From Aalav to Almeeshaan — An Exclusive and Extended Interview with Zeeshaan Nabi

Aug 31, 2021

In this extensive interview, Zeeshaan Nabi—vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for the band Ramooz—discusses his latest solo release (Almeeshaan), his work as an independent musician and the virtues and struggles of working as an artist in the emerging contemporary Kashmiri music scene. Nabi further elaborates on his creative process, the subject-matter that shapes his music, and his varying roles as a solo artist, founding band member, studio producer, teacher, and musician driven by the need to constantly experiment and innovate in his evolving artistic practice. Accompanied by a variety of photographs, videos and media, this interview, a first of its kind, is the result of 22 questions emailed to the artist. It represents the dedicated standard at which Inverse Journal wishes to engage with the work of artists, creatives, and academics from multiple fields and backgrounds.

Inverse Journal: Hello Zeeshaan, welcome to this extensive interview. To begin with, can you tell us a bit about how Almeeshaan—your latest solo project—came about. What does the title mean? How did you come up with Almeeshaan as a song concept?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Thank you for such elaborate and thoughtful questions. To answer first your question, Almeeshaan is an amalgamation of a lot of things, it's not one particular event, or an emotion, it's rather multiple events, personal and particular, and in fact, it's almost autobiographical in nature. The way the song came about is odd and interesting, especially to me. It all started with my broken my guitar named "Shams"—a Cort Earth Grand. I had recorded our debut album on it and apart from that, I remember it was Khalid bhai [from the band Parvaaz] who had suggested that I buy that particular guitar. I had been guitarless for months, and I finally got a new one, and it was during an internship that I had conducted at Meerakii Studio and during a songwriting session that I came up with the song.

A still from the set of Almeeshaan, with Shams, Zeeshaan's broken guitar.

At the time, I was demonstrating to our interns how one can use stream of consciousness to write and record a song on the spot. I had no clue what I was writing or doing, it all seemed to be just happening in the moment. It took me a couple of hours to complete all the added layers that I was recording (made up basically of voice and a guitar) when I realised that what I had come up with was a reflection—a reflection of realities that I keep suppressing and hidden most of the time. In fact, one of the interns—Aashti Kazmi—is also featured on this track on background vocals. While recording the song, all the interns were present in the room and this whole process was immersive. 

A visual of classroom activites conducted by the students from Zeeshaan's internship.

Almeeshaan is basically a mixture of three names, alter-egos that have aged with me and the lyrics are a journey and a conversation between these three subjectivities. Now, at least that is how I relate to the song; its a personal memoir, an acceptance of things as they are. I stopped fighting with all the chaos within and just let it be as it is and that’s when Shams” came into my mind. The struggle to coexist as a being within the body and finally accepting and letting go of the masks that keep subduing reality from all its majesty and horror is a core message within this song. 

While composing the song, it just opened a broader dialogue in my mind, as an artist, I began to ask where do we stand? The struggle that we keep on talking about, in our own wayshow can it be transmitted through music, and in a creative way? In this, I was asking myself how does one break away from the norm, to purely exist as who one is? It is a quintessential question that many of us have asked of ourselves at one point or another. Almeeshaan tries to enquire that sonically as well as lyrically. I had not even set up the microphones properly to record it. It just felt like an urge to rant. If you listen to the melody, its purely a conversationwo, mein aur tum, hum hain kahan? (they/her/him, you and me, where are we?) I love how metaphors plant themselves in my mind, and its not forced. As I was coming up with the song, Shams” was also in the room, shrouded in a guitar gig bag, and I couldnt take the image of the broken guitar out of my head.

Regarding the structure and lyrical meaning of the song, I personally think it is one of the tracks I want to leave completely up to the interpretation of the listener. I think everyone will have a personal journey, an inner one, and the song with its video both act like a mirror and I would like to keep its own intrigue intact before offering too many of my own interpretations, which anyway could change or evolve through time. 

Structurally, it doesnt follow any particular standard. I don’t see this piece of music like that. However, the word rind” (possibly the chorus on the song too) means drunkard but if you look at the lyrics, it means being intoxicated/submerged into this journey of seeking. For me, the song represents the acceptance of how life is, instead of how you want it to be, yet consistently, subconsciously being in this state of trance, the love for what you do, even though it feels like being Sisyphus most of the times.

Inverse Journal: What was the process of composition for this song like? What instruments did you use? What other work did you put in inside your studio to perform and then record the song as it has come out?

Zeeshaan Nabi: As I explained in the previously, the process simply involved venting out the tied-up knots in a single session through sound. I have just used an acoustic guitar and my vocals and layering them together, including the percussion, one on the other. Regarding the process, I woke up one day, told my interns that we were going to explore songwriting using a particular method and it doesnt matter how it turns out, what matters is the process, with an emphasis on learning how to stay in that process. So, I set up just one microphone on the guitar. Otherwise, I usually prefer two and one on the vocals. I set a tempo, and simply started recording. Its actually as simple as that, I stuck with an idea and recorded it.

Zeeshaan Nabi setting up the mic for a recording in his studio.

Once a couple of guitar layers were done, I jumped to the vocals and sang those parts. I just re-recorded if the song went off the tempo or off pitch, but there was no change in the original idea. It sounds insane to me right now but thats how this song was born. Just to clarify, when I say I recorded it in one go, it does mean one take. I did go for multiple takes but kept the core idea of not changing anything conceptually and keeping the original and improvised composition intact. Once it was done, I started to mix it and there it was. 

Inverse Journal: You are a composer, songwriter, folktronica musician, founder and leader of a contemporary rock band (Ramooz) as well as the founder of a recording studio in Srinagar (Meerakii). Tell us how all these roles that you play in the field of music converged to produce this song.

Zeeshaan Nabi: Every role has different responsibilities attached to it. Although I deem myself as not as responsible a person as I would like, these roles teach me, help me expand my horizons to experiment more. I dont fear experimenting, What I fear is the incapability or incapacity to put it all out in a concrete form. Every artist has a need to have people who can relate to their work and for me numbers don’t matter, but quality does, and so does connection. I see myself fulfilled if the music creates that unique connection with each listener.

As a music producer, I see things very objectively, but as a composer, I set myself free and don't hold back. I don't like my songs being caged or contained in a box in some formulaic format or according to the stylistic and formal structures of a particular genre. My songs decide what they want to be, so to speak. In a parallel manner, I find multiple ways to establish balance in my compositions with a technical mindset in place for whenever refinements are required. In other musicmaking scenarios, my work with Ramooz—my band—inspires more of an emotional side in me that also seeps into some of my solo work. Ayan and Shinu—my bandmates—are an intrinsic part of my musical journey and it all brews within those four walls where we congregate to improvise, compose, jam, and develop our musical ideas together

Srinath S. Kumar (Shinu), drummer and founding member of the band Ramooz

Ayan Joe, bassist and founding member of the band Ramooz

Inverse Journal: Coming back to Almeeshaan, how did you come up with the concept for the video? Who did you choose to work with for the video and how was it scripted and how did you storyboard the video?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Once the audio was done, I dont remember when exactly it was because it was so "spur-of-the-moment", but I thought of producing a video for this song and approached Rayees Amin (from Roomi Studios) for the video. The process was as organic as the production of the song itself. I explained what I wanted from it and we didnt prepare a scriptinstead we had an anchor point (based on the idea of alter egos) and since the song lyrics are slightly autobiographical, I just had to address facts. I was sure about the visuals evoking the surreal, and the idea of a world within a world and perhaps a deep-dive into my personal space. It is intimidating to approach a visual concept that way and for me, with this song, it is just the beginning of that process.

Filmmaker and director Rayeem Amin from Roomi Studios on the set of Almeeshan music video.

I wanted the visuals to contain a more subjective side related to the lyrics from an autobiographical standpoint, and less of an image or a projection that gets created when one shoots a protagonist-driven video. We scouted a few locations and the landscape told us what to do, it was improvisational, as I wanted it to be. Rayees and I were on the same page and not to forget Suhaib’s inputs, which were spot on. What happened with the song, happened with the video as well. It is this idea that with whatever resources are around, as a composer I create music that produces a language of its own, and sometimes I feel I read into that language that emerges from the silence and from the meditative quality of making music in an improvisational setting. With Rayees, the same happened on an improvised set as we looked around, Rayees began to retrieve whatever he could and formulate that visual language in his mind to develop a concrete idea on how he was going to direct and produce the visuals for the video. I reintroduced the masks in this video as well because I am fighting with my faces from within and this song—as can be seen in the video—burnt some along the way.

Inverse Journal: The concept of “the self without” or “the self outside of the self” figures prominently in some of your work, whether we look at representations of a protagonist in the Aalav video with Ramooz or Almeeshaan where we see two Zeeshaans occupying one frame in at least two instances depicted within the video. What is the thinking, philosophy, and reasoning behind such depictions and portrayals? What interests you conceptually in portrayals of this sort?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Identity has always intrigued me considering where I come from, it has always been a question mark of sorts. Who am I?” and how I interact with my surroundings and how they reflect back, has shaped how I exist, what I believe in and what I choose to stand for as a human beingand that too coming from Kashmir. There is nothing fancy about it, it is actually quite tiring to constantly meditate on such questions far beyond a social plane and within one's solitude, we all do it to a certain extent.

