The original unedited version of this interview appeared in German in Sonnendeck Magazine.
New York-based band Humeysha released a fascinating self-titled debut album last year with a pop music format in which the mindset of classical Indian music meets structures of western sounds. Inspired by My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album, the band’s songwriter Zain Alam took up the guitar in high school, and fascinated by his grandfather telling the family’s story of being split by the 1947 Partition, he took classes in South Asian history and politics while at Wesleyan University. Jayanthan Sriram sat down with Alam to find out how these interests influenced Humeysha’s beginnings and have a chat about transculturalism, Donald Trump and the meaning of trains and guitars in the band’s music.
Jayanthan Sriram: Can you tell me about the band? How did you guys meet and what would you say is the musical agenda of Humeysha?
— humeysha (@humeysha) February 18, 2016
I had been playing with some of the guitar loops and melodies you hear on the self-titled album since my time as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. It wasn’t until after I graduated though and went to India that the musical agenda of this project emerged: exploring the aesthetic space I’d imagined between Hindustani music I’d grown up with and the Western pop/indie rock I played and loved in later years.
Humeysha itself took form when I brought the songs back to my best friend Dylan Bostick (producer and guitarist) who wanted to re-record and mix the album in the studio he worked at in NYC. Fast forward a few months, and we asked bassist Adrien Defontaine and drummer John Snyder to join the band as we prepared for our first live show. I’m incredibly lucky to count them as friends and as integral parts of the project.
Have you ever encountered the idea of transculturalism and hybridity? I can definitely see that in your music and feel that transgression is set in your music formally and thematically.
Your reading of the music is not too far off from the truth! I hadn’t necessarily thought of this first as a transgressive project, but I have thought about notions of diaspora and transculturalism enough that they surely influenced the conception of Humeysha. It’s been encouraging to hear people’s enthusiastic response to hearing someone sing in Hindi-Urdu over sparkly post-punk guitars for the first time or Bollywood filmi loops re-interpreted live by a rock band.
The guiding question for me when writing these songs was why not? Why not marry the dreaminess of shoegaze with the repetitive and hypnotic sounds of qawwali music? Why not dig up and sample gems of classical Hindustani and Bollywood music the same way hip-hop drew on looped American classics?
“Why not marry the dreaminess of shoegaze with the repetitive and hypnotic sounds of qawwali music?”
The library I’m drawing on is built from a lifetime of listening to music from the subcontinent, along with my field recordings of the place itself — of a forest full of birds in the middle of Lucknow, railroad tracks across the country, the elderly in our homes. But I’ve been blessed to give voice to all of that in an aesthetic I hope delivers on the promise of transculturalism and hybridity.
But to again address your question about these specific ideas — I actually wrote my senior thesis on the makings of a Muhajir diaspora, displaced first from India to Pakistan and then, for many like my own parents, leaving Pakistan for the West. My thesis advisor, Khachig Tololyan, was a founding scholar of diaspora studies and much of that theoretical work was foundational for both my intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Right now media outlets profess that Germany is “suffering a refugee crisis” and conservative tendencies are on the rise playing with the fear of the foreign in a way. Can you tell me about your experiences in U.S.? Also, what are your thoughts on being part of an ethnic community and its relation to music there?
Though the U.S. is not challenged by the “refugee crisis” in the same way Europe is, those fears and tendencies have taken the main stage here too, especially with the presidential election. They’ve been around for a very long time though — growing up Muslim in the American South after 9/11 was like a front-row seat into this country’s latent xenophobia and entrenched racism. And for however bad that felt, such experience is only a sliver compared to the black American experience which other minorities and immigrants often do not adequately acknowledge or work through in a way that is necessary to our different but shared struggles.
I think music in America has always been a powerful way of speaking about these struggles, especially in hip-hop music. It goes without saying that Kendrick Lamar’s new album was a watershed moment for hip-hop in the present climate of race relations and police brutality in the U.S. I don’t think there’s an equivalent for Muslims or South Asians in this country, though among these communities too there are definitely feelings and experiences in increasing need of expression.
What are your thoughts on Donald Trump and the upcoming election? Would you consider taking a stand and making explicitly political statements as musicians? How do you see the connection of music and politics in general?
Like many others, I never thought he would ever get this far. I think his victory is very unlikely given the demographics in this country, but polling and voter turnout have failed us before!
What I do appreciate about his candidacy is how it has revealed social media to be an echo chamber, which in this case has brought out into the open feelings and beliefs that many thought were on the fringe or nonexistent. Better to wrestle through them in public rather than be surprised by their explosion in the dark!
