SIX YEARS ago Arshia Haq was flicking through records in a shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As the co-founder of Discostan, a DJ collective, record label and archival project in Los Angeles which highlights work “from Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay”, Ms Haq has a comprehensive knowledge of musical traditions and trends across the subcontinent and the Middle East. One album, however, caught her eye: “Disco Se Aagay” (“Beyond Disco”) depicted a young woman surrounded by floating lights. “I was surprised because in all my years working in record stores, it was not in my collection,” Ms Haq says. “I had just never seen this record.”
Released in 1985, the album also sounded unlike anything that was being made in southern Asia at that time. Bollywood music had a penchant for heavy string sections; this work was almost purely electronic and clearly indebted to the New Wave genre that was then popular in the West. Ms Haq says one track, “Chala Hai Akela” (“Gone Alone”), reminded her of the music of The Cure, an English rock band. She did some internet sleuthing, tracked down one of the record’s creators and flew to London to interview them for a podcast.
Feisal Mosleh and Nermin Niazi, a brother-and-sister duo, were just 19 and 14 when they recorded “Disco Se Aagay”. They grew up in a musical household: their father, Moslehuddin, was a composer for film and television in Pakistan and their mother, Nahid Niazi, worked as a playback singer. Mr Mosleh was introduced to the industry as a child, accompanying his parents to the studio, sitting in the control room or working as their assistant. His own jamming sessions on the keyboard evolved into a sibling songwriting collaboration, with Ms Niazi as the lead vocalist and lyric-writer. Tipped off by their father, Oriental Star Agencies, a music label, approached them about doing an album in Urdu.
Though Mr Mosleh and Ms Niazi were born in Lahore, the family relocated to England when they were children, and the album brings together their bifurcating cultural influences. The teens drew on the work of Mehdi Hassan, a Pakistani ghazal singer, and S.D. Burman, a legendary Bollywood composer, and composed their songs on the Hindustani (rather than chromatic) music scale. Their music also reflected the moody sounds of British synth-pop produced by bands such as Japan, Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet. Mr Mosleh says he was fascinated by the technology newly available on the market, particularly the Yamaha DX7 synthesiser and drum machines.
Throughout “Disco Se Aagay” there are echoes of the lush vocals of the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush; Ms Niazi layered her voice on top of itself on songs such as “Hum Tum” (“Me and You”). Like a proper Eighties album, it has a hit single: “Sari Sari Raat” (“All Night Long”) is an anthemic floor-filler. Yet “our music wasn’t strictly disco,” Ms Niazi says. “It was a little unexpected for people, and it didn’t fit in Pakistan, India or Britain.”
On their return to school in September, the siblings didn’t think to mention their songs to their classmates. “It was a foreign-language record, we didn’t think people at school would understand or connect with the project,” says Mr Mosleh. But word got out as Mr Mosleh and Ms Niazi appeared in the local press and performed on the BBC Asian Network and the Pakistan Television Corporation. “My teachers approached me to perform my whole album for one afternoon,” Ms Niazi remembers. “So I did, to over 900 school girls who danced in their seats and screamed through excitement.”
The novelty wore off, however. “We got on with life. I was still at school and Feisal went off to university,” Ms Niazi says. She played shows with her family in Karachi, but saw her future in Britain and eventually joined the Metropolitan Police in London. “We hoped that kids might appreciate what we were trying to do: blend our two identities and bring out the best of both cultures.”
If youngsters didn’t fully appreciate that effort at the time, many do 37 years later. In January Discostan reissued the record; even without the planned launch events the label says there has been impressive demand for it. Ms Niazi is thrilled that “Disco Se Aagay” is finding a new audience and hopes “it brings people a little joy, especially in the summer of 2021”.