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Sham-e-Ali Nayeem
Moti Ka Shahar Shrey Kathuria , February 16th, 2023 09:10

From Hyderabad via the USA, poet-producer Sham-e-Ali Nayeem weaves a web of solidarity against a warp of electronic drones and trip hop beats

As I listen to the new album by Sham-e-Ali Nayeem, it's impossible for me to not grieve the loss of lives during the Delhi pogrom in 2020. On February 23rd of that year, the capital city of India saw one of the most horrific acts of state-sponsored violence against the Muslim community. The riots that unfolded after the passing of the controversial CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) in December 2019 resulted in the death of fifty-three people. But Moti Ka Shahar is not so much a record about one tragedy as it is about reminding the world of the violence that has been propagated towards minorities around the world.

Layered with stories of immeasurable loss, the album opens a space for solidarity – especially for anyone who has been told they don’t belong. It is an album dense both with narrative detail and sonic texture. Throughout the record, there is a looming poltergeist of breath sounds and vocables that expedite the haunting storytelling Nