“Slowspin talks to Instep from Cleveland, USA, about growing up in a household where sound is an ancestral treasure, stories of immigrant experience and why she sees her music as a sacred practice and not entertainment as she releases her a new LP called Talisman.
t is close to 8 pm in Karachi, Pakistan and nearly 11 am in Cleveland, USA. Zeerak Ahm-ed – who goes by the stage name Slowspin, and is considered a treasured artist as a major contributor to the counterculture movement in Karachi for at least a decade – has released what is quite possibly her most ambitious record to date: Talisman. She is a US-based Pakistani artist who left the country and relocated to the United States just three years ago after getting married.
As I scroll through her press kit before this video interview began over Zoom, the term ‘South Asia’ was part of the presser.
My mind immediately goes to Priyanka Chopra who had been celebrating the rise of South Asia with the likes of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy being the first person of color and first woman to helm a Star Wars film among other South Asian achievements. But this tweet from Chopra got a stern reaction when a certain Pakistani actor tweeted back, saying that SOC is a Pakistani first and a South Asian later, almost as if she forgot this fact or we did. It’s a question that is bothersome and I wonder if Slowspin is next in line for some form of ridicule or something similar.
When I blurt out this story and ask her about being a South Asian artist from Pakistan, she does not get angry or fall into the trap of ridiculing those who hold such views. And in her answers, I found various aspects of her personality: compassion, openness, self-awareness, musical consciousness, feminism, and honesty. It is what reflects in her artistic career that is built upon experiences that are first and foremost personal and profound.
In this day and age, original experiences are what truly makes an artist’s narrative interesting. In that bracket, Slowspin has been ahead of the curve for some time. Her six EPs are proof of this viewpoint.
I still ask Slowspin about the Pakistan vs. South Asia subject, adding that there are videos by others who believe Pakistani artists are looking for western validation, painting everyone with the same brush. But she makes no snide remarks about others and listens before speaking in how she sees the connection in her own context.
In polite and astute fashion, Slowspin tells me that she has never shied away from her Pakistani identity. “I don’t dodge the fact that I am a Pakistani; I’m a proud Pakistani, a Karachiite and I’ve spent my entire life (up until three years ago) in Pakistan.”
Some of the most incredible moments in her life, she explains, whether professional, personal or emotional are tied to being a Pakistan. As for her South Asian identity, Slowspin finds the answer in her journey as an artist and as someone who has grown up in Pakistan, listening to the stories of her grandparents, being surrounded by incredible women and learning important lessons at an early age.
“Of course, my journey as an Urdu speaking Pakistani artist has a lot to do with my ancestry, the beautiful understanding of the relationship between literature, poetry, music, dance (with celebration). It is about pain and intense emotional experience, generational trauma that was a product of just hearing your grandparents’ stories in particular.”
Slowspin grew up in a household where her paternal grandmother also lived and that meant listening to her deeply personal stories of what was lost as she arrived from what is now India. “They had to leave their lives and their belongings. It becomes very interesting. My (paternal) grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to go to school and pursue a degree she wanted to unlike my maternal side of the family.”
What is striking is that while her maternal side of the family includes feminist writers, poets, actors, her paternal grandmother was friends with them. As she talks about her maternal side of the family, it is clear that Slowspin has had strong women around her who influenced her from an early age and passed on important life lessons. Her great grandmother is Khadijah Begum (children’s playwright and artist). Her grandmother is Zara Mumtaz (children’s author, theatre actor/director). Mahvash Faruqi is her aunt (mother’s sister) who is an actor, and co-founder of Zambeel dramatic readings). Faruqi also worked with Tehrik-e-Niswaan (with Sheema Kermani). Slowspin joined them in her teens and later worked as the sound composer for her aunt’s dramatic reading group, Zambeel. Her cousin is Danish Faruqi, Mahvash Faruqi’s son and an electronic music producer. He is the first person Slowspin collaborated with and made music for Zambeel until her departure in 2020 to foreign shores.
“I do not see my music practice as entertainment. This is devotional content for me. This is my practice. Some people submit to a certain cause. For me, this is an alignment with ‘sur’ [tune, note, melody, air]. These are words that I use as prayers, words that I sing as a form of connection and that to me is devotion.”– Slowspin
Other prominent (and respectable) women who are part of her lineage include Hamida Akhtar (writer), Zakia Akbar (writer). Both of them are her maternal grandmother’s aunts. The incredible Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt (actors) are her grandmother’s paternal aunts.
Her maternal side also includes Kamil Khan Mumtaz (architect) who is her maternal grandmother’s brother.
