life in music. That’s really changing now. There’s just more women and girls out there. And it’s mostly owing to the women before us that didn’t stop that we get to even consider a life in this field.
On intergenerational differences between musicians then & now:
Zaw Ali: The one thing that I always wondered about was how female singers were at the mercy of music directors back then and were not exposed to the know-how of running hardware/software of a studio or encouraged to make their own creations and that’s still prevalent today. I guess that’s how things worked back then and artists relied heavily on composers with utter conviction. Not every singer can write their own songs and that’s okay.
But back then, music composers possessed the wisdom of creating tunes in a certain scale and knew what type of song went with a certain singer. And that’s how we got icons like Madam Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano etc. The environment was much more richer in terms of melody and literature. Sadly, we have very few “composers” left now.
But now that I’m back in Pakistan and exploring more and more local music, it makes me happy to see a certain lot of female songwriters doing their own thing and growing fearlessly. That’s how I’m pushing myself with every track. I’m writing originals, producing my own music, conceptualizing my music videos and have a decent route map of where I’m headed.
Natasha Noorani: I seek most of my inspiration from younger musicians, to be honest. They’re absolutely fearless and some of them are straight up prodigies. Their unapologetic approach to making and releasing music is so refreshing because growing up, I didn’t have the confidence to do that. Even now, I barely do.
I think so many musicians growing up like Arooj Aftab, Hadiqa Kiani, Meesha Shafi, Zeb & Haniya were all so important to see in a male-dominated scene. Meeting Zahra Paracha in college also changed my musical trajectory so much because it was incredible to see one tiny person play so many different instruments and really just carve out her own space.
I think it’s been easier to access instruments and bedroom production is a more viable option for lots of young women. I think by virtue of seeing more female musicians and role models in the entertainment industry, the new wave of female artists have come up stronger and louder.
Zahra Paracha: This new generation has such a beautiful spirit of collaboration that it was after a couple of years of doing LLM that we realized that the change doesn’t lie in the older generation helping. It is with the newer generation bringing about that change. The spirit of ‘we’re not in competition with each other’. We’re trying to make the industry bigger so that all of us have more. And I think that that’s probably the biggest difference that I see. And even the generation younger than us, they’re even more open to people. And it’s nice to see that positive trend right now.
I think one of the biggest things that really helped the musicians of today is that there are many more platforms that help them showcase their work. Whether it is through music festivals, shows, social media, whatever it is. Even if it’s the fact that you can own an audio interface, you can record stuff at home. You can have a camera or whatever, and you can just produce your own content. The fact that they have this sort of power with them. I think if they’re able to showcase their talent, it works for them.
On what the future looks like for female musicians:
Shae Gill: I feel like the music industry has become a much safer space for female musicians than it used to be. Social media has become such a tool in propagating justice; predators are being held accountable and women are valiantly claiming their right to exist in not just this space, but whichever they choose to be in. I see female musicians having full autonomy over the kind of music they release, learning and collaborating with other female musicians and just creating a whole wave of change, one that eases flexibility into our culture.
Natasha Noorani: Things will get better, and things will get worse. The industry and ecosystem itself is still struggling to keep up with the amazing things women in music have to offer in Pakistan. However, I think it’s wonderful that we have a community of artists who are covering so many different genres and trying so many things. Growing up, I sometimes couldn’t relate to the sound/lyrics/aesthetics of the music scene. With the work I’m seeing now, it just feels like the women are bound to take over in some way or form.
More importantly, there is a sense of community that is binding so many of us together. Beyond music into the visual world of design and film. There’s more women in the industry now than I can remember in my lifetime and that bodes well for the future.
On wisdom worth passing on to newcomers in the industry:
Zaw Ali: You need to be able to think beyond your own mind. Let courage and strength guide you. You don’t have to be afraid as long as you’re willing to learn about the path you’ve chosen every single day. It’s a beautiful world where you get to touch people with your art. Oh, and learn at least one instrument.