The reason such preoccupations have been a part of my work is because they are a major part of my life and as I live it. I can’t recall a single Kashmiri who does not experience a fractured sense of identity, stuck between being who they are to themselves and those around them and who they are to the greater powers that control much of human life in my place of birth. Who I am when I am being checked or frisked—or looked at with great suspicion—is totally different from who I am when I perform on stage or sit around the house with my family.

There is this constant process of de-humanisation that is compensated for by the re-humanisation we find through the proximity we share with our loved ones. The outside world many times seems a place where the soul accumulates rust and residue in its many mirages that appear so real. I guess the song and with how the video turned out sort of tries to address that process of letting go by peeling away all those layers of rust and residue that accumulate as we get older and the world shapes us to its own tyrannical making.

A still from the music video for Almeeshaan.

From a Kashmiri perspective, it is not normal to have to deal with such fractures in your notion of self, and it sort of does damage you as you grow up with these selves that are not allowed to freely consolidate. I think I have said it so many times and I am never tired of repeating it: what we absorb is what we reflect. The protagonist in Aalav is trying to enquire something more than self in venturing out as seen in the video, whereas Almeeshaan is more of an internal enquiry. They undoubtedly have the same genesis but their journeys emerge from different contexts. I think there is no complete “me”, we are ever-evolving beings and sometimes the mirror shows more than one should see and conceptually, it is the portrayals of this sort that interest me.

The music video for Aalav, by Ramooz

Inverse Journal: In both the Aalav video and this Almeeshaan video we see that the protagonist is on a quest of some sort, a journey by foot navigating a space and going from a starting point to a concrete destination. How important and valuable is it to maintain an element of intrigue, mystery, and blurriness in your music videos? Does it match your compositional style?

Zeeshaan Nabi: The reason why we see a journey of sorts in the visuals is because as  human beings and as a people, that is what all of us are doing. A journey by foot is an apt metaphor for how I see human life, and we’re constantly seeking something, the itch to dive into the unknown is in each one of us to a great extent. A life without purpose is more miserable than how miserable life already is or can be. At least you have moments of hope when you have a purpose. I would say all my songs point to a journey, and in a broader sense, everything is a journey of some sort; we are constantly arriving and leaving spaces and we also travel through time through our thoughts and memories. This reflects in both the videos, we set out to discover something only to move ahead to find seek a finality of some sort. The reason I keep it that way is because nothing stays, its surely gradual and ever-moving. I breathe but there will be a day that the breath will exhaust itself and my being will move on to something unknown. That life in itself sets a stage for that final step is intriguing. I think many of us would approach our existence and our activity on this planet and our human world quite differently if we looked towards the horizon and internalised that finality as part of life. 

A still from the music video for Almeeshaan.

Coming back to Almeeshaan and just simply making music in general, since art is the best way to portray the subjective, I think a sense of ambiguity is carried all along, yet there’s a strong clear guiding light, almost contrasting which keeps the visuals in such videos from becoming mundane. I see a beautiful absurdity in all of it and that surely spills into my compositional style, there is a guiding light but then there are these blurry patches and the mystery surrounding it all and I am sure I explore other things as well as I go along. In that way, I think both videos are metaphors for the artmaking process, especially when one thinks that creating and life go hand in hand, and both are fraught with uncertainty and that essential element of intrigue, which in many ways propels each one of us forward, to go forth as far as we can. 

Inverse Journal: You have earlier said that Almeeshaan arrived while you were teaching your interns at Meerakii Studio. Can you tell us about the internship program you developed? What sorts of concepts and skills did your students learn? What were your syllabus and studio activities like? Did you get positive feedback from the experience?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Well, to begin with, I believe music can be explored and learned through exploration. The course I have developed focuses on how we can interact with sound, creating new ways to look at a piece of music and the different ways it can be performed. I introduced graphic notation, sound art, music production as core concepts to build this program, while keeping the traditional concepts of learning music as a part of the process. The idea was to push the boundaries of music making, while focusing on how we can stay totally involved in the act and performance and not think of or be influenced by the outcome. The 14-day workshop ended up with 10 experimental works by the interns where they made music involving found sound, music production, performance and graphic notation. The students ended up refining their music making process and learning how to make music in an alternative form while enhancing their own creative productions as we went along.

Students at work at the internship held by Zeeshaan Nabi at Meerakii Studio.

We had students from various backgrounds, including visual arts students, petroleum engineers, etc. The part that I love the most about conducting these workshops is that I get to learn so much, it is really exciting! Revisiting music history and theory through this experimental lens has proven to render great results. We explore concepts as chance music using numbers, colour, images and in fact, I am already getting calls for another session, which I believe counts as positive feedback. New age/experimental music fascinates me and I try to transmit that to the students to break them out of the molds of their preconceived notions of what music is and can potentially be

Inverse Journal: What is in store for your fans and the audience as far as Ramooz is concerned? What is coming after your earlier live performances and the release of Aalav?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Ramooz as a project does not want to compromise on what it has to offer, hence, the pace at which we release official content—such as songs on our first album and the subsequent music videos—is quite slow. However, in a way, it works to our advantage. We are currently re-recording parts of our album and I think, by September-ending, we will be done with the album's final mix. Fingers crossed! We will be releasing another music video before dropping the album.

