Kennesaw, a small Georgia town just north of Atlanta, is most famous for two incidents. The first, the 1982 passage of a law mandating gun possession as a largely symbolic rebuttal to a handgun ban in a county three states away, gives you context for the community that would erupt in the second event: the tense dispute over the opening of the city’s first mosque in 2014. Following protests by residents adrift in fear over “the spread of Sharia law,” the City Council voted 4-1 to deny the construction of the proposed Muslim prayer center.
An audio clip from that meeting, one where it seems like the council may just yet approve the mosque before finalizing their decision against it, forms the emotional climax of Departures, the second release by the Brooklyn-based recording project Humeysha. The sample is predictive of the combative culture wars that have expanded outside of America’s smaller conservative bubbles and are now overtaking the entire national discourse. But on Departures, interwoven with spectral harmonic prayer, Humeysha subvert the message of the words into one of optimism in the face of political prejudice. The council eventually overturned its decision after a legal battle surrounding their violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and now the Masjid Suffah is a thriving community institution and symbol of the “spoils”` minority immigrants are constantly fighting for — that this country would be better for all of us as our country.
Zain Alam, the primary songwriter of Humeysha, grew up in Kennesaw, and his childhood was one that mirrored that of brown Americans across the United States. That is, an experience of cultural repression in accordance with social norms that, if not militantly oppositional in municipal matters, still outwardly antagonize kids of color on the schoolyard. Discussing his ethnic identity, he notes, “Growing up in the South, there’s a degree to which you love it when you’re a child, and then when you’re in high school you’re like, ‘Oh, this is kind of lame, I don’t want to be associated with it.'” While it wasn’t cool to be into Bollywood music in adolescence, Alam found a desired community in the indie guitar music he also gravitated towards at the time. You can hear the influence of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and the experimental droning of Animal Collective in the twanging vibrations and washed-out submersion of Humeysha’s expansive trance-pop.
You can also hear the resonant thud of tablas, chiming puja bells, and the rich tonality of Qawwali — a devotional Sufi style Alam was exposed to in his youth. These elements of a cultural inheritance initially unclaimed returned to Alam’s work upon leaving the more suppressive atmosphere of his hometown, rediscovering a deep connection to his ancestry in ethnomusicology courses on Hindustani, Indian music, and South Asian history. From there, he decided to travel abroad to write his undergraduate thesis on his relatives’ broken history resulting from the 1947 Partition, the contentious agreement that divided their country following its British occupation into the religious majorities of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.
Alam returned to India the following year to record the oral histories of elders directly affected by the violence, mistrust, and political turmoil of the Partition in Lucknow, his family’s origin point. While there, he bought one of the cheapest guitars in a local music store and used his field recorder to capture loops from daily life in India. He stitched his own compositions onto those clips, creating songs in his bedroom never intended for a larger audience, until his best friend Dylan Bostick took a listen and urged Alam to re-record them properly in a studio. That’s how Humeysha transitioned from a collection of found sounds reinterpreted by Alam into a four-piece band with a full-length album.
That self-titled debut, released in the fall of 2015, was a document of the strife of displacement, both that physically imposed in separating loved ones from their native geography and the intergenerational kind that draws the children of immigrants away from a country they’ll never know to one they’ll never fully belong. But those threads also inspire the record’s warm, romantic expression of an Eastern existence in a global context. Alam switches back and forth in his singing from Hindi-Urdu to English, juxtaposes the sounds of meditation bowls with cavernous drum kits, and conjures a space inclusive of a fondness for both classic Indian cinema and the history of underground rock.
This is Alam’s modus operandi: blending the sounds from across his diaspora into a diffuse-but-distinct mode of storytelling, one that captures spiritually the full range of the Desi experience from the indigenous to the transplant.
Since Humeysha, Alam has been involved in a number of mixed-media projects of a piece with this mission. In 2016, he contributed a film called “Lavaan” to the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) to commemorate the lives lost in the Oak Creek tragedy, where a white supremacist targeting Muslims killed six and injured four others at the local Sikh temple. Last year, Alam co-authored a New Yorker comic about the blatantly excessive TSA screenings that define air travel exclusively for dark-skinned passengers. This summer, he completed an artistic residency in Calgary where he was given an exhibition space and told simply to “do what you want with it.”
This last experience has most clearly defined how Alam now conceptualizes his recording work. “I always think of sound and music as being the centerpiece around which everything unfolds,” he shares, noting how in Calgary he was able to amplify the impact of his composition by using video footage projected on the walls and interactive text with which visitors could play. This emphasis on intersecting mediums translates to Humeysha proper, both in the vibrant, searing images of their music videos and the immersive quality of their concerts. The band often performs alongside Alam’s friend and visual collaborator Ethan Young, who projects onto the members adorned in traditional white kurtas footage from Alam’s archives of mixed media: “He’s almost like an instrumentalist in the band, because he’s doing everything live. He’s phasing things in and out according to how we are playing.”
The process of developing a live show following the release of the studio-minded Humeysha is what most shaped the evolution in Alam’s songwriting for Departures. “If the self-titled was an initial way of trying to wrestle with all this material and figure out what it was saying to me and why I was drawn to it, Departures is almost like phase two, of where I am no longer in India, I am no longer in Pakistan. I am in New York City doing music in a more traditional way, having a band, and having venues and thinking about the project in that space.”
You can hear this distinction in the new album’s more full-bodied loops, laced purposefully in interlocking grooves. “Haunted” unfolds like a multi-layered prayer, one to “stay with me,” as expressive electric guitars sidewind in reflexive two-step. Those same guitars boil like steam vents on “My Limit,” which roll over the crystalline percussion. Both songs feature sounds typical of Departures: pulled from a singular palette of source material, but translating the inspiration into something entirely distinct. Specifically, Alam is able to uncover Eastern sounds out of Western instruments in a way that defies the standard impression of either.
“I play really heavy black nylon strings, and as I have gotten more and more intimate with the instrument, I have realized that sometimes you can play single-line, almost raga-like melodies on the [Fender] Jazzmaster,” Alam details. “And as you slide and bend your notes up and down, if you play a certain way…it almost sounds like it could be a sitar.”
“Figuring out how to bend your tools to serve the higher purpose,” he continues, “speaks to the broader thrust of this project, and is what my subconscious is trying to get me to do.” Alam pins that process to his return to Brooklyn after India and figuring out what Humeysha means here: “It’s the memory of these connections and these little cultural fragments that are still wanting to awaken in you — how do you make something out of that now in a place like New York, in a place like America, in the humdrum of life here?”
More broadly, how do you simultaneously preserve histories and reinterpret them into a personal context? Alam’s musical efforts are his attempt to both immortalize and and build upon the narratives that motivate him, and it is work captured in the project’s name itself. Humeysha roughly translates as “forever,” as in “hamesha ke liye,” or “for always.” Given his background as an ethnographer, Alam is using his band as a way to capture the phantom histories of the South Asian diaspora; the familiar strangeness that is a heritage lying a few degrees of separation away. Whether tapped into through tradition, language, music, or landmass, Departures is ultimately about finding your way back to a homeland that has never left you behind.
Departures is out today. Purchase it here.