In this concluding interview, Slowspin talks to Instep from Cleveland, USA about her unique interpretation of sound and how Riyaz (practice, training) can be a cathartic experience, one which fueled her new album, Talisman.
n this second and concluding part of the interview, it is obvious that Zeerak Ahmed – who makes music under the moniker Slowspin – has a prodigious mind and her music consciousness has expanded with her eastern musical training, as well as the recording process of Talisman.
It is also easy to finish our conversation because it do-esn’t have residual properties. What I’m reminded of is how this conversation is one that must be shared, especially as more women are coming up in music in Pakistan and how they could benefit from her experiences as an artist across multiple artistic fields.
A number of accomplished artists are part of her record. Shahzad Ismaily, who is part of the super musical trio behind an album called Love in Exile with the equally enchanting Arooj Aftab and experienced Vijay Iyer, is executive producer of Talisman.
Other notable names include Grey McMurray (Gil Scott-Heron, Tongues in Trees trio, Beth Orthon, Ali Sethi) who is the co-producer of the album along with Slowspin. Musicians, who played on the album include Aaron Roche (Kjartan Sveinsson, JFDR, Sam Amidon) and Greg Fox (Liturgy, Z’s) at Figure 8 Studio in Brooklyn, New York.
I wonder what the process was like in the creation of an album like this (watch out for a review).
As someone who responds rather than reacts, for Slowspin, the creation process was different in some ways and similar in others.
“As someone who practices ‘sur’ and ‘awaaz ka riyaz’ with an Ustaad, I think there are certain things that stay within you. There are certain frequencies, sonic spaces perhaps and lyrical content that stays within you.
It always stayed with me. My continued teacher today is not Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami (although he was when she started her training) but his son, Rauf Saami bhai. He is more tech friendly. So, we have Zoom calls. I’m a student of Awaaz (Voice) so in that capacity certain lyrical content really spoke to me. I write myself as well and I write in English. There are certain spaces that I’m not able to say as words sometimes. As artists, we are complex beings. We can be awkward and we can find that words don’t always find a way out. They stay and with the right music they come out.”
A thoughtful, observant artist who is aware of the complexities that artists feel, Slowspin is talking, I realize, like she has entered a personal space. She is recalling memories and experiences that are beautiful but also painful enough for her to have entered a vulnerable one as well. We echo back to the same question, which is being a sound artist and the devotional expression.
“Just submit to the sound daily like a note on the harmonium or a tanpura (a long-necked plucking string instrument) that can allow you to then hear other things or attune better to something.”
During the three days in the studio, where Talisman was being recorded, all the musicians present understood this idea of submission, much like Slowspin does, which is to say as a philosophical idea as well as how it is the functioning of the core.
“They are excellent, ski-lled artists and they are truly artists because, again, they trust the space; you just need to hold submit to it and define something collectively and to swim in sound. What is it telling you? Be the receiver, be the conduit.”
Slowspin sees herself as the conduit, she says, with a clear head. She isn’t looking to bring her own solo space as a musical artist to the recording process. To bring her own space would be, she says, like singing the ‘thumri’ as it was taught to her originally by the legendary Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami.
“When you’re in a space and something comes to you, there is a different thrill to it.”
“Let me not turn away from happiness or pain. Just not to run away in my heart and in my head. Let me face hurricanes.” – ‘Hurricanes’ by Dido
Somewhere in between this very sincere effort to articulate what sound means to her, I make a segue and ask her some questions that are palpable.
Like her eastern musical training and when did it start.
“It started with Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami sahab and his sons for voice/awaaz at the age of 15.”
To this day, she is a student of Ustaad Rauf Saami.
As for the record that has brought this conversation about, it is a very special record. But it is equally obvious that this is not manipulation of voice. This is a record that is meditative and cathartic (and not just for the motley crew of brilliant musicians featured on it). The voice (awaaz) has strength, great one at that. But it is the result of discipline and training spanning years.
Though she has enough experience to become a full-time academic, Slowspin admits that while she loves to teach and share her own learnings, she is taking a break from academia in a larger sense to give music more time as she moves to New York from Cleveland. Her musical aesthetic isn’t the only aesthetic on her mind, though.
Later this month, she has a gallery show (June 9) in Cleveland. She tells Instep, “I’m showing a sound installation from my ongoing arc-hival project, ‘Apnay Mahal Ma ’ (in collaboration with my maternal grandmother and my mother).”
She is also planning work from this archival series in time for what will be her first museum show next year at the Akron Art Museum.
As we close the chapter on this interview, I’m moved to ask if Slowspin will cater to a Pakistani music market? She signs off but not before confirming what I already know as a first instinct and having heard her music from 2013 to 2023, “I like to believe that my words and melodies transcend borders and boun-daries.”
I believe so, beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is on the listener and if they can find any element that suggests if Talisman has transient properties or enduring ones.