Zarsanga - Voice Behind the Veil

پښتو :: پښتانه :: پښتونخواه :: پښتونوالی

Zarsanga - Voice Behind the Veil, Samar Minallah
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, September 16 2005 (http://www.khyber.org)


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Zarsanga - Voice Behind the Veil

Samar Minallah

Publishing Date: Friday, September 16 2005

At a village chief's hujra in Matanee, a crowd of music enthusiasts congregate. They have been invited over this evening to enjoy their host's hospitality, comprising food and entertainment. Some are reclining on charpoys, passing around a metal box containing niswar (snuff). Others are waiting for qahwa (green tea) to be served. Meanwhile, in a corner of the room, some musicians are busy tuning their instruments in order to coordinate the beat of their tablas with that of the harmonium. In their midst sits a slim, unpretentious woman in her mid-fifties, or thereabouts. The members of her troupe, who she is flanked by, are in fact all members of her family. Her husband, seated besides her, plays the tambourine; her son plays the tabla and a son-in-law the harmonium. She is Zarsaanga, the singer, and the moment she begins to sing, the clamour in the room gives way to complete silence. With her eyes cast down, she sits almost motionless it seems, for hours, performing before a mesmerised audience.

Among the large repertoire of folk songs she sings, one goes, "Saba ba zamma nun za milmana raghlay yama." (I will be leaving tomorrow. Today, I am here as a guest.) It is a befitting number: Zarsaanga has always lived the life of a nomad, with no fixed abode to call home. The reason she sits here tonight, giving her heart and soul to the performance, is to ensure that her family is not evicted from the mud house that currently shelters them. The Malik, who is fond of music, has lent Zarsaanga this home, located among other ones housing people who work for him. In return for the Malik's kind gesture and for a modicum of permanence and security she offers him her services in the form of music.

Born in Laki Marwat to a nomadic family, Zarsaanga was named Zalobal, meaning jalaibi (a traditional sweet), by her parents. "That is because I was always close to their hearts," claims Zarsaanga. Her simple life was enriched by the gift she was born with: her voice. As a child when all seemed murky, music, she says, was always there to light up her life. She calls many places her childhood home because her family lived temporarily in make-shift houses in many different towns and villages.

Wherever they were, however isolated, Zarsaanga says music ensured that she was never lonely. She had a song for every occasion but she says she particularly looked forward to weddings. "I would wait for such occasions where I could sing my heart out," says Zarsaanga. She was usually accompanied by her sister Gulsaanga, the pair becoming a favorite item on occasions calling for merriment.

"In the past we had no dhols, we followed no directions," she says, "but we sang all the time humming tunes on the way to the well to collect water, or singing popular folk songs that we learnt from other women while doing our household chores. All we had as accompaniments were a mangay (pitcher) or a tin water container we would tap in time to our songs."

Zalobal became Zarsaanga (a golden branch) when her talent was discovered, and she was introduced on Radio Peshawar.

Henceforth she found fame, and her destiny became linked to her voice.

She fondly remembers an incident that occurred when her first song was aired. The owner of a hotel in Parachinar who was listening to the radio at the time was so overwhelmed by her voice that he started firing excitedly in the air. As a result, he ended up in the lock-up where he confessed that the new voice on the radio was so good that he could not contain his excitement and started firing with joy. On another occasion, after hearing her voice for the first time, the male inmates of the Peshawar jail started banging their metal crockery against the tables in applause, creating a commotion on the premises. "Earlier, I felt more comfortable singing without musical instruments and microphones etc, but gradually I got used to being directed. Now I do not find any difficulty in singing to accompaniment or rendering songs to assorted kinds of music. Formerly no one would dictate to me and I was free to improvise. Now my voice has been tamed to meet the requirements of a professional singer," says Zarsaanga.

Her voice may have changed, but Zarsaanga remains the same simple woman that she always was. And this, despite the increasing competition in the music industry where Afghan female singers have recently also entered the fray and the stock the electronic media increasingly places on appearance. "I haven't changed my appearance because people like me for my voice, not how I look. I dress this way because I am a Pakhtun. I cannot move to and fro, swing my arms and sway my body. If people want my music, they should accept me the way I am. When I sing, people cry because it touches their heart. I don't think modern music has the power to stir up emotions. Most of the famous pop songs today are based on Pashtu folk music because it is appealing. I sing about Pakhtuns and their lives. They can connect with me through music," says Zarsaanga.

Zarsaanga is as much a purist vis a vis her music, as she is about her appearance. A true ambassador of her culture, she believes her style and her songs reflect Pakhtunwali; (the way of Pakhtuns).

She has rendered different genres of Pashtu folk music in France, the UK, USA, Lebanon, Dubai, Iraq, Germany and many other countries. She says, "The foreign audiences often say, we do not understand your language, but there is magic in your voice. In Iraq, after my performance some people came up to me and said, Pakistan is good!"

With a laugh, she recalls, "In Germany, before being called on to the stage, I was introduced as a performer who stands still, as if not breathing while performing." The compere said, "Even if a fly sits on her nose she will not move. This is because she treasures modesty." Zarsaanga says that after all these years she stands still while performing because of "haya" (modesty) and Pakhtunwali. Modesty apart, the compere was also struck by the power of her voice, which he said was difficult to equate with her shy demeanour.

Zarsaanga is saddened, she says, by the strong resistance towards music by some Islamic sects of society. "We only give joy to everyone. I wonder why music is considered unIslamic. In England, we artists were invited to a lunch hosted by a maulvi. He later asked us, rather timidly, for the latest cassettes of Farzana, also a Pashtu singer. Anyone can like music. It all depends on your heart," she maintains.

Zarsaanga takes heart from the response from other quarters. "Whenever I go to a foreign country to perform, the Pakistanis there seem to know me. The Pakhtuns who have migrated to foreign lands in order to earn money feel emotional when they listen to my songs. They remind them of home," she says.

And though she remains grateful to God for the fame she has received, she maintains that "fame alone does not bring material comfort." She says she has received a great deal of respect but still lacks the basic requirements of life.

Zarsaanga's life is certainly not an easy one. She has a large family to support who look to her gift of music for food and shelter. None of her six grown children are employed. Her husband, a musician, is usually unemployed. Says Zarsaanga, "I have no piece of land to call my own. When we got to places like France or Germany, the people there have no idea about the kind of conditions I live in. Onstage I perform with great enthusiasm, spreading joy everywhere I go, as if I had not a care in the world. But back home I know that if I fall ill I will not be able to afford even basic medicines."

One is warmly welcomed with words like "Har kala rasha" (welcome) or "Qurban! Qurban!" (A prayer for a long life) by Zarsaanga when one visits her. That is all she can offer visitors, apart from a cup of sugary tea. She neither owns a tape recorder nor a television to hear or watch herself perform. The only adornment in the dingy room she sleeps in are posters of film stars and of the international music festivals she has attended plastered on the walls.

In a small suitcase, covered with an embroidered cloth, lie some of the laurels she has earned. Zarsaanga pulls out the certificates and awards, yellowed and battered, to show her visitors. They include a few official eid cards by former heads of state, a presidential award and a PTV award. Despite her popularity, it is ironic that these are perhaps the only things Zarsaanga will leave as her legacy.

To become a professional female musician is to break certain cultural norms. Zarsaanga takes pride in the fact that she sings "within the limits of modesty" expected of a Pakhtun woman. Certainly, she has succeeded in maintaining her family through music even while observing purdah. Nonetheless, she does not want her daughters to follow her path.

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Zarsanga - Voice Behind the Veil, Samar Minallah
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, September 16 2005 (http://www.khyber.org)