I think it’s every citizen’s duty to take a political position — abstaining included — and stand by it. Being a musician itself does not necessarily elevate your position, but having a public platform or being famous does demand that you hold yourself to a higher standard of speech and knowledge.
Right now I´m pursuing sensory studies and focusing prominently on smell and sound. Going into directions like psychedelic rock and letting various influences sound in your music, what olfactive comparison would you make to Humeysha? And would you ever consider using different odors in your concerts, similarly to adding visuals to sounds?
Has anyone else ever focused on the connection between smell and sound? Or a musician ever done it in practice? To be honest, this is the first time I’ve heard of it and have never thought about it in relation to our music.
But the first smell that comes to mind for Humeysha is definitely the smell of incense. That could make for a fun addition to the live show. There’s other “hot” subcontinental smells like chai brewing or food cooking in ghee that I associate with my time writing the first record, but I think those might be less realistic for concerts. But who knows?
Sufism seems to be a binding element in many musical forms and I can see an influence in your music, too. Do you consider it to be a form of Islam that is compatible with a western way of society and living and moreover, even pop-music?
I’m happy that you hear a Sufi influence in the music. Qawwals I grew up listening to like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are a clear musical influence, and much of the lyrical content is inspired by Sufi verse about devotion, longing, and the obsessive spiritual seeker. Saying Sufism is a form of Islam compatible with the West is a bit of a loaded statement I think — it’d take an essay to unpack each of those terms to make any sense of it.
“…much of the lyrical content is inspired by Sufi verse about devotion, longing, and the obsessive spiritual seeker”
I can safely say though that the inward, contemplative, but passionate qualities of Sufism are needed and should be welcomed in Muslim — and Western — societies. Its continued relevance to music in Muslim societies across the world, and even in India through Bollywood, is a sign to me that there is still a lot there for pop music in the West to draw upon.
At the end of the song “For Love, From The Law,” we hear the sound of passing trains. Is this in any way an allusion to the massacres in 1947 following the India-Pakistan partition after independence from the British? At the time in the Punjab region over 1 million people were murdered, with massacres of refugees on trains becoming part of the bloodshed which still echoes today.
Trains were a part of life in India I grew to love but also a recurring motif of displacement and destruction in the eyewitness accounts I collected as a story scholar for the Partition Archive. You can hear snippets of these stories — some of which include my own family in India and Pakistan — throughout the album.
Often these Partition narratives shared themes of migration, dispersion, and rebirth. Their power comes from how much they still resonate in a world of continuous movement and globalization, of boundaries drawn and just as quickly destabilized. I’d say Partition and all it represents on this album goes far beyond a specific allusion to massacre — it was a story I heard day in and day out while writing the album.
In place of a sitar or a veena in the video, we find a Fender. Hansjörg Fröhlich, editor-in-chief of Sonnendeck, thought about the former “penis of rock´n´roll” being reinterpreted into an androgynous way of getting in touch with metaphysical instances and therefore art being a way of conversing with the supernatural. How would you interpret the guitar in your own words?
The androgyny is a fascinating re-interpretation of the guitar in the video — not one I necessarily thought of, though maybe the director did! I do like the narrative of the instrument as a vehicle for tapping into cosmic or divine. Classical Hindustani musicians like Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar both spoke of their instruments and musical traditions in this way. For this project, I think the guitar is not just another stringed instrument, but rather a vehicle that bridges the melodic sensibility of Hindustani music with the iconoclastic but pretty sounds of post-punk in the West.
Do you see yourself in any connection to the band A.R. Kane? Listening to your debut, it would seem that their records 69 and i are great influences. Would you consider yourselves in the lineage of “Shoegaze”?
I’ve never heard of A.R. Kane before actually, but I’m looking forward to giving those records a listen now! I’m not sure we’d consider ourselves strictly a shoegaze band, but yes, we’d be honored to be considered part of that lineage. Loveless was the record that inspired me to pick up the guitar in high school. My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Cocteau Twins are all favorites and remain strong reference points for us.
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Jayanthan Sriram was born and raised in Germany by Tamil parents who fled Sri Lanka in 1980. He is finishing his masters degree in literature and cultural theory at the University of Tuebingen with a focus on sensory studies, especially on sound and olfaction. His greatest interest is music and he runs the blog TranscendNoise and writes for Stuttgart art magazine Sonnendeck.