His daughter and Slow-spin’s maternal aunt is a wonderful actor of our memory and time, Samiya Mumtaz. Slowspin is also related to Khawar Mumtaz (Pakistani women’s rights activist and the former chairperson of the national commission on the status of women).
All of these immediate connections as well as ancestral ones and being surrounded by such strong women left a lasting influence on Slowspin. In words that possibly can’t do justice to her nuanced personality, it equipped and inspired her in conscious and even unconscious ways. To give one example, she was taught to use her voice because it mattered. The immersion in poetry, literature, theatre, music and acting within her family also meant that Slowspin becoming an artist, a musician, a sound artist and a teacher isn’t surprising. Though she is taking a break from the profession of teaching right now.
Slowspin’s relationship with sound art, or music or words and vocals is older than we realise. It didn’t start with her first EP. She started learning eastern music at the age of 15 and was a disciple of the great Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami and his son, Rauf Saami for her voice and even today, she is a student of Saami sahib and his son, the tech savvy Rauf Saami. If you have heard her six EPs, you will also realise that while she is an eastern classical trained singer, her music is very much her own, steeped in meditative tones, electronic-tinged textures and yet so powerful that it can bring you to tears. It can also serve as a soothing piece of music particularly when the emotional curve is pacing between dark and painful emotions.
“So much comes from carrying on these age-old traditions (Saqafat, Tehzeeb) and Mehfil-e Saama and the way to truly listen,” says Slowspin.
“Kamil Khan Mumtaz is an incredible architect. Going into those spaces and just being conscious of your surroundings, sacred geometry of tradition matters. And mobile architecture of course, which comes from the subcontinent. There is so much to take pride in and carry forward.”
A conversation with her grandmother, recalls Slow-spin, was about what was brought back while so much had been left due to circumstances. She answered that they brought back sound. Perhaps as a result, no matter what the occasion, there was always music in the house. Everyone would get together, says Slowspin, and sing songs of joy and peace and more.
It wasn’t restricted to popular occasions like a wedding – common to many households – but every occasion like rainy days. Sound flowed in the house. The songs and the sound came from her ancestry, parents, grandparents, great grandparents and there is a sense that this tradition is not just something Slowspin is proud of but one she incorporates in her music in her own unique way as well as through her work as a sound artist.
“To see these how these women found solace and comfort and such a strong sense of identity through sound was really important for me.”
Slowspin confessed that it was hard for her to understand its importance at first. “I took it for granted like knowing it is a part of us. But once you start going to other places and leave your own country, the importance become clear. We grew up in a different way. We are, all of us, fundamentally emotional beings. But some practices and rituals are very specific to my Urdu-speaking family. To have that understanding of your Urdu-speaking identity is beyond where we come from in a larger sense.” She speaks of looking back beyond two generations.
“Your sense of belonging is centuries old and there is strength in that and it is grounded in my history and to a land that holds so much. Now we carry that forward with a sense of understanding of self, divine love and longing. There is so much longing and as migrants, when they (grandparents) spoke of longing, it has another layer of emotional experience and that is intangible. You can’t fake that. It is something very pure.
“If you have a layer of spirituality with that, it spe-aks to my soul and it is not entertainment for me, this is practice.”
This is where Talisman has a beautiful ethereal sound, and has enough poetic power to bring you to tears. It is almost as if her six EPs, written and produced over the course of a decade - while holding their own musical identity - had a larger purpose, a narrative that culminated in Talisman (which we will get to in the second part of this story).
To Slowspin, no record, no EP she has made nor tinkering with sound or voice and learning eastern classical from a young age till this day meant creating a club record.
In the press statement, the description of the record also uses the words: “devotional expression”. But in Pakistan the word devotional is thrown around fast and loose to put it mildly and our understanding of devotional expression varies from a real understanding to connecting it to religious fervour and lack of understanding.
I have many questions and Slowspin is kind enough to oblige but this one question is how we must conclude the first part of this two-parter interview.
And so, we come back to devotional expression and how it is misconstrued, misunderstood and a tag in the political realm, or even music that has no place using it but it is done anyway because it sells. If you listen to Slowspin’s Talisman LP though, the terms “devotional expressions” feel right at home. It is not used as a catchphrase or lightly because it is applicable in the most personal and honest sense to the record.
“I do not see my music practice as entertainment. This is devotional content for me. This is my practice. Some people submit to a certain cause.
For me, this is an alignment with ‘sur’ [tune, note, melody, air]. These are words that I use as prayers, words that I sing as a form of connection and that to me is devotion.”
– Read our next issue for the second and conclusive part of this interview with Slowspin on her new record and collaborating with some of the best (and underrated) musicians of our time.