Since performing spaces are slowly opening to the general public again, we are getting gigs again and our concert at The Piano Man on September 1st will be our first one in almost a year! We will be following that up with a three-hour live show at Space Sessions on September 18th. It has been a while since we get an opportunity to perform live in front of an audience and not through digital screens, so we've been preparing an extensive set list with songs that our listeners are familiar with plus additional tracks and improvised material that always adds something new to playing live in front of our audiences.

Ramooz performing live at The Piano Man Jazz Club.

Inverse Journal: Tell us about the process of collaboration that made the Almeeshaan music video possible and how you collaborate with creatives from different fields. What is the dynamic of work between you like in such creative scenarios?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Almeeshaan required someone who sort of envisions what I wanted for this track, especially since I am very enthusiastic about projects that are constantly evolving. I had spoken to Rayees before and he was a perfect fit for this collaboration along with Suhaib. The same was with the album art as well; Numair sensed the emotion the track demanded. 

Cover art for Almeeshan by Numair Qadri.

Rayees and I would talk about each scene and most of the times end up improvising on spot. I remember we had this running sequence and Rayees asked me to take my shoes off. It was freezing and I couldnt feel my feet as I walked the frozen and icy path in the dead of winter, and he had me repeat this sequence in couple of scenes. Also, different versions of me in the video can be seen with slight changes to clothing and appearance to perhaps point out that there is no singular protagonist, but multiple selves in pursuit of something, and that part added to the final layer.

The shooting was slightly challenging but a valuable experience, I couldnt have made this without them considering the execution. Plus each time I get to work with filmmakers, editors, producers, visual artists, videographers and other creatives, it strengthens the idea that the Kashmiri music scene is about teamwork and inclusiveness and this idea that there are clear instances where we can work and grow together. I guess we can expect more from such collaborative efforts.

Filmmaker and director Rayeem Amin from Roomi Studios with assistant director Suhaib Mushtaq on the set of Almeeshan music video.

Inverse Journal: What are the similarities and differences in how you work as a solo artist versus how you work in a three-man band like Ramooz? Does the composition and song-writing process differ or are there any similarities that you see?

Zeeshaan Nabi: As three different individuals, we have a lot to bring to the table and unique ideas adding to the collective sound. However, on my own, the whole language of making music takes a different turn for me. The approach differs and I guess it comes naturally to all of us when we are by ourselves. It also depends on the genre and the type of music I end up making in these two headspaces, as a solo artist and in my work with Ramooz. The band functions more like a trio with a bit of sound synthesis added to it apart from its core, prog/folk foundations. Nonetheless, as a solo act, I tend to recklessly experiment. The basic songwriting does permeate into what I do with Ramooz, but adding two powerful forces to the unit, Ayan and Shinu, the music making process expands and explodes in all sorts of ways that surprisingly (to us) take a unique direction, and that is best reflected in the sound we produce and the distinctive style that emerges when we join forces.

A performance by Zeeshaan Nabi from 2016 live at KM Music Conservatory

Inverse Journal: Tell us about the symbolic and visual language found in the video. There are certain elements that are common between Ramooz’ Aalav video and this Almeeshaan video. For example, both videos depict a journey of sorts by a protagonist. In both videos the protagonist observes himself from a vantage point, as if looking into a reality that mirrors him. In both videos there are masks, bonfires, burning or burnt papers with writings on them. What is the meaning behind such depictions and most importantly, are we expecting to see a visual micro-universe where one song and the world depicted within one song is related to another world depicted in another song? Is there a sequential thread that ties your songs together, whether as a solo artist or as a founder of Ramooz?

Zeeshaan Nabi: As an artist, when I look at it from the perspective of making music that is directly connected to my life, it is quite obvious that these creative productions will have their own soul, which sort of comes out through my experience or through an applied imagination. The journey becomes a central part of my music and even when we enquire deeper into this persona that emerges as a protagonist or a set of protagonists in search for something, there are multiple layers attached to such compositions. The behaviour of this body in a social setting immersed into a geo-politically disturbed area and the effect it has on an individual reflects like a mirror. Now, this mirror has quite a bit to show, sometimes the ugly and sometimes the hopeful. The mirror shows different sides of oneself, at times things that one didnt even know that existed. I try not to be a literalist, so I don't intentionally want to spell it all out, to be able to genuinely engage with the listeners and viewers, to ignite their imaginations and sense of intrigue.

