Produced by Arooj Aftab, it was engendered during a time of family estrangement, grief over a lost elder, and the racial polarisation of her country as she knew it.
Today, migration seems to be encoded into everyday habits. As so many of our minds and bodies aggressively globalise in unprecedented ways, previously fixed “genres” and identities of any kind are constantly being dismantled, made redundant, and born anew.
It’s from this space of flux that American composer and vocalist Sheherazaad derives song. Her forthcoming mini-album, Qasr, was engendered during a time of family estrangement, grief over a lost elder, and the racial polarisation of her country as she knew it.
Translating to “castle” or “fortress” in Urdu, Qasr is indeed a monument — like encapsulation of the real strains of displacement, the push and pull of diaspora, and the depravity of erasure and forgotten roots. These experiences and their inherent violence, hysteria, and romance imbue her sonic deep-dive into the world of the so-called in-between.
“It was maddening” Sheherazaad says, “that the music of my origins didn’t yet exist. So I knew I would have to make it.” Born to what she describes as a “fanatically art-centered, Asian-American household”, Sheher began her ear training at home, with both her parents being band musicians and her grandmother a trailblazing Indian classical concert producer. At home, she absorbed the life portfolios 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.
Instead, she turned to experimental theatre spaces and Bollywood dance as a means to express her evolving positionality. Moving to New York for university, she quickly discovered a more radical South Asian arts community. Sheher 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. “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.”
Relocating to California then, for vocal rehabilitation, Sheherazaad found her Northern Star in the Hindustani classical guru Madhuvanti Bhide, who helped Sheher reshape her old voice, using “gharana” methodology. In a further attempt to re-access lost heritage, Sheher also studied Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu, where she quickly advanced and wrote test lyrics. These would result in her self-released 2020 underground project Khwaabistan, and garner the attention of Aftab, who offered to produce Sheher’s next record.
Working long-distance from separate coasts during the pandemic, the pair got to work on Qasr. The collaboration would culminate in the heart of Brooklyn at the Glass Wall studio, during late-night, feverish recording sessions and utilising a groundbreaking cast of international musicianship, including Basma Edrees (Egypt), Gilbert Mansour (Lebanon), and Firas Zreik (Palestine).
It’s a record that plays with your perceptions. Sheher’s melismatic vocals emerge like a wisp of smoke on ‘Mashoor’ (“Famous), billowing through the earthy acoustic guitar of Ria Modak, lending the song an almost religious quality. But ‘Mashoor’ is in fact a rumination on the pitfalls of a society obsessed with fame and narcissism. Pizzicato fiddles cut through on ‘Dhund Lo Mujhe’ (“Search For Me”), almost unnervingly jaunty alongside her tumultuous delivery. “For me, it brings up this circus of the insane, carnival of the unhappy,” she explains. “It suggests a very specific insanity, that of the immigrant experience. There is implied bloodshed, glamour, hallucination, and schizophrenia.”
The tendency, she explains, in the US context, is for Asian people to fit the “model minority myth”, and hide the more ominous dimensions of themselves. “I want listeners to unleash all of that unabashedly,” she says.
‘Koshish’ (“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.
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.”
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 Sheher’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.
And so, on Qasr, Sheherazaad gives us a beguiling new soundscape, not yet of this world. But she also stokes the flame of fantasies inherent to the nomadic experience, which may finally be brought to the fore. Overall, the bewitching album finds an artist building her own fortress, while enticing us to forge our own castles, musical queendoms, and impossible dreamlands.