Five years ago, Zeerak Ahmed was going through a rough time. The Pakistan-born, U.S.-based musician, artist, and academic—who performs as Slowspin—would spend hours in bed, struggling with a constantly aching throat and a heart that felt “unbearably heavy.” Unable to sing, she would exhale slowly in drawn-out musical notes, trying to ease the pain and center herself. It wasn’t until months later, jamming at her friend Shahzad Ismaily’s Brooklyn studio, that she found the Urdu words from an old Sufi kalam coming unbidden to her lips: “Hamari, kuch yaad bhi hai hamari (Do you have any memory of us)?”
That moment of serendipity—inherited poetry emerging from subconscious depths and surfacing on a sea of improvised sound—gave birth to her new album TALISMAN. Recorded over three days of exploratory sessions at Ismaily’s studio and three subsequent years of painstaking production, TALISMAN draws on the contemporary migrant’s deep reservoirs of loss and longing—for a homeland that has changed in their absence, for the lost certainty of a non-hyphenated identity—and connects them to the devotional yearning of Sufi saints and Bauls, minstrels who have wandered South Asia for centuries searching for a path to the divine. Over 10 unhurried songs, folksy finger-plucked guitar, ambient synth washes, and empyrean strings coalesce into lush textural soundscapes, windows into the shared dreamworld of seekers across the ages. Ahmed’s lilting, incantatory vocals—often melancholic, sometimes incandescent—guide us down this mystic’s yellow brick road, a charismatic presence offering succor to fellow pilgrims on their journey into the unknown.
Opener “Holay” begins with Ahmed’s voice swirling in sun-dappled loops, drifting in leisurely counterpoint to co-producer Grey McMurray’s resonant piano and Alison Shearer’s ethereal flute, while Greg Fox’s drums rumble in the backdrop, like distant, arrhythmic storm clouds. The Urdu lyrics, borrowed from an old dadra (a semi-classical Hindustani vocal genre), speak of separation from a lover gone far away. Ahmed hails from Karachi’s muhajir (literally, immigrant) community, Muslims from across North India who were uprooted in the bloody chaos of India’s Partition and displaced across a freshly drawn border. She draws on that inheritance of generational trauma here, and through the rest of the album, as she repeats the song’s heartsick refrain, her voice shading each repetition in overlapping hues of meaning and emotion.
The ghosts of ancestral loss and displacement also haunt tracks like the lovesick “Piya”—centered on Ahmed’s wounded vocals and the raspy scrape of fingers sliding down a guitar’s neck—and the more distant ache of the meditative “Lilt and Forget.” As the record progresses, the red-hot pain of loss gives way to the dull throb of acceptance, and a grim determination to forge new paths into the unknown.
“Trails” brings Lovecraftian, new-weird visual imagery into conversation with these old-world dreamscapes, as Ahmed’s woozy falsetto traces a luminous path over staccato drums and grandly sweeping synths, a lonesome presence wandering a labyrinthine maze. Sinister tension rises on the Hindustani classical-tinged avant-pop of “In These Eyes You Reside” before giving way to a newly assured sense of self on closer “Belong,” as Ahmed reclaims her many identities and far-flung roots.
On lead single “Hamari”—sprung from that first sentence emerging unbidden in the jam room—TALISMAN’s many threads of personal and familial history, cultural inheritance, and syncretic devotion come together in perfect harmony. The lyrics borrow from a Purbi devotional poem originally written by Muslim Sufi poet Nawab Sadiq Jung Bahadur Hilm, invoking the Hindu god Krishna, in an example of the cross-religious syncretism that once characterized the subcontinent’s cultural traditions. Ahmed came by the song through her Hindustani classical gurus, in the form of a thumri—a light classical vocal style—from her family’s original homeland of Uttar Pradesh, now across the border in India.
The thumri itself is a form on which many of the conflicts and tragedies of contemporary South Asia left its mark. Originating in the 19th century in the decadent, slowly collapsing empires of North India, it was sung by courtesans as they danced for audiences of aristocratic men, blending erotic titillation and devotional desire in equal measure. Though their lives were circumscribed by patriarchal notions of honor, caste, and class, these courtesans found space for artistic self-expression in the thumri, with its emphasis on imbuing phrases with multiple meanings. This proto-feminist history is inscribed in the form, but it’s been obscured by over a century of patriarchal sanitization in service of competing religio-nationalist projects, which pushed the thumri to the margins of the Hindustani classical canon.
Ahmed’s recent academic and curatorial work has focused on female folk musical traditions in South Asia, and her experiments with thumri and dadra on TALISMAN are strongly informed by that archival work. By taking the thumri and recontextualizing it for contemporary music—ambient, dream pop, guitar-based folk—she is excavating this buried alternative history. These centuries-old songs and traditions send down fresh roots into new soil on TALISMAN, still aching for home but open to new possibilities for growth, new histories to write. Much like Ahmed herself, and millions of others in the South Asian diaspora. “They tell me not to plant things where they don’t belong,” Ahmed sings in understated defiance on the closing “Belong.” “What if that’s all I know?”