A still from the music video for Almeeshaan.

All of my music seeps out of this surreal exploration and the videos thus far operate like reflections in a mirror, where what is shown points directly to the one who is looking. Metaphorically, that could be me or you, the viewer, if we consider that sometimes art mirrors reality. The masks are the facades that we either put on, or burn to purge ourselves of the falsehoods that surround us. We all wear them every day and forget about it. I try to navigate through that forgotten memory, hence, Aalav and Almeeshaan might provide meditations about different subjects but they are connected to this same personality, a symbolic entity that represents a fractured Kashmiri identity and the subject it produces and that is ultimately untied from any sense of pretense as “the journey” progresses, leading to an epiphany of sorts—hopefully in the viewers and the listeners as well

Inverse Journal: What was it like working all by yourself on this interim solo project? Did you feel limited or restricted in any way without your two bandmates? Or was there a completely different process involved in making Almeeshaan that is different from the way you work in Ramooz and its two other members (Ayan Joe and Srinath S. Kumar)?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Working all by myself is fun. I like to keep banging on the same wall again and again, in different ways and somehow, what I see at the end of this journey connects with me, and that is what matters. And if we look at it from this perspective, I dont particularly feel restricted in my independent explorations in music. Whether as a solo artist or while working with my band, the studio space is my place of comfort, so what could possibly go wrong there?

I am able to create a space of my own that allows me to suspend myself from social and societal ties, and to operate as an individual in my solitude, from where I can observe and reflect on the world beyond those four soundproof walls and a roof above my head. It becomes an ideal space for such contemplation from where all sorts of ideas emanate, and I’d think that it is much like an artist’s studio in that sense, except that it has that added benefit of being soundproof. That allows me to go deep within myself and drive my emotions, feelings, thoughts and ideas through sound with a needed distance from everything and everyone else. In the case that I am working alone or on a solo project, my bandmates are always my first listeners and critics if ever a need for feedback is required.

Zeeshaan Nabi teaching at his internship program conducted at Meerakii Studio.

Both Ayan and Srinath are the first people who get to listen to whatever I make as a solo artist. So even when I am alone in my creative process, I know that at end of concrete creative activities that lead to new songs, arrangements and compositions, that there are always very special people on the other side of that process and that space, who become the first ones to experience what I come up with. In that sense, there is this duality that comes about: on the one hand I am alone as is direly required for my creativity to propel itself forward, and on the other, I am always accompanied by those who I know will be the first to see and experience what I come up with.

That creates a positive pressure of sorts to produce work that is brought out with a sense of finality or in a final draft format, because I know that the ones who get to listen to such work are adept and have certain expectations of their own, not only expert musicians but also as experienced listeners of music. The best part is that because I have developed such strong bonds with them, there is absolute honesty as far as their potential feedback and even criticism. I am also lucky to have developed strong friendships in the creative community, such that if at times I need to share my work (before an official release) with visual artists, filmmakers, beatboxers, poets, writers, academics and intellectuals, the same type of straightforward honesty is there.

The same goes for my parents, my siblings and family members who are highly musically inclined, because the love for the arts runs in our family, and so it is only natural that I share my creations with them as well. So not only do I have a backbone of support from my bandmates in my solo work, I also count on so many others, both family and friends, in this creative process, such that I feel I am alone and together with them to a certain level, and that definitely keeps my spirits elevated and also serves as an added motivation and encouragement whenever I need it.

Zeeshaan Nabi live at Jhelum Cafe.

Inverse Journal: The depictions of Kashmir, its multiple spaces and its landscape have become stereotyped many times in Bollywood films and even in music videos by Kashmiris who seem to be comfortable with adopting the Bollywood mode of depicting Kashmir and its landscape. However, in both Aalav and Almeeshaan, the way Kashmir’s landscape and the Kashmiri spaces are depicted is altogether original and far different from the aforementioned Bollywoodesque depictions. Would you care to comment and elaborate on this? How do you distinguish your depictions from the more mainstream and stereotypical ones?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Kashmir’s landscape has been highly exoticised over the years, to a point where the place has been reduced to, and conveniently packaged as, just a “visual treat” for people (many times from abroad) that overshadows the ground reality of the place. It has been challenging to try and achieve surrealist visuals/storylines and coming as close to the reality as possible without being literalists. I wouldn’t say Aalav or Almeeshaan has achieved what I had envisioned, but the process has begun to reach that level of using visual subtlety to point to something greater or more abstract beneath the apparent surface.

