Introducing: Humeysha’s “Nusrat on the Beach”

A track premiere, plus an essay on its muse, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, by Zain Alam.

A few years ago the melody for this song came to me in a dream. I woke up from a nap, and as I took a stroll down a California beach, the song structure began to assemble itself. I was there to see a lover for the last time and say goodbye. But in that dream I had decided to move there instead, close to the ocean, abandoning my plans to attend graduate school in Islamic studies, back on the East Coast. In those days, I was consumed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s recordings. Melodies often dance across my dreams, and back then, each was steeped in the heat and hue of his music.

Dreams are revered in Islam. Imagined things have a kind of existence all their own, and it’s often said that sleep is a kind of little death. 

And it is He who takes your souls by night and knows what you have committed by day. Then He revives you therein that a specified term may be fulfilled. Then to Him will be your return; then He will inform you about what you used to do. (Quran 6:60)

In that drowsy melange of melody and love left unfinished, I imagined Nusrat on the beach, far away from his native Punjab. Nusrat is beloved by audiences around the world and affectionately known in South Asia as the Shahenshah-e-Qawwali, the final seal of qawwals whose music is a Sufi practice aiming for fana’a, the annihilation of self in pursuit of the divine. I’ve found deep inspiration for my own music in how qawwals use chant and repetition to comfort (and challenge) the self, sustain explorations in rhythm, and invite audiences to participate.

Nusrat’s classic Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai (“Oh, this mild intoxication”) is a 30 minute qawwali I’ve listened to over and over since childhood, while writing, and even when napping before I drift into dreams. The song was originally a ghazal by the poet Anwar Farrukhabadi, whose pen-name was Fana’a.

One of my favorite American musicians, Jeff Buckley, called Nusrat his “Elvis.” Of the many other renditions of the song, Buckley’s is my favorite — a live recording from 1993 in which he briefly introduces Nusrat, leaps past audience laughter as he sings in Urdu, then invites the audience to join in a call and response, explaining that “you have to do it like this — how they do it in Pakistan,” before clapping in rhythm and belting into powerful, wordless melody. There’s a heat and raw intensity in his singing, a vulnerability and emotional cry beyond plain language, that recalls the way qawwals improvise for hours on end. I may not descend from the qawwali tradition, but that kind of desire to create a sonic world of pure feeling through wordless expression, even of pain and most often of longing for a lover, is what inspired the wordless outro of my own song.

What Farrukhabadi gave to Nusrat was given to Buckley and in turn has found its way to me, dreaming of a Pakistani Elvis on the beach, interpolating the melodic shapes of Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai into the chorus of this song. Every time I wake, even after a nap, I too thank the divine for my return to this world, especially when I can bring something back to mark love lost or a blessing returned.

Humeysha’s Nusrat on the Beach EP will be out August 2.

History and homeland are central to Humeysha, the brainchild of Zain Alam, an American artist and musician of Indian-Pakistani origin. Described as “a unique intersection, merging the cinematic formality of Bollywood and geometric repetition of Islamic art,” Humeysha began during Alam’s travels through his ancestral India and Pakistan where he worked as an oral historian for the 1947 Partition Archive. He was the first in decades from his family to visit both sides of the militarized border by virtue of birthright American citizenship. The fourteen-track debut LP he wrote there began from a question appropriate for loud, sweaty Indian cities: What does it mean to find a unity between the mess of divergent sounds one grows up with as a first-generation immigrant living in diaspora?

Born in Queens, NYC and raised in Kennesaw, Georgia, Alam soundtracks a personal vocabulary through Humeysha that draws on Islamic art and South Asian music to expand the range of sound and experience available to his communities. Field recordings of Pakistani cities; the distinct dialect of an his ailing grandmother’s reminisces; quick rhythmic loops from favorite childhood Bollywood songs — all of these sounds find their way into Humeysha, regardless of their traditional “musicality.” Shoegazing guitars fit alongside meditation bells played underneath Urdu poetry as if they always belonged together.

Alongside expanding Humeysha into a live quartet, Alam has collaborated with visual artists and composed music at residencies including Bruce High Quality Foundation, the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), and the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard University. Uniting all of his projects is a passion for sampling, borrowing, and assembling fragments from one’s own history and memory — for how a personal mosaic of sound can empower minorities and the marginalized to engage in self-creation, on their own terms.

Alam is currently an artist-in-residence at SAADA for their Revolution Remix project, composing soundtracks for neighborhoods with long immigrant histories in Philadelphia. Humeysha is preparing their next release, Nusrat on the Beach, for this summer and to embark on a regional tour thereafter.