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News |  01 Mar 2024 14:45 |  By RnMTeam

American-Indian composer and vocalist Sheherazaad releases mini album Qasr

MUMBAI: American composer and vocalist Sheherazaad’s upcoming album Qasr offers listeners a beguiling new soundscape, a glimmering showcase of her contemporary folk-pop synthesis via its five tracks.

Signed to forward-thinking, London-based independent record label Erased Tapes, Sheherazaad collaborates with Grammy Award winner and experimental artist Arooj Aftab on the album that releases on March 1, with the focus track ‘Koshish’. Previously released singles from the mini-album include ‘Mashoor’ and ‘Dhund Lo Mujhe’.

Her contemporary voicing, though inherently genre-defiant, may be described as alternative folk or experimental ballad. Sheherazaad’s original lyricism modernises certain existing Hindi-Urdu poetic forms, channelling questions of displacement, mother tongue, imagined homelands, and beyond.

Luminous, eccentric orchestration ebbs and flows through the record like a bioluminescent ocean, alongside quiet textural elements: a trickle of water, a ticking clock, ghostly whispers, twinkling manjira.

Singing in a delicate, chiffon vocal which defies genre and expectation — satirically hymnlike, then an erratic vibrato — Sheher’s poetic lyrics about marginalised genders and imagined homelands pour out over lush, enlivened instrumentation. There is no one way to behold the magnetic Qasr. “This may sound like some kind of third-culture reclamation,” she muses, before pausing, “Or it could just be like, you know, new-age, contemporary American folk.”

‘Koshish’ (which means ‘try’ in English), is a track about ageing that brims with infatuation and nostalgia for people or places. “It’s a way of paying homage to my Californian upbringing, revamping the surfer genre with brown beach bodies and hidden Oud as the axis of the song.” In the slow-burning, velvety ‘Khatam’ (“Finished”), live piano melts around harmonised voice layers, as she sings of time, clashes of civilizations, and apocalypse. Here, she weaves a warped fable about a feminine traveller journeying through epochs, stumbling upon alien lyrical terrain that has rarely been sung through a brown femme gaze.

That freedom to interpret is in keeping with a bigger sense that haunts her work – indulgence to be our messiest selves, the selves that openly defy rigid codes and protocols of race, creed, or gender. As an additional ode to freedom: ‘Sheherazaad’ translated in Hindi and Urdu means a “free city”. Whilst her artist name is a tribute to Scheherazade, the revolutionary figure from the epic collection of folktales, The One Thousand and One Nights, whose storytelling prowess brings an end to the mindless genocide of women.

It’s fitting then, that the final track on the album, the arresting seven minutes long ‘Lehja’ (related to language and speaking-style), is a foray into Sheherazaad’s literal storytelling ability. The song brings to life a mythical city she refers to as “Sheher” (a meta-reference to her artist persona). ‘Lehja’ examines the turmoil that may surround mother tongue, pronunciation, and the fight to preserve disappearing ancestral languages. The song culminates in a refrain of azaadi, a chant that serves as an unequivocal call for freedom across much of South and Southwest Asia, closing the album as mysteriously as it begins.

Who is Sheharazaad?

Native to the San Francisco Bay Area and brought up in a “fanatically art-centred, immigrant household”, Sheherazaad gleans from Western classical and South Asian sonic lineages. At home, she absorbed the immense oeuvre of Lata Mangeshkar and RD Burman, while beginning formal voice education in jazz and American Songbook from the age of six.

After years of singing competitions and performances of Western repertoire, Sheherazaad “stopped singing completely,” citing her “disenchantment with English as an emotive language” after encountering British colonial history. But she also felt a visceral disorientation resulting from long stays in India, where her mixed North and South Indian heritage further complicated and left a deep imprint on her ‘hyphenated’ young psyche, and speaking accent.

In New York, she quickly discovered a more radical South Asian arts community. She began following the likes of the Swet Shop Boys, studying the UK’s historic Asian electronic counterculture, and eventually crossing paths with experimental Pakistani artist Arooj Aftab. Sheherazaad relocated to California for vocal rehabilitation under Hindustani classical vocalist Madhuvanti Bhide and studied Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu in an attempt to access her lost heritage.

“I felt determined to resurrect and recalibrate my singing voice”, she says, “to participate in this new wave I saw of diasporic music innovation and its links with political liberation.”

Qasr is now available on all major streaming platforms.