If we compare any of the Bollywoodesque videos shot in Kashmir, there are selective elements employed for a particular purpose. For example, people are depicted as if they are truly the custodians of this 'heavenly land' and their purpose of life is to serve the ‘visitors’ traveling to snow-clad mountains, without any signs or visuals of the prevalent militarisation, and everyone is smiling—it is a sort of infantilisation and convenient simplification put on display for everyone except the Kashmiris themselves and it creates a dissonance of sorts from what happens on the ground versus what is shown in the frame.

A still from the music video for Almeeshaan.

My point isn’t that the people of Kashmir aren’t welcoming despite the circumstances they have had to survive under, what I am trying to say is that living under the shadow of fear has been normalised and that fear is what I have wanted to consciously remove from my visuals—because for me it is what is required to be able to elevate a creative method to portray a reality that beyond the seemingly pleasant and idyllic visuals is grotesque and brutal at the same time.

My vision for such videos emphasizes on the more subtle aspects of portraying the seemingly beautiful with the bluntly grotesque, and I strongly think that the subtlety conveys in stronger tones what being literal ever could. I also seek a different set of portrayals beyond the mediatised image of Kashmir that appears in the media, because we have also become accustomed to such visuals, and I think in artmaking we have to rely on a more figurative and metaphorical language that makes listeners and viewers work harder to excavate deeper meanings. 

Even though you will come across snow, mountains, and surreal landscapes in my videos and those made with Ramooz, what happens within these spaces is what separates a specific brand of propagandist storytelling built on mediatized narratives from my work—there is a way to portray such snow, mountains, and landscapes but interspersing human realities and the attached stories within such visuals in a subtle form. Take for example the music video for Aalav, the protagonist reaches this beautiful hill with a lonely tree, he starts digging what seems to be like a grave in the snow and a faceless man emerges from within that snow-clad grave. That, in my view, is our reality, a struggle between appearing and disappearing in silence while the world continues with its noise and hum-drum.

Two stills from the ending of the music video for Aalav.

We have become burnt down houses in a lush green meadow, and we house silence while the forgotten screams of decades and centuries inhabit us from within. It is every Kashmiri’s reality, hence, what we show in the videos intends to break these stereotypical structural and scripted narratives of portrayal that you see so commonly. I personally emphasize on a sort of metaphorical abstraction, both in my music and in the visuals that accompany the compositions—in both cases, you have to read between the lines and dig deeper into the visual frames to get to a greater understanding.

The intent here is to steer far away from the literal to give strength to the figurative, and not serve everything without a sense of intrigue. And in part, we do this as a service to our intended audiences, with a great sense of regard for them, in that they are not simply consumers of sound and visuals, but highly intelligent and intriguing people with a tendency to reflect on the multiple interpretations of their own that they derive from our music, in its sound and in the moving image that accompanies it along with the lyrical content that structures what we release into the world.  

Inverse Journal: There are frequent references to family and relationships in your songs and videos. Where can we find those references in the song and in its video when it comes to Almeeshaan?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Almeeshaan is driven by the idea of the relationship with oneself, the relation within all the voices that reside within oneself. If you listen to the lyrics, woh, mein aur tum, hum hai kahan? [he, she, they, and you, what place do we inhabit?] it is basically referring to three different you’s, essentially that great postmodern question of the subject in the theory of communication, wherein a message has an addresser, an addresse and a referential entity, such that the notion of self and other are always intertwined, and the subjective noise, and the feedback produced confuse such notions of “you, me, he/she, they/them, and I.” These are the type of ideas that we discuss here and there among friends, and they have an impact on the way my creative and thinking process takes specific turns.

Two stills from the beginning of the music video for Aalav.

The masks reappear in this new video as well, referring to the multiple disguises we put on, and frequently, some of them are the results of conditioning that we go through, or maybe some masks are born out of societal pressures, some are meant to be kept and some are destined to be burned to gain a greater proximity to truth and in that sense, to be at one with a true self.

A still from the music video for Almeeshaan.

For the mystics, that has been an eternal quest, to untie oneself from the knots of this earthly world to reach a spiritual plane, but as is often the case, in the videos we’ve produced, one can never reach that spiritual plane without scars, wounds and unblemished by the harsh realities of this world that create these divisions and schisms between the self and the other. The word Almeeshaan itself is a mix of three names.  

Inverse Journal: How did you manage to walk barefoot in the snow for so long for the video shoot? Did you suffer from frostbite?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Well, it was freezing, we were about to shoot our first shot and we came to a conclusion that in order to amplify the sense of “coldness” that that particular shot carries, I should feel it physically as well. What else could have been the outcome? I was asked to take my shoes off. It was painful but necessary.

 After that, the running sequence came, and I felt an excruciating pain!

A visual from behind the scenes for the Almeeshaan music video.

Two stills from the music video for Almeeshaan.

