By Zabar Hassni
I vaguely remember our family gathering in the summer of 1985. Many of our relatives from the province of Punjab came to visit us in Karachi. It was a family tradition. Every other year either we would go to visit them or they would come to Karachi to spend a few weeks with us. It was one of those summers and I was hanging out with a couple of my older cousins in our balcony which faced the beach. Having survived three previous hot summers in Karachi I knew the value of the cool breeze that would rise from the sea and hit our balcony. We were chatting and listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ on my very first stereo. It was then when one of my cousins mentioned a song called ‘App jaisa koi meri zindagi mei aay’ (‘If someone like you comes into my life’) by a female artist named Nazia Hassan. I had no idea whom he was talking about. Nevertheless they popped in her cassette and hit the play button. I listened to the song and within a few seconds into it, I felt the melodious beat overcoming the hot summer day and the cool breeze that came from the sea. That was my first introduction to the queen of pop!
‘App jaisa koi’ was a hit single featured in the 1980 Bollywood movie, Qurbani. The song took South Asia by storm and Nazia, who was only 15 years old, became a star overnight. This was soon followed by her debut album Disco Dewane which also featured her brother Zoheb Hassan. The album was an instant hit. Pakistani and Indian youth welcomed this new and fresh style of music and singing with open arms. The incredible success of the album signaled one fact clearly: The sibling duo was here to stay and South Asia would be singing their tunes for a long time.
Nazia Hassan was born in 1965 in London to an affluent Pakistani family. As a kid she used to sing around the house with her brother. She was gifted with this incredible nasally voice that was plain yet intriguing. Music was simply a hobby for her and she had never considered singing as a career choice. She didn’t arrive at the crossroads of her musical journey until she met Biddu, a British-Indian composer. He was really impressed by the nasally quality of her voice. After discussing his thoughts with Feroz Khan the director and star of Qurbani, Nazia was asked to sing what would become her history-making song, ‘Aap jaisa koi.’ And that was it, her crossroads, and she chose the path that began her musical adventure.
Released in 1980, the title track from Disco Diwane was a number one hit not only in South Asia but also in a few countries in South America and the Middle East. Both the audio and video albums made record sales in India. However, Pakistani media took some time to accept this non-traditional style of singing and dancing. Pakistan Television (PTV) was reluctant to put these edgy and bold videos on air as the Pakistani television audience at the time was not used to disco/pop genre. It wasn’t long before they were able to see the Pakistani youth going crazy over the audio album and the success of the music videos in India. The videos were aired in 1981 and they were a blast. The “disco deewane mania” took over the country and Nazia and Zoheb Hassan became household names. Jinnah’s land was finally introduced to pop music.
Nazia & Zoheb Hassan
The duo released another album ‘Boom Boom’ the same year. The songs from this album were featured in another Bollywood movie, ‘Star’. The movie didn’t do very well but the songs made history yet again. It was time for young Pakistanis, who only had Alamgir, Sheki and Naheed Akhtar as their listening choices, to get accustomed to the music of Nazia and Zoheb. And they did. Nazia and Zoheb Hassan became superstars in both countries. They were on TV talk shows, on the cover of magazines, on radio and on everyone’s lips. Historically India and Pakistan had a very unstable and dangerous relationship since their independence from the British rule. Both countries have had a really tough time in getting along with each other. Thus it was refreshing to see the youth in both countries singing the same tunes.
The Hassans released two more albums, ‘Young Tarang’ and ‘Hotline’ in 1985 and 1987, respectively. Both were hit albums. The siblings loved what they were doing and the audience simply wanted more. It wasn’t just one particular thing about their songs or their style of music. It was a combination of factors. The lyrics were provocative, energizing, exciting, intriguing and listeners were able to relate to them. Nazia’s nasally voice, MTV style videos and disco/pop music all played into what felt like a cultural revolution.
As far as Pakistanis’ music exposure was concerned, it was the best of times and the worst of times. General Zia-ul-Haq’s 'Islamization' of the country during the 80s became an obstacle for music lovers, whether they were the audience or the performers. Almost all musical shows on TV that involved women were banned. The mullahs had a serious problem with a brother and sister dancing together on screen. Nazia’s first video that aired on TV in the early 80s was shot waist up so the audience couldn’t see her dancing feet.
