Ryan El-Solh and Sham-E-Ali Nayeem Want to Document the Beauty of Existence

The artists talk Mahmoud Darwish, longing, their new records, and more.

Ryan El-Solh is an Arab-American guitarist based in New York; Sham-e-Ali Nayeem is a Hyderabadi Muslim-American poet and musician based in Philly. Both recently released records — Ryan, Jasmine on a Night in July (the first full length with his trio Scree), and Sham-e-Ali, Moti Ka Sheher — so the celebrate, the two hopped on a call to chat about it all. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Ryan El-Solh: Hi, Sham-e-Ali. It’s so nice to meet you.

Sham-e-Ali Nayeem: Nice to meet you, too, Ryan. How’s it going today? What’s going on in your world these days?

Ryan: Good. Today we just put out a first single from this album that I’ve been working on for a while.

Sham-e-Ali: Oh, congratulations.

Ryan: Thank you. So, yeah, I feel sort of over a hump in that way, which is nice. 

Sham-e-Ali: Is that single from a larger body of work?

Ryan: Yeah. So this album is from a collection of compositions of mine that draw on the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, a great Palestinian poet, and this was the first of those. Which I’m still sort of getting used to talking about, to be honest. I haven’t had much occasion to talk about the music. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true — I do talk about it at the shows. [Laughs.] 

Sham-e-Ali: I mean, Darwish is poetry is a huge influence for me in terms of my own work as a poet and a musician. So when I had the chance to listen to your album, I was so moved. It was just very exciting to kind of hear these musical interpretations of his poetry that I hold so dear. So that’s what I was asking because, I think it’s pretty amazing that you are bringing in his work to a musical landscape in that way. And I relate to it, as I have an album coming out next week — It’s called Moti Ka Sheher, which translates to City of Pearl. And this is an album that also has the heart of a poem, meaning I’ve done musical interpretations of poems from my debut book of poetry that came out in 2019 through Upset Press, titled City of Pearls. The album is special for me, in that I produced the music for it and composed works to kind of create homes and interpretations of these poems. So I was really excited about your work, because you are also holding poetry close and integrating music. So could you share a little bit about what inspired you to work with Darwish’s poetry this way?

Ryan: Yeah, well, the music I write is instrumental, so the poetry isn’t exactly incorporated into the work in quite the same way. For me, it’s been more that I was writing music, that I was having trouble really putting my finger on, in words, what I was trying to convey thematically with it. It was music that felt a bit broader emotionally than some of the stuff I’ve done before. Although to be honest, I’ve always had trouble naming songs — we have set lists in my group that are like. “new song G minor,” “new song F,” “new song E flat.” [Laughs.] So it’s a long term struggle. But in this case, I was also reading some of Darwish’s poetry and just felt that there was a lot of resonance between the themes in his poetry — nostalgia, homeland, tragedy — a sense of living within a very broad historical scope that really resonated with what I was hoping to convey in the music I was trying to write.

Sham-e-Ali: It definitely comes across. What was the process like to connect deeply with these themes and the poetry, but not use words?

Ryan: I think it sort of evolved over time. The first song I wrote was one where I had the core of the composition already, and then came across the poem — a poem of his called “Winds Shift Against Us” — and there was a line in it in translation that says, “We flash victory signs in the darkness, so the darkness may glitter.” Something about that line just really hit, and really resonated with what I was trying to do with that song. And so that put me on to wanting to dig more into his work and try to make this happen. 

Then I think as the set of songs came together, there was more of a reading and then maybe finding something in the poems and thinking, How can I conjure this musically? So it kind of went from music first to the poetry, and then sort of back from the poetry to the music at times. But there’s a bit of both going on. 

Could you talk a bit about your own process for sort of blending your poetry with music? Obviously the poetry, as you said, existed before the music?

Sham-e-Ali: Well, one: I hold Darwish so dear, so it was a gift to get to hear your work. To have this interpretation of his poetry, and these themes that I also connect to — around exile, memory, archiving, nostalgia, hope, the resilience of the human spirit — all of that resonates so deeply with me in my own experiences as well as in my art practice.