I simply couldn’t run after a point until my feet were numb but luckily not frostbitten, even though the experience of frostbite is something that all of us in Kashmir have experienced at some point or the other while wearing shoes and sox. Here the challenge was to go barefoot in freezing Kashmiri weather where the snow has hardened into solid ice on the ground, such that it sticks to the skin quite easily if you stay in one place without moving.

Inverse Journal: Did you really break your guitar for this music video? Tell us what actually happened.

It’s a long story. A lot of people asked why did I break the guitar for a video? The answer is that I did not, nor would I ever do that to Shams”, you cannot break an instrument that you have named. Basically, a few months ago, before this video, my friends and I went out to Gulmarg. It was fun, there was a bonfire and we were all siting around it and playing some music. Suddenly I got my guitar from the tent, and we started to jam. A friend of mine asked for it and I passed it on. I guess he got bored of not being able to play and kept it right behind him, as far as I can recall. A couple of minutes later I hear the sound of wood cracking and in that moment I hoped and wished for it to be anything else but my guitar. Unfortunately, my friend had stood up and stepped right on the middle of the body, breaking it completely. Almost like obliterating it.

A visual from behind the scenes for the Almeeshaan music video.

The moment that this happened, I simply couldn’t move. I was devastated, I had recorded all the tracks from our first album on it, and as I said previously, it was recommended to me by Khalid bhai, the lead and vocalist of Parvaaz. This guitar meant a lot more than just an instrument. Coming back to the crime scene, I got up and deep within, I wanted to give my friend a proper asskicking, but I obviously didn’t. R.I.P Shams, what a guitar! It sounded like life itself, full of soul and spirit. My friend was really sorry, he felt really bad so I just didn’t want to push it further or talk about it, at the end of the day, it was an accident. I will frame it, with a huge frame and hang it in my room because it does represent a huge part of my journey, and as many musicians would say, an instrument is an extension of their body, I feel the same way

Inverse Journal: You are involved in two official music videos so far, and both have snow and the Kashmiri winter in them. Is there a particular reason for this?

Zeeshaan Nabi: I guess the season that I associate my songs with is winter. The emotions these songs carry are not just cold but I would say, frozen in time and spacethe sense of feeling caged within yourself while your mind wanders into the realm of hope and into the space of dreams, that however remain encapsulated in and encroached upon by a grim and unchanging reality. Winter, snow, and masksthey are all metaphors for me. Also, all the songs written or arranged in this particular span of time—whether for the debut Ramooz album or for my solo work—carry a reoccurring line of thought. The whole album was born in that process where the Kashmiri winter and its snow figured recurrently, outside the steamy and vaporised studio window—seeping directly into the songwriting and creative process. In that way, it was only natural that the visuals found in the music videos would eventually evoke such imagery.

A still from the music video for Almeeshaan.

Inverse Journal: You could have easily gone into Bollywood’s mainstream music industry and risen to potentially make tracks that could have earned you a lot of money, considering you graduated from the music academy founded by AR Rahman. Why did you choose this more difficult path of the independent musician? What have been the benefits of such a choice and what have been the challenges?

Zeeshaan Nabi: There certainly were options that could have led me into a space where I wouldn’t lose the very reason why I do music. Although, I don’t think it that would have been easy either, but it would have been more damaging to the artist who resides within me and his relation to what is being created would have been shattered completely. Why I chose this path is because it feels like the more direct way to do what one loves. It is more about what I have to articulate as an individual and I don’t have to compromise my creative process or produce something that is geared towards a concrete idea of musicmaking that is set by a specific output or a particular audience and listeners tastes and likes.

The benefits are that one constantly gets to see what one is becoming, there is an immense scope for creativity, originality, and experimentation that one could only dream of in another setting. Being independent in the musicmaking process reflects such a clear image of oneself as an artist and how your surroundings affect you. The challenges involve keeping on rediscovering all sorts of microcosms within yourself and at the same time, the danger of getting trapped in what you become as a result. It’s mostly internal challenges that bother me more than the external ones, which one can master through time, learning, and experience. Take for example for what Steven Wilson does, he redefines his sound with each album. The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) album and The Future Bites are miles apart from each other, but in essence reflect the consistency in that self-exploration that is key to artistic growth. I take a lot from that independent and self-reliant way of making music in that way.

Zeeshaan Nabi in a group discussion conducted by A.R. Rahman at his Chennai-based music conservatory, KM College of Music & Technology.

The difficult part comes in with the financial pressure to deliver quality each time when you don’t have a record label or an entire team that is funded by a big studio working with you, so the releases take longer than they would in a scenario where a contract is signed and a sum of money allotted to make an album, a series of songs and their subsequent music videos released with an entire team, from administrative to creative managers, supporting and pushing that to happen. In my case, each release is a challenge of its own at each step, and luckily I have taken my time to bond with and appreciate the work of so many independent artists, from musicians, filmmakers, visual artists and others, who are pretty much in the same boat as me. We have built a community of sorts and it really helps to know that there is a limited yet very talented community of creatives who I can rely on to work with me, and that compensates for not having organisational backing and concrete funding to make all these projects reach the public in a much faster time span.

