An Interview with Zain Alam
By Tanaïs |
SEPTEMBER 11, 2019
Listen to Zain's track while reading the interview below:
I. At Dawn | Solidarities and Syncretics
I write by the earliest blue of dawn, the only hour of quiet on my block, and as I write the introduction to my interview with Humeysha, the musical project of Zain Alam, I play two of their tracks, alternating them on repeat: “Nusrat on the Beach,” its muse the iconic qawwali musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; and “At Dawn,” his ode to the Ahmadi Muslim leader, Dr. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq. There is a hypnotic effect of these chord progressions, a cumulative feeling of oneness reified by the repetition, the manner in which I’ve chosen to listen to these songs, to memorize their turns and phrases like a personal Azaan ushering in the day. The remnants of Humeysha’s tunes linger like a haunting, reminiscent of his syncretic musical lineages: raga and qawwali and dreamy synths and electronic loops, a psychedelic soundscape that inhabits that space of longing for summer, for a carefree day at the beach, right as the autumnal cool of September settles. And then, there’s September. No matter how many years pass, there is a pang of how much and how long the world has been at war for this act of violence against the United States—this year, it will be 18 years that have passed, the same age I was when the towers fell.
Humeysha and I first followed one another on different social media platforms, based on mutual admiration for each other’s work and aesthetic. When we first met in a gathering of South Asian diasporic artists, our kinship was immediate. As a novelist/perfumer and a musician, a Bangladeshi and a Pakistani, both inhabiting a femme and masc non-duality; we synthesize complex, vast historical relationships into our work, keenly aware of how our dialogue and friendship a radical act, where any violent notion of the nation-state dissolves. Humeysha’s music transcends and traverses borders both the sonic and the political, the sacred and the profane, each song reverberates with a heady sense of ascension, annihilation, even, in the Sufi sense of losing oneself in the cosmos. Each song, no matter holds a carefree sense of self, but alludes to eons, where political realities permeate, something that we as South Asian Muslim diasporic artists cannot avoid.
HUMEYSHA: I remember as a child always coming up with ways to prove to others that Islam wasn’t so bad, that it was straightforward and monotheistic, that it was related to Judaism and Christianity by our faith in the prophethood of Moses and Jesus — all for naught, of course. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq tried to do the same when he was blocked entry into US by immigration officials before filing an appeal to argue for his own acceptance. Trying to convince white America of our inherent value, of the comprehensibility of our faith on their terms, of our culture’s worth by defanging it into something easily digestible—this is something that’s been going on in the century since Sadiq’s time. His story in particular grows even more poignant when you consider how persecuted the Ahmadiyya movement is back where it was born in the subcontinent. Especially in Pakistan where the government’s declared them nonbelievers and paved the way for their genocide and erasure from history. Sadiq was directed to spread the faith in Philadelphia where it spread amongst Black Americans and inspired groups like the Nation of Islam drawn to the concept of “universal brotherhood.” There’s a lot to learn from how Sadiq found community with black activists like Marcus Garvey, many of whom he converted and brought together in their shared struggles. I think about that history a lot when I look back at my parents in Georgia and others of their generation in the suburbs, sliding into loneliness after 2016 when they recognized that they might have never really belonged with a racist America whose acceptance they sought for decades.
TANAÏS: Your work inhabits multitudinous Black - Muslim – Desi Diasporic connections, and as a producer, looping and sampling feel like an homage to Hiphop / Atlanta / Outkast. And yet, there is a resounding indie / synth rock / dream pop quality to the music, which slowly crescendos into what I hear as qawwali influences in your music. It feels like a syncretic, stateless, borderless sound.
HUMEYSHA: There’s a line from Grandmaster Flash about how hip-hop pioneers would “adopt” from the history of music by taking a few seconds of a groove, playing it on repeat, and finding a rhythm for audiences to dance to. Whether it’s with a few bars from a qawwali recording or my guitar experiments, I think I’ve always been in love with the sampling technique for how it embodies a very contemporary way we make our selves. To intimately know histories of music, dig through the archives, and identify passages that loop seamlessly, without clicks or pops where the endings match the beginning—it’s a tool of infinite possibility despite being constrained by a strict sense of time and bound up with material. People like you and I assert how we are similarly not fixed, static identities bound only by our inheritance or biology; what matters is what we do with it, by remixing past to remake ourselves anew. I am not just where I come from or where I reside, but also all I’ve invested in. And as a musician that's why I draw on sounds from all the places I lived in to voice new ones that feel more like home.