In terms of my own experience, where I’m engaging not with Darwish’s poetry but my own poems, I would usually start with the poem itself. [I would] just do an audio recording of the piece first, to get into the deep emotional space of the poem. To me, poetry is like a container for life, for spirit; a means to communicate, and distill a form of life. I come from that sentiment first, and then I create the music around that — almost like expanding the container. So where everything will be in these words first, they sort of vibrate out into a more aural landscape, housing it in a more expansive way and moving it even deeper outside of non-linear time and space. So it’s great to grapple with these concepts where you’re talking about memory, you’re talking about nostalgia. 

For me, I’m also thinking about future, and when you merge poetry and music, it feels like such a spacious environment to explore these things that can sometimes feel constricting. And there’s a musical aspect to poetry, rhythms to poetry that are easy fits within this spacious expansion in a musical language. It’s so easy for them to blend into each other, and, almost, you can begin to feel like there is no separation between them. To me, it’s exciting to imagine what it would be like if I didn’t use the words. I would like to see what that would feel like if I did it that way. But I do also like the aspect of [how] in my album there’s poetry, but also singing and vocals. The ways in which the poem can be sung, it can feel like a lullaby. And that was one of my other intents with my album: I wanted it to feel almost like a grandparent telling you the story. That’s the wonderful thing, I think, with music especially. I really love the places that it can take you and the ways in which you can sort of move through time. You can be in a nostalgic moment while already being somewhere else 30 years from now. 

Anyway, I’m kind of rambling — does that resonate with you? What was it like for you on the flip side of it, where you’re not using Darwish’s poetry, but you’re getting to the heart of the spirit? Do you see [the songs] as interpretations? Is it a variation? Is it a dialogue?

Ryan: Yeah, “dialogue” might be the best way to sum it up, to express the sort of back-and-forth nature of the relationship between the music and the poetry. You mentioned this, trying to capture this feeling of a grandparent telling a story, and I think that’s something that resonates with what I was trying to capture in working with Darwish poetry and in the music more generally. I think why, for example, the line “Jasmine on a night in July” really stuck out to me was a desire to capture and conjure some of the beautiful things about life in the Arab world, and also in the sort of broader Islamic cultural universe that feel threatened by the various situations that many in the Arab world, many across the Muslim world, and many in the rest of the former Third World face these days. Ultimately, the culture is built on a bedrock of being able to feed your families and live in safety, and when being able to feed your family and live in safety is jeopardized, all the culture built on top of that, no matter how many thousands of years it’s lasted, can suddenly feel at risk. 

And so I think part of the impetus for me was feeling that risk and wanting to respond to it with a kind of ode, or documenting of these beautiful things — the jasmine on the night in July, the heroism of people who can laugh in the face of a threat to their life from an occupying force, or who can find joy in those kind of dire circumstances, or in the simple, familiar things like the smell of bread in the morning. 

Sham-e-Ali: Absolutely. That resonates so deeply for me. And it’s interesting — when I described it to be a lullaby as though a grandparent were singing it, I was imagining not only my own grandparents, but that I am the grandparent. What is the lullaby I want to leave? That kind of touches on what you’re saying about centralizing life and uplifting the beauty of our mere existence. I think it’s a real existential trauma for many communities that are faced with a question of a right to belong in this life, when so many aspects of your culture might be erased, histories, and ultimately the lives of people. It’s a difficult question to grapple with for those communities that have to face it. 

And so I think that these reminders almost guide towards life, towards the idea that there are things bigger than the forces that might want to erase us. Those things really resonate with me. I asked myself the question, what is the lullaby I want to leave if I was the grandparent, and that was one of the ways I approached the work. It’s soft, it’s gentle, but it’s truthful. And I felt that a bit in your work, where there’s some gentleness, but also you feel at the same time you’re holding a grief. Could you share a little bit about that?

