Lyrically, American-Indian musician Sheherazaad weaves a visual mosaic of what she calls “this circus of the insane, carnival of the unhappy” in the sophomore track of her upcoming mini-album Qasr.
Musically, dramatic percussion, draped in reedy timbres of violin, chase Sheherazaad’s hauntingly intense vocals. “It suggests a very specific insanity — that of the immigrant experience. Nuances range from religious conflict, murder, sexual liberation, and beyond. The speaker who is descending into madness declares herself to be ‘this country’s crazy queen’. It’s the idea of a woman being the poster child of a healthy India. In ‘Dhund Lo Mujhe’, you get a glimpse into her very ill mind,” says the artiste from Northern California.
Produced by Grammy-winning Pakistani singer-composer Arooj Aftab, the song is among the album’s five melodies being released under independent record label Erased Tapes. The first one, titled ‘Mashoor’, was belted out last year. It explored the frailty of fame. This one expands on the model minority myth — a reference to the stereotyping of American minority groups, particularly those from Asia, as successful and well-adjusted, demonstrating no or little need for social or economic assistance. “Perhaps there was an aspiration to create a kind of neo-folklore that strips down mythology which has been imposed upon my people. ‘Dhund Lo Mujhe’ has threads of this,”shares Sheherazaad.
Linguistically, the album’s alternative-folk ballads are stitched with Urdu and Hindi.Sheherazaad, who shares her disenchantment with English as an emotive language after encountering British colonial history, admits to a disorientation resulting from long stays in India, where having a mixed North and South Indian heritage complicated her experience of identity and created a fracture in her known way of vocal expression. “I started to feel too American in one place and too Indian in the other. Singing in English felt phony, but attempting a traditional South Asian repertoire felt fraudulent too. It’s like I fell through the cracks; the cracks I’d eventually make my home,” she says.
Born in what she describes a “fanatically art-centred, Asian-American household”, Sheherazaad 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. She later trained with Hindustani classical guru Madhuvanti Bhide, and studied Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu in the late 2010s.
In 2020, she self-released underground project Khwaabistan, which garnered support from Arooj, but has been taken down to be re-released in future, and planted the seeds for Qasr. “Qasr was engendered during a time of family estrangement, grief over a lost elder and the racial polarisation of my country as I knew it. Arooj actually named the project, which I felt fitting. Translating to ‘castle’ or ‘fortress’ in Urdu, Qasr became a monument—like encapsulation of the real strains of displacement, the push and pull of diaspora, and the depravity of erasure and forgotten roots. But also it became an intangible home, a personal fortress during a time of personal-political upheaval,” she explains.
‘Dhund Lo Mujhe’ was born out of Sheherazaad’s visit to India during Covid, when her paternal grandfather was dying. “Initially, I’d developed a simple piano arrangement with vocals, where we then recorded some live, furious strings that didn’t quite fit. Runar, my colleague in Oslo, took over strings after Arooj had lent new insight into a more tentative, playful, sparser string arrangement. Then we added percussive elements as the whole thing took off, and topped it with Basma Edrees’s violin, which became a co-lead character along with vocals in my mind. I liked ‘Oh Sakhi’ as a binding lyrical phrase, because there’s this colloquial feel to it. The piece absorbed phrases in Bhojpuri and other Benarasi imagery, a gift of being immersed in Varanasi while composing,” she adds.
The desire to break away and create a more radical, queer dreamscapepropelled the idea to adopt an artiste name. “Scheherazade (as commonly spelled in the West) has been my favourite character since childhood for her ferocious storytelling ability that saves lives. Also, in Hindi and Urdu, Sheherazaad translates to ‘free city’. I love the idea of a person, especially a woman, being a ‘city’ entity in and of themselves,” she says.
When asked about how she feels to be an Indian-American musician, she says, “It’s quite lonely sometimes, till you find tribespeople, as I like to call them. It’s like wandering into unchartered waters. You see people who are doing glimmers of what you do, but you don’t entirely know where you’re going or why. There are these massive forces pushing and pulling you in several different directions. Sometimes, you go with the tide and sometimes you fight against it like hell.”
Qasr will be released on all music platforms on March 1.