So yes — there’s something deeply compelling about this instrument for those without instruments back in 1970’s Bronx. And then of course as you mentioned, the musical history of Atlanta left an indelible imprint on me too, between the hip-hop I grew up on as well as the ambient/punk on of bands like Black Lips and Deerhunter. Atlanta was once called Terminus, the place where all railroads came to a stop, and now it’s where highways I-75 and I-85 meet and briefly merge. No surprise people have called Atlanta a Paris of the Southeast. I didn’t realize until I left what a good place it had been to grow up, as I constantly wrestled to find some unity between the sounds of all I’d grown up with through music.
II. Nusrat on the Beach | Dissolution into the Divine
Listening to “Nusrat on the Beach” resurrected memories laced with sadness about what it means to be a brown-skinned Muslim woman on a beach—it is a tenuous experience from no matter what angle you experience this. Growing up, I had to wear jeans on a beach, which mortified me and ilicited rude stares from bikini-clad white Americans; throughout South Asia, it’s rare to see a woman swimming or walking alone on a beach—I’ve witnessed and screamed at beach dogs barking madly at a Dalit woman and her child; presently, more than a million Rohingya refugees live in Kutapalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, near the longest stretches of beach in the world.
Qawwalis, introduced to the West by the song’s muse, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, straddle the spiritual and the secular, they can be lamentations or dizzying mystic transcensions about divine love. In Humeysha’s video for “Nusrat on the Beach,” Humeysha wears all white, ecstatic, their dargah is the beach.
TANAÏS: The Sufi elements in your music emanate that sense of unity and transcendence into the divine. “At Dawn” crescendoes into a soundscape punctuated by a yearning falsetto that feels as though you’re reaching for the cosmic, the unknowable, by exerting the reaches of your voice. How does your work refashion this spiritual and mystic tradition in Islam to modernity?
HUMEYSHA: I can trace a path across my five daily prayers when I was younger, the way I practice zikr and meditation nowadays, to the way I build up songs using drones and loops before letting the music go on its own where it must. The first songs I wrote as Humeysha explicitly came about from a desire to take a few seconds from something I’d grown up with and repeat it endlessly until it became new—and my own—again. Drawing out phrases and tones was like building a sonic bed that feels familiar then grows foreign with each iteration. It’s like a word you say over and over again or look at for too long.
Even the Quran when properly recited feels like musical improvisation upon a familiar melody -- one that’s sometimes there, sometimes echoed, and sometimes absent but felt--a discontinuous, fragmentary approach I’ve always thought worth celebrating.
I adore any kind of music in which disparate elements can do their own thing and eventually blend beyond distinguishability, dissolving into one another. That’s the ambient shoegazer’s dream and love for loud volumes. Turn up the energy till it feels like we’re on the threshold of floating or almost being crushed. I thoroughly enjoyed taking a stab at that approach with my co-producers Myles and Dylan, blurring the lines between my voice pushing a high falsetto, warped pianos and guitars opening up into hip-hop drums layered on Indian percussion before spiraling off into distortion then silence. Carry me away!
TANAÏS: As I listened to “Nusrat on the Beach” I kept thinking about how Nusrat is a totally iconic figure and the beach, on the other hand, is much more than a place to idly vacation; it’s fraught space for many of us, because of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Can you talk about why you wanted to juxtapose Nusrat with the idyllic Los Angeles beach? The poetics of the color palette in the video — red, green, white, brown — evoked revolutionary, postcolonial Muslim diaspora nationalism hues — yet devoid of the violence of the patriarchal nation-state. Humeysha’s embodiment in these hues, wearing a pristine white kurta, queers the borders to the very edge of the world, on the beach.
HUMEYSHA: You’ve really gravitated towards some wonderful meanings for the images in Nusrat -- thank you! And that’s a lovely way to parse out why I was so drawn to the idea of an iconic Muslim like Nusrat finding some measure of peace or pleasure on the beach. Draped in those colors and clothes we don’t associate with such a place feels like establishing kind of third, outside space -- one of resistance but one that’s also joyful. We’re constantly “on” thinking about the situation of Muslim societies under attack around the world, worrying about our own behavior at border crossings, and of course the stories that emerge about detention on this soil. Can we play defense by focusing on ourselves? Building up our own tools, unearthing new ways of being by translating what our ancestors can still transmit to us, taking back the time and focus these constant battles have drained us of.
Tanaïs (née Tanwi Nandini Islam) is the author of the novel BRIGHT LINES (Penguin 2015) and the forthcoming essay collection IN SENSORIUM (HMH 2021) which documents the ancient, syncretic and modern histories of perfume.