Ryan: Yeah. I’m not sure if I would call it grief, exactly, in my own case. I do think there’s a sort of longing that I’ve tried to channel into the music, which is an emotion — or I don’t even know if emotion is the right word, but longing is a theme that has a rich history in Islamic poetry, as a sort of metaphor for our alienation from God, and desire to be closer to God with the knowing that ultimately overcoming that alienation is impossible in our own life. 

That’s at the heart of a lot of Sufi poetry, but has also been translated into a lot of secular poetry, where the resonance of the metaphor between the longing for God and the longing for a beloved, and the similar sort of pain of not being able to overcome that distance, has fed the aesthetic of a lot of poetry of a lot of Arabic music that is secular. Many of the great songs of [Umm] Kulthum or Fairuz draw on these themes. Of course, in Fairuz’s case, she’s not even Muslim. But, yeah, longing is sort of the main emotion I was thinking of in that sense. Longing, I think in my case, to feel a greater connection to the homeland and to the culture, as someone who grew up here in the United States and I don’t speak Arabic fluently. So there has always felt this sense of alienation from what feels most properly like home, even though it’s a place I’ve visited only intermittently in my life. 

I think it also relates to when you mentioned the lullaby again, and the sort of act of passing on these stories to the next generation, which the poetry in your music touches on. I feel like that also gets at something that maybe both of us are trying to do, which is to really pick the stories carefully, because ultimately, who we remember defines who we are. And who and what we remember, and how we remember it, is so fundamental to identity. I mean, in our own world, the Muslim world, the difference of how one remembers a battle in Iraq several hundred years ago is a fundamental difference that divides vast communities. Similarly, how communities remember who Abraham’s first son was is a pretty significant schism that divides billions of people in the world. And while these things are mostly now acts of symbolic remembrance, they’re symbolic remembrances that really define who we see ourselves as today. I think a similar thing would be how Palestinians, even Christians, infuse so much meaning into Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, because remembering them and remembering their special place in the world is seen as essential to what it is to be a Palestinian. 

Do you feel that there are similar things for you that you were trying to capture and pass on in that way? I guess for me, there’s such a sense of these things being at risk or in peril. Is that something that you feel?

Sham-e-Ali: I definitely feel that there is risk and peril and erasure as someone who is a muslim that was born in Hyderabad, which is located in South India. There’s active erasure taking place of my communities, cultures, histories, architectures, and lives, sadly. For me, my album — I’ve described it as a “hologram love note.” It’s a love note. It is about love. And it’s sort of like how you were describing just the beauty of bread, and these beautiful things that we’re surrounded by that are imbued with life. We hold on to those things, especially when they are at risk. It’s almost like this is the job of the living — we are the ones that can keep uplifting that life while we have our own. You can’t kill ideas, you can’t kill beauty, you can’t kill art. we create. They move on despite any attempts at erasure of it. And so when I was creating this album, to me it was almost like trying to uplift beauty. Thinking about the connections that we have to big things — nature, spirit, our relationship with our own ancestors — those connections can’t be taken away. They are infinite. They live on. Those conversations continue despite any attempts at erasing them. 

And so one of my intents was to try to create a love note to uplift these aspects that — and I certainly find this in Darwish’s poetry — provide some fortitude to the human spirit in the face of the existential trauma of being told you don’t belong on this earth, almost like you never existed. But have, in fact, and do exist, and we will continue to exist. And we do have our grandparents’ stories that they passed to us, that are full of this life and full of this relationship to nature and beauty, and our own beautiful human experience.

So, yes, I also very much relate to what you were sharing about longing. I use the word “grief,” but to me, I see longing as a sort of a grief, even in the separation from God. You know, that longing is filled with grief because, of course, we want to be reunited in this way with our beloved, and it’s the same for the longing for those that we love who have passed, and the longing for home, for even a sense of belonging. It’s a really difficult thing to hold all the time, feeling like you have to prove your right to exist in this world. What does it look like, instead, to focus on the aspects of our human spirit that are already in a state of belonging? To me, I find that in nature, and I certainly find that in reference to our loved ones. And [I find that] absolutely in [how] all of us have the ability to create. I feel like that is a reflection of God, the ultimate creator. When we create, we are almost in reverence to God. And so I wanted to uplift those aspects while also holding on to memory and dignity.