Natasha Humera Ejaz: Be yourself. Your skin is yours and there is no one else like you. Any time any comparison is drawn between you and any other woman, recognize the patriarchy at play and pay it absolutely no heed. Compete only with yourself and support each other. The real win in this industry is if everyone wins. Thanks for listening to my TED Talk.
Zahra Paracha: This is a bhaari question. I find myself in this position a lot where I’m just in that hustle ‘ye gaana bhi banana hai, uss falanay banday ka bhi produce karna hai, is ka mix karna hai, solo bhi record karna hai’. So many different things that I’m trying to do. And midway through, you feel a little burnt. Like, why am I doing this? Maybe I’m not getting the kind of recognition I deserve because maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m not as good as that person and you’re just comparing yourself constantly. I think if I had to give any words of advice, I would just be like, don’t ever forget why you started what you did. And if you’re going to go into a journey like this, you have to find people who help you. People who have good vibes. Like I remember when I started playing in college and stuff, you know, just coming across people like Natasha and people like Aishay. That was just such a big deal for me. They used to throw songs at me like ye gaana bhi karna hai, wo gaana bhi karna hai. I would just be like, sure. You’d be surprised when you do this kind of work with somebody else, how much more fun and how much easier it gets. So if you ever feel like this is too difficult, you need a partner in crime, somebody to share that with.
On their favorite songs by other women:
Zaw Ali: I’m forever a die-hard Madam Noor Jehan fan. She was so larger than life that she transcended the realm of icons and legends. She was so much more. Recently, I really enjoyed Natasha Noorani’s EP Munaasib. It’s a mood. And I respect the fact that she’s a songwriter and a producer.
Zahra Paracha: Damn, this is such a… I could heavily bias this list and just list my own songs. *Laughs* No no, I wouldn’t do that. Ayi Re by Haniya Aslam, Soye Nahi by Natasha Humera Ejaz, and Qalam Bolega by Eva B.
Shae Gill: I don’t have any favourites, but here are artists that I adore and look up to: Farida Khanum, Hadiqa Kiani, Nazia Hassan, QB, Tina Sani, Musarrat Nazir.
Natasha Noorani: Rona Chor Diya by Zeb & Haniya! When I first heard that song I was blown away by how wonderfully anthemic it was. Udhero Na by Arooj Aftab will always hold a special place in my heart — her latest album is also such a gift. And absolutely anything by Nahid Akhtar.
Natasha Humera Ejaz: For inspiration: Any live performance of Reshma Ji’s or Abida Ji’s and anything by Nazia Hassan because she was just so special. For nostalgia from mom’s collection: Kabhi Hum khoobsoorat thay by Nayyara Noor. Of recent years: Dobara Phir Se by Haniya Aslam.
On their favorite songs by themselves:
Zaw Ali: When it comes to myself, nothing will ever top Ronay Na Diya in terms of emotional value because that was the first time I sang for an audience and that it was also quite possibly the first time a father/daughter were performing together on a mainstream platform in the history of the subcontinent. Something that holds a lot of value now that I understand how this is a rare occurrence in our culture, historically speaking, because of how women aren’t usually encouraged to pursue music.
Ghari Ghari is that one track that I simply adore. My first solo and an original that came out after Coke. I love how it’s about knowing your worth and learning when to get out of relationships that no longer serve you. I love how badass I look in the video because that’s 100% ME and the melody and arrangement is quite emotional. It grows on you.
Zahra Paracha: Out of my own discography I feel the closest to Bekhudi at the moment. I had a tough time releasing that song because of what it was about but the people around me really helped me make the experience worthwhile and cathartic.
Natasha Humera Ejaz: I don’t know if I like any of my songs to be honest, but they are all really special to me. They are little time capsules of moments from my life and that’s why they’re there. I have songs that are letters to my parents, I have songs for long lost friendships, songs about my experience in love and songs about just waking up to a lovely day. I basically document my experience as a human being through music. It’s fun.
Where you can find more of them:
Bio: Khadija Muzaffar is a journalist who writes on music, culture and history. She is currently a Fullbright Scholar at NYU where she is studying journalism