I can’t remember when it was that I first heard Nazia Hassan’s voice. You could say I came out of the womb with the lyrics to Disco Deewane and Aap Jaisa Koi memorised.
I grew up in London more than two decades after she first appeared on the scene. It was here – in London – that her star began to rise.
As I musically came of age some years ago, Nazia’s eclectic sound permeated my taste. In an effort to aurally classify the genres I was exposed to, I wasn’t able to place her in any distinct category. Her brand of pop was unlike the Belinda Carlisle anthems of love on the mixtape my sister and I obsessively listened to, or the Abrar-ul-Haq cassettes my father kept in the car for long road trips.
Her songs bore little resemblance to the Bollywood ballads of the early 2000s and were a world away from the post-Britpop scene that filled my childhood with moody tunes and pensive boy bands.
There was something inherently Pakistani about Nazia and her brother, Zoheb. Yet, there existed an otherworldly element in their music that caught native ears accustomed to Noor Jehan or Farida Khanum completely off-guard.
For me, Nazia existed at a juncture, where the two worlds I occupied, neatly and perfectly, overlapped. She bridged the chasm between my understanding of the old country – that strange and romantic land constantly inhabiting my family’s imagination – and the cultural immediacy of my surroundings at home in Britain.
In life, she was feted as the queen of a new movement in Pakistani music. In death, she continues to inspire.
In a July 1980 interview, Nazia, in reference to her sound, told the Herald, “Yes some people don’t even consider it music; well it’s the kind of the music we dig, take it or leave it. They say classical music is the only real music. Whenever I’m attending a classical music recital, I feel like I’m attending a funeral. You have to sit grim and still – no coughing, no talking lest people think you are being impolite.”
But even more than the music itself, the pair came under attack for offending certain local sensibilities. “See, the thing is, we never pretended to be somebody we were not. We were Pakistani, we were very rooted,” Zoheb says, “It’s just that when we came to London, we imbibed that other culture at the same time. It wasn’t a commercial stint either, like, for the sake of commercialism we were trying to act Western, or trying to do something which was not us. It was us.” Things, however, got out of hand. Effigies were burnt, fatwas were passed. With less going on politically, Zoheb tells me, “(the mullahs) needed a scapegoat situation, and they thought who better than this brother and sister, who the whole nation is watching…(they thought), this will really get people’s interest, and they can twist it and turn it, redirect it to their cause. It was unfortunate, but at the end of the day, you can never put something down which the people themselves want. The masses loved it. They understood it.”
Yet, support and advice came from the man occupying the highest office in the land. “(General Zia) called us at home, and said: ‘Nazia and Zoheb…bachon, aap log nikal jain,’” Zoheb remembers. “We were so young, we hardly knew anything, we were literally babes in the world – not that young, but very naive. So I think he felt a bit protective, and he told us to leave (the country), which I think at that time was the best thing for us to do.”
With fatwas and effigies behind her, Nazia persisted. In this way, she was at the forefront of a culture war, one fought not only between highbrow music aficionados who turned their noses up at fusion music, and those willing to accept the joie de vivre that the two teenagers espoused in their songs, but also one between religious zealots and the rest of the nation, who wholeheartedly embraced her edgy beats.
What was perhaps most striking about the Nazia and Zoheb phenomenon, was the pair’s ability to convey the frustrations, desires, and aspirations of a whole generation of young people growing up in the 1980s.
Within that polarising cultural environment, the two emerged as youth icons – our very own Beatles, minus the crazy haircuts. They were radical, profound, a summation of our potential — who we could be as a nation, and all that we already were.
At the height of their success, the siblings had seven number ones in South America, where they were outselling artists like Duran Duran. In the Soviet Union alone, the two sold almost 250,000 records. When they were signed on by EMI World, the chief executive officer told them, “I can’t understand your music, I can’t understand the language, but it’s selling by the truckloads.”
Nobody could understand the mass appeal of Urdu pop. During the apartheid in South Africa, the pair was one of the first non-white bands to have a song reach number one on the charts. “(We were) invited by some very big companies at the time to sing for Nelson Mandela,” Zoheb tells me. “We didn’t know who he was, but there was a lot of acceptance for this (type of music) worldwide.”
At home, the success of the siblings created not only a sense of newfound respectability towards, and awareness of the music industry as a worthy field, it offered validation to stifled youngsters disillusioned by limited creative opportunities.
Doctors suddenly picked up guitars; bands in urban centers mushroomed. If Nazia and Zoheb can do it, people thought, then so can we. For the first time, “young people felt like they had music of their own,” Zoheb says.
Listening to her music now, one is struck by its timelessness. Telephone Pyar, Koi Nahin, Aankhein Milaney Waley, and countless other songs that the siblings sang together, are best understood as expressions of young love, youthful defiance, staunch individuality. Pakistan and the rest of the world has changed since the 1980s, but there is something hauntingly eternal about the music she created.On the other hand, London, where part of Nazia’s story began, is also her final resting place. The Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium is in a quieter part of the city. It is leafier, suburban, slightly removed from the tachycardia of London’s chaotic heart.
She is buried in the Muslim section here.The headstone reads, “IN LOVING MEMORY OF NAZIA HASSAN – Loving daughter, sister, and mother. Beloved and cherished by millions of people. Died in her youth. August 13th, 2000.”
As we say goodbye, Zoheb tells me that it now feels like everything happened over the course of a few days, that, in hindsight, it was an amazing journey. But there are some things he would change, redo, if given the chance.
“I would bring her back. That’s the first thing I would do,” he says.