Ryan: Yeah. That reminds me of the Walter Benjamin line that every generation is endowed with a weak messianic potential. And I think he is talking about each generation’s potential to redeem the sacrifices and the losses of the previous, and to sort of honor the dead in that way. Obviously this is a big theme in Jewish mysticism and messianism, as well as in Islamic culture. The theme of remembrance in Islam tends to be, above all, of God. But there’s also a strong thread of remembrance oriented toward certain historical events — Karbala, in a way you could say that the occupation of Jerusalem has become a sort of Karbala for the Palestinian community. 

And I bring that up because I think for me — and I’m curious if this resonates for you as someone who describes yourself as a “recovering social justice lawyer” — I always have the anxiety of being a musician and feeling like what I do is sort of worthless on some level, that the things that most concern me in the world are not things that I’m going to address in any way by doing music. That in itself is a difficult thing because, I feel stuck: Well, this is what I can do, but how do I make this in some way meaningful and geared toward what feel like are the greatest dangers, or the greatest problems as I see them? And I think the rationale I’ve at least settled on, whether it means anything or not, is that if each generation is faced with the potential to redeem the sacrifices of the past, that potential itself — the possibility of redemption — rests on remembrance. People cannot redeem sacrifices that they’ve forgotten. And they cannot honor the dead if they’ve forgotten who they were and what they died for. So I think our role as people who create music or poetry or stories of any kind is, we serve as the ones who remember, and create acts of remembrance that hopefully make that redemption one day possible.

Sham-e-Ali: I mean, this is something Darwish actually spoke about a lot: What is the role of poetry in this? He has said, “I see poetry as spiritual medicine.” He has said, “poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful, you find coexistence and it breaks walls down.” I also remember he said, “I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light.” I think at some point later, he did even ask the question, “Am I doing anything with this poetry?” [Laughs.] I don’t know where that quote is.

Ryan: It was always on his mind. Especially as someone who could fill soccer stadiums to recite his poetry, I think it’s very funny. For me, it feels so small, music, as far as, how can this mean anything? But I think for him, it was quite the opposite. It was clearly — and not in an arrogant way, but — “people fill up soccer stadiums to hear me. Am I doing anything that merits that?”

Sham-e-Ali: Yeah. But then he would say, “against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility, like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by.” I can’t tell you just how important his work has meant to me as an artist, how much hope he’s offered me from his words, how many times his words have saved my life, even if he might not realize that’s the impact that he’s had on so many, not just myself. Art, music, poetry — it’s a reminder of our humanity, when we’re constantly being dehumanized. And that does something. I know there’s something there. That’s what is in our grandparents’ stories, that’s in the lullabies that they share with us.

In his poem “To a Young Poet,” Darwish said, “A poem in a difficult time is beautiful flowers in a cemetery.” So, the poem and the song itself might not stop this death, but it may offer comfort for those of us surviving and trying to live and hold close to life. I really relate in terms of my own relationship to my art and the things that I care about. Would we ever stop bringing flowers to the cemetery? Never. Music is so beautiful because it can capture the secrets of this world, the mystery of this world, without words, and I love that to be a place for a poem to live.

And that’s kind of what I was trying to get at when I was saying it felt like a spacious place for the poem — it expands the things that you’re trying to communicate at the heart of a piece without using words, and I find that to be so beautiful and comforting. You can be in multiple places at once. You can be in Philadelphia and still be connecting to Hyderabad.

It’s been a real pleasure to get to talk to you. I can’t wait ‘til March 10 [when Ryan’s record was released].

Ryan: Yeah, likewise. Really great talking to you and getting to know you a bit. I look forward to talking more in the future, and also getting to meet in person.

Sham-e-Ali: Inshallah. Talk to you soon.

Ryan El-Solh is an Arab-American guitarist based in New York. His latest record, Jasmine on a Night in July, with his trio Scree, is out now.