Culture
6 November 2022

Dreaming Awake

Asad Siddique

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In 2015, Sania Sohail and Muqadas Jandad became internet sensations when a video of them singing Justin Bieber’s Baby was uploaded to social media in Pakistan. The sisters, aged 13 and 15 at the time, sang the mega-hit in a Rajasthani folk style, and soon found themselves being interviewed on news channels around the country, and the world. The internet dubbed them the Justin Bibis. But a year later, their stars faded. This year marks a comeback for the sisters.

It is 2015. Despite being related to legendary folk-songstress Reshma, recipient of the Sitara-e-Imtiaz (Star of Distinction) for her contributions to the nation in her songs, as well as nationally-beloved folk singer Naseebo Lal whose latest Coke Studio single with Abida Perveen Tu Jhoom featured on Disney’s streaming mini-series Miss Marvel, sisters Sania Sohail and Muqadas Jandad were forbidden from chasing stardom. Pushback from extended family and community along with an air of extreme disapproval around the lifestyle of professional singing, created boundaries that prevented the sisters from chasing their lifelong dreams of being celebrated vocalists like the idols in their family.

‘From our family, Naseebo was already doing this sort of work!’ says Jandad, imitating the men-folk of her family. ‘Now you want to follow the same?’ The Bibis are in Dubai for their comeback performance at a live show for Coke Studio 14, with a new look and a new single, telling me their origin story.

Growing up in Imamia Colony, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lahore, Sohail and Jandad nurtured their voices and expanded their songbook, learning together and singing for close friends and family. On the terrace of their home, after performing their favourite songs, the sisters would have their mother award them with combs and other household items, pretending, if only for a moment, that they were living out their fantasies of success, awards and adoration.

Fatefully, the sisters found themselves egged on during a game of Antakshari, being teased by their friends that they ‘had nice voices but couldn’t sing in English.’ The girls began singing a rendition of Justin Bieber’s mega-hit Baby, which they’d learned by heart from endless listening, and transcription of the English lyrics to Urdu. To their localised strain of Bieber-fever, the sisters added a Rajasthani twist of a folk-singing style while their mother accompanied them with a pair of percussion instruments. Unknown to them at the time, the impromptu performance was recorded on a smartphone and uploaded to Facebook by a passerby who, by all reports, remains unidentified to this day. The video went viral across the sub-continent and its diaspora, infecting the world over with the Bibi variant of Baby. It racked up over two million views and 68,000 shares within that month. The original upload has since been taken down, but copies of the performance can still be found on YouTube. Ironically, Justin Bieber himself was discovered via a similar ‘home video’ debut on the video platform.

All the while, the Bibis had no clue their faces and voices were being seen and heard on screens throughout the country. Their video was picked up and reported on by national news networks such as Dawn, ARY and SAMAA. As they returned home one day, they caught a glimpse of two girls on the news who looked uncannily similar to them, and even sounded much like them. But it couldn’t possibly be them, could it? The Bibis, as they were now called, finally came to accept that they had unwittingly become the nation’s next big thing.

However, the spark of glee and excitement was met with fear and dread. The Bibis worried that their father might disapprove of the media attention. Regardless of the country-wide applause they received for their love of singing, their community did not appreciate the young girls becoming national news. The sisters feared repercussions at home, but instead were met with support within their own household.

‘Where we come from, a video of you singing or dancing being shared is considered shameful; as if a very private video has been leaked and seen by everyone. So we were quite afraid of what would happen once we reached home. But nothing of the sort happened,’ Sohail explains in Urdu.

Stardom followed. Countless interviews and performances of their hit song led to meetings with celebrities and idols, and the Bibis travelled across the country. Within a year, the duo were singing alongside Pakistan’s top music stars in the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup Anthem. Sohail and Jandad were also interviewed by the BBC. ‘But how long could we stay relevant in a world where things move on so quickly?” Jandad asks rhetorically. ‘The period after our viral hit was the most difficult, as things eventually started to fade.’ Jandad reminisces about how she and her sister were eventually forgotten the following year.

Pakistan lacks the infrastructure that might allow artists to make a consistent living, let alone offer a livelihood to singers of Sohail and Jandad’s modest backgrounds. As a result, the Bibis felt like they never really found a footing in the world that they had briefly entered. Still, they fulfilled their desire to sing vocationally through meagre and sporadic work. They developed original soundtracks for Pakistani dramas such as Hum TV’s Ranjha Ranjha Kardi (2018) and ARY Digital’s Ghisi Piti Mohabbat (2020). Ultimately, the projects could not be relied upon to sustain the duo or their growing families. Sohail and Jandad have both since married, and Sohail is a mother of two.

‘Sir, we admire your work very much. Please if you have anything, keep us in mind. That’s all we ask.’ This was the message sent by the Bibis to Zulfikar ‘Xulfi’ Jabbar Khan, a leading Pakistani composer and musical director spearheading the latest season of Coke Studio Pakistan. The musical franchise is known for bringing together some of the finest musicians from all over the country to record fusions of traditional Pakistani music practices, in a studio setting. Coke Studio has produced anthemic hits from the sub-continent for 14 years. Some of the bigger hits include Atif Aslam's 2015 rendition of the Sabri Brothers qawwali Tajdar-e-Haram with 408 million views on YouTube; Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's Afreen Afreen in 2016 featuring Momina Mustehsan, boasting 385 million views, and with the highest performing production of the franchise yet - Pasoori by Ali Sethi and Shae Gill with over 416 million views.

In 2021, Xulfi and Coke Studio Pakistan brought the Bibis in, giving them a new look and a chance to showcase their voices in collaboration with singer-songwriter Hasan Raheem and producer Talal Qureshi. The duo have been pushed to new heights with Peechay Hutt - a slinky, bass-hugging Rn’B groove, that marries the Bibis’ high, folk registers with Hasan Raheem’s smooth mix of Urdu-English rap. During the bridge, the artists even take a moment to slow things down by exploring the Bibis’ vocal range, while Raheem croons in his native language of Shina from the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The dancey pop song debuted in February and is the sisters’ highest-performing video at 18 million views, leading them to their first international outing at Dubai’s Coca-Cola arena as part of Coke Studio 14 Live. The sisters looked every bit the fashionistas wearing striking Pakistani designer outfits and confident smiles to match as they took to the stage for the show. Blowing away any cobwebs from the audience’s memories of the Bibis, they were matched word-for-word with their fans singing right along with them.

Sohail and Jandad have come a long way from their viral video-making days all those years ago. But the real story here is of two girls who returned to form triumphantly as women with careers they had always imagined. As for the future, Sohail who has a keen interest in fashion and beauty, dreams of opening her own beauty parlour. Jandad finds time in their busy schedule of performances and recording commitments to continue her education by way of the internet. She tells me that she makes sure to pass on to her sister whatever she learns herself.

‘Our message to anyone who has dreams like us is to try for them,’ says Sohail to me, as we wrap up our interview. ‘We never imagined that we’d be where we are today, but we kept dreaming. And here we are.’

Banner Illustration Credit: Amitabh Kumar

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