Tags: New Music
Zain Alam, the mastermind behind the musical project Humeysha, knows how to balance immediacy with legacy. His songs feel conceptual because they are — they reflect his intellectual explorations into language, literature, and culture — but they also pull you into specific places and moments. His work is thoughtful in a soft way that has you connecting the dots but not overanalyzing.
Alam is like this in conversation as well, stopping to consider the implications of his answers, to ask questions back. He engages. When asked about his own personal history, he immediately touches on the specific: his memories, as a child, of road trips with his father. Growing up in the Atlanta area, he used to drive throughout the South, with the classics like A.R. Rahman soundtracking the long stretches of American highway. This image, with its mix of familial ties and individual lived experience, is what Humeysha is about: new contexts for old sounds, a blend of the referential and experimental.
His work is thoughtful in a soft way that has you connecting the dots but not overanalyzing.
Alam has experience as an oral archivist, having worked in India and Pakistan collecting stories of Partition for the 1947 Partition Archive. This experience shines through in his work, with an ear, and therefore voice, attuned to emotional intimacy and the power of listening. All that he hears and picks up becomes embedded, in its own way, in the music.
When asked about this archiving process, he told Kajal, “Lots has changed since I wrote the first Humeysha record, but my use of field recordings, found sounds, and other sonic ephemera from everyday life continues to anchor the songs in time and space in a way that’s core to the project.”
The newest addition to this project, an EP titled Nusrat on the Beach, showcases Alam’s expertise when it comes to composition, lyricism, and experimentation. As a graduate student, he concentrated in Islamic philosophy and art. His deep study of old texts informs not only his approach to lyricism, but also the way that he considers instrumentation. While this consideration may seem to signal a meticulous and focused intentionality behind his work, he pushes back against this, arguing instead that when the conscious mind is set aside, intuition can do the work. The connections come through on their own if you give them the space.
With Nusrat on the Beach, Alam creates this space for us. His melodies are straightforward yet expansive, providing a soundscape that balances the otherworldly with the physical. From the first record he put out until now, he has always included organically recorded sounds of the places in which he has spent time.
“Whether it’s the sound of a heated debate with friends or a sarod run through a guitar effects chain, I’m always excited by what kind of symphony emerges from these specific, place-based sounds, regardless of their musicality,” Alam said.
While this element has remained stable throughout his musical career, his creative process has changed over the years, informed by Alam’s journey balancing connectedness and solitude. Humeysha’s first record, released in 2015, was a solo musical project, but the project expanded to include multiple collaborators on the release of Departures in 2018. With Nusrat on the Beach, Alam returned to writing alone. He describes balancing this solitary writing with intentional collaboration and expresses joy in coming back to himself, in owning a project that has just his own voice at the center.
This experience shines through in his work, with an ear, and therefore voice, attuned to emotional intimacy and the power of listening.
In an essay for Talkhouse, Alam discusses the origins of the song “Nusrat on the Beach,” which came to him in a dream.
“In that dream I had decided to move [to California] instead,” he writes, “close to the ocean, abandoning my plans to attend graduate school in Islamic studies, back on the East Coast.”
The calm of the song, the peace found in its drowsy pace, feels aspirational given the context of this life transition. The song itself expresses a theme about the dissonance between expectation and reality, between what’s to come and what could have been. There is a melancholy hopefulness in his voice, a fragmented longing.
“There’s a quote in postcolonial history about how the fragment is one of the greatest tools to resist normalizing, systematic projects, by virtue of their specificity,” he said.
With Nusrat on the Beach, Alam encourages us to find these fragments in ourselves. He welcomes us to embrace the specificity in our people and our places. He leads by example, giving us the chance to take notice, to engage, and to listen a little more closely.
Nusrat on the Beach is available now.