In 1988, General Zia was killed in a plane crash. Following the shock, the country went quickly into a recovery mode. The new government had the responsibility of lifting the morale of millions of people. Many things changed and many things created opportunities for a change. The music industry lifted itself up as well and made an entry back into people’s houses. The Nazia and Zoheb phenomenon paved the road for new and young talents all over the country.
Nazia & Zhoeb Hassan
By the early 1990’s, Pakistan experienced a new wave of young and hip bands. Music Channel Charts became one of the most popular shows in Pakistan’s music history. People would actually schedule their evenings around the show time. It was a great musical era. My sister and I used to sit in front of the TV and watch the weekly song ranking and share our excitement or complaints depending on which songs climbed up the charts. This was around the time when our generation was introduced to bands like Vital Signs, Arid Zone, Collage, Fringe Benefits, Milestones, Strings, Sequencers, Yatagaan and Junoon. This was the result of the revolution that Nazia and Zoheb brought about in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Nazia Hassan, the South Asian queen of pop, was a woman of many talents. She had mentioned a number of times that music was simply her hobby. She was extremely active in social work and that’s what she liked doing best. She received her bachelors in Business Administration and Economics at the Richmond American University in London. In 1991 she became an intern in the Women’s International Leadership program at the United Nations. Later on she went on to work for United Nation’s office of Political and Security Council Affairs. Using her celebrity status in Pakistan, she created an organization called BAN (Battle against Narcotics) in Karachi to help fight the drugs war. She and her brother Zoheb dedicated their album ‘Camera Camera’ to BAN and hoped to create drug abuse awareness among the Pakistani youths.
Nazia also actively participated in organizations such as The Voice of Women, Business and Professional Women, Inner Wheel Club for Disabled Children in India and NYCP (National Youth Council of Pakistan). She created and participated in many child welfare programs in Pakistan and was involved in social issues ranging from women’s issues to illiteracy among the youth. She tried to use her music to stir up people’s emotions against the use of drugs. The song ‘Nasha na karna’ (Don’t do drugs) was an example of the message Nazia and Zoheb were sending out. Nazia Hassan also created a mobile clinic in Lyari, one of the poorest areas in Karachi.
Nazia was married in 1995 and had a baby boy two years later. Unfortunately the queen of pop couldn’t capture the same level of success in her marriage she had in the musical realm. The woman who brought smiles on the faces of millions couldn’t find joy in her love life. The couple started having marital problems very early on in their lives. She continued to try to maintain a balance in her life between her social work and her life at home until another bombshell dropped onto her life. She was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her family started her treatment right away and she fought her battle against cancer as hard as she could. The pop diva, who conquered the hearts of millions, finally lost her battle against cancer.
On August 13th, 2000 Nazia Hassan died of lung cancer in a London hospital. South Asia stood still in disbelief. Millions mourned and cried for her. The person who had touched so many lives with her music laid lifeless on a hospital bed. It was a loss that cannot be described in words. Nazia’s family received millions of notes from fans all over the world. It was a sad ending to a remarkable story of a young woman who stumbled into an unknown adventure and reached the top while leaving her footsteps for others to follow. The year 2000 will be remembered as the year that brought an end to the Nazia Hassan story; that’s when Pakistan lost its favorite daughter.
Nazia’s parents Basir and Muniza created the Nazia Hassan Foundation as a continuation of their daughter’s life long efforts to make this world a better place for everyone. The foundation’s main goal is to recognize and encourage efforts of those who put the lives of others before their own and try to help bring a positive change in this world. Special awards are also given to individuals who exhibit and achieve intellectual and social goals as well as a desire to further these causes. The people of Pakistan will not forget Nazia and her work. She was posthumously awarded the ‘Pride of Performance’ medal by the president of Pakistan General Parvez Musharraf.
It is 2004 and as I write the final words of this article, I picture Nazia once again in her white shirt and blue jeans dancing away to the tune of ‘App jaisa koi meri zindagi mei aai, to baat bun jai’ on the silver screen. The song translates loosely into English as ‘If someone like you comes into my life, it would feel wonderful.’ Well Nazia, you came into our lives and our hearts, and it felt wonderful. We miss you.