Inverse Journal: The quality of your music and the production value of the music videos you release makes it look like as if you were backed up by an international recording label like Sony BMG, Warner Music, RCA Records, or any of the bigtime players in the music industry. However, you work alone and finance yourself alone with backing from independent entities. What are the challenges that you face in producing such quality and music and videos produced at such a high standard? How do you finance such work? How long does it take to produce such work under such circumstances as an independent musician?

Zeeshaan Nabi: The answer to this is simpleit costs me more than just currency made from paper and ink, it’s the amount of frustration and disappointment that weighs you down when you know you have the skills, the experience and the will, but the resources just are not there to allow you to materialise your very concrete vision towards that quality that you know you are capable of. I am lucky enough to have parents who are supportive when things are extremely tight, otherwise I don’t see myself being able to do what I do. That’s one aspect of my story, the other is you learn to make the best out of what you have within set limitations.

I did not always have a studio available to me. I learnt ways to work more efficiently as a music producer and finally when I built Meerakii Studio, things started to fall into place, (creatively). I was humbled when Funkaar International backed the Aalav video along with support from my family. It takes a lot of time to create a body of work, from conceptualisation to the finished creative product, more than time, it’s the amount of effort that goes in. Right now, we are at the stage with the Ramooz album, where a few parts have to be re-recorded and if we did not have any source from which we could pay our studio hours, everything would get delayed even more than it has already. We don’t have people to fund our work or avenues where we earn and support ourselves. It then simply takes time. What becomes the surviving factor is the persistence to break this norm of delivering quickly in a world now obsessed with “social media trending” because once you reach there, things become better, and if not how they should be.

Inverse Journal: Music journalists have written about your solo work, classifying it as folktronica, a mix between contemporized Kashmiri folk music and electronica. Is that an accurate description for what you do in Almeeshaan as a composer, songwriter, and instrumentalist?

Zeeshaan Nabi: Quite frankly, I don’t like the idea of being tagged under a certain genre. Of course there are strong influences and they vary and in fact, more than not liking such classifications and categorisations, I think I don’t look at music in this way. However, if we look at Almeeshaan, it combines rich percussive layers with scattered chords and lush harmonies and a lot of guitarwork along with a spatial mix. If that fits the idea of folktronica, then yes, you can call it that if you like

Documents of Occupation, experimental composition by Zeeshaan Nabi, performed by Zubin Kanga and Anna Camara at Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music.

Inverse Journal: What direction do you see yourself taking as far as music in concerned? What can your fans and followers expect? What do you have lined up for the future?

Zeeshaan Nabi: I think, if things get better, I want to be on the stage and perform a lot, apart from that, there is a lot cooking right now, primarily the Ramooz album, a solo EP built from some of my experimental music, and of course I am producing music for some other artists as well. Also, as Ramooz, we are looking for people who can support us to reach these milestones quicker through funding and support to get our music out there as quickly as possible, since otherwise it takes months and months for each song release with the great need to also produce professionally-made music videos that are thought out and conceptualised with the same deep dedication as the musical compositions themselves

 Ramooz (Zeeshaan Nabi, Ayan Joe, and Srinath S. Kumar) performing their song Shaam e Firaaq live at The Piano Man Jazz Club Gurugram (on January 5th, 2020).

Inverse Journal:  Finally, do you have any advice for young aspiring musicians who are starting out and wish to consider musicmaking at a professional level?

Zeeshaan Nabi: I would say don’t listen to those who try to manipulate you into becoming like others. Own yourself and be honest to your music. Once you start practically applying that core philosophy to your developing sense of being an artist true to your art, work hard, give it your all, and if you can, go study music and make sure you always stay open to learning. Learn to keep patience, it is not going to be an easy journey. Music is such a powerful gift, it can transform into hope as well as hopelessness, depending on how many and what sort of challenges you face. It comes with a responsibility, and an obligation to constantly learn, grow, and expand. On a very technical level, studying, practice and then eventually, let the subconscious take over remember: focus on being the most authentic version of yourself and be giving, and you will get a lot more in return, both intrinsically and externally.

Almeeshaan

Credits:

Meerakii Studio in collaboration with Roomi studios

Written, composed and produced by Zeeshaan Nabi

Additional vocals: Aashti Kazmi

Mixed and mastered at Meerakii studio (Zeeshaan Nabi)

Album art: Numair Qadri

Director: Rayees Amin

Assistant direction: Suhaib Mushtaq

Edited by Rayees Amin

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