February Issue 2005

By | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

Critics are rating them as the newest sensation on the Pashto music scene. Hailing from Pakistan’s conservative North-West Frontier Province. Tariq Hussain Bacha, 12, and Zeeshan Khan, 11, had to brave poverty, religious zealotry and discrimination to make a name for themselves.

The two boys from Pakistan’s tough, tribal badlands are now child stars, selling thousands of albums of traditional songs at home and abroad.

Little Zeeshan Khan is confined to a wheelchair due to a polio attack in early childhood. “Disability was the force that drove me to be part of the music world,” says Zeeshan.

The pair shot to stardom with the release last August of their album ‘Joora Guloona,’ a phrase meaning ‘Pair of Flowers’ in the dialect of the ethnic Pashtoon who inhabit the rugged region.

Stocked at first by a few music shops in Peshawar’s famous Chor Bazar, copies started flying off the shelves and soon there were orders from the United States, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. It has sold over 12,000 copies, and there are orders for more. The young stars’ third volume, released this month, is also doing good business.

Child stars are not unheard of in Pakistani pop, which is dominated by songs from the subcontinent’s movie industry and modern versions of traditional music.

One of the biggest pop sensations was the late Nazia Hassan, who won the nation’s heart as a 15-year-old schoolgirl in 1981, with a disco hit from a Bollywood movie, Qurbani.

Zeeshan and Tariq are, however, the first to emerge from the folk music scene of an ultra-conservative region, where musicians are looked down upon as belonging to a lower caste.

“Artists are not welcome in Pashtoon society, despite the fact that people love music,” says Tahir’s father, 42-year-old Zahir Shah.

In fact, the boys’ fledgling careers nearly failed to get off the ground, even though both were blessed with a gift for singing and parents who were musically inclined.

The two have an office on the second floor of a building in Chor Bazar, near the historic Qissa Khwani bazaar. Their fathers while away their time there and also deal with clients. The room is decorated with a picture of Tariq in the traditional turban. Voices of musicians practicing their new Pashto numbers can be heard from the neighbouring rooms.

Both boys have a natural flair for singing. Zeeshan is a “born singer,” says his father, Shah Jehan, 50, who taught him the harmonium. “He used to sing all the time — while talking, walking and even sleeping.”

Tariq, however, had to beg his father to be allowed on stage at the age of nine when his relatives were performing at Nishtar Hall, Peshawar’s main concert venue.

Some three years ago, the boys began performing at shows and released a handful of home-produced albums. But then a powerful alliance of Islamic parties swept to power in the province in November 2002, riding on the back of widespread anger at the US invasion of Afghanistan the year before.

The fundamentalists frowned on all music, closed Nishtar Hall, and banned other public performances on the grounds of protecting public morality. In particular, they hated the romantic, highly poetic songs that tap into the thick vein of Pashtoon nationalism that runs through the region — the very material that formed the heart of the boys’ repertoire.

However, the boys bravely kept playing secret solo gigs in the backrooms of peoples’ homes. “I am not fearful of mullahs or clergymen. I only fear my God,” Tariq says. “I love singing songs that glorify the Pashtoon nation.”

But his father says that “it is difficult to survive in the NWFP but very easy to make a name for one’s self in the Punjab and Sindh.”

After 18 months of secrecy, the boys’ parents became desperate for the world to hear their music. Meeting each other through Peshawar’s music underworld, Tariq and Zeeshan came up with an idea — why not make a CD together?

Months later, the ‘Pair of Flowers’ is doing roaring business. Their biggest sales have been in the ethnic Pashtoon market, where the album’s traditional theme is popular — although the disc’s producer-distributor hopes its appeal will stretch further afield.

“The album’s name refers to the teenage years, which in Pashtoon society are associated with flowers, and their success story is partly because of that,” says local music impresario, Jehanzeb Khan.

Fame, at such a young age, does not seem to have gone to their heads. They say they need training to improve their singing skills. They have appealed for the establishment of a “training academy” in Peshawar to make life easier for other young artistes. “There may be more talented teenagers than the duo but since there is no official patronage their talent goes waste,” says Tariq’s father.

In a world where fame is increasingly seen as an easy route to happiness and riches, Zeeshan’s father hopes it will bring his son just one thing. “I am waiting for the day when someone comes and says they will take Zeeshan to the best hospital in the world to treat his legs, so he can walk again,” he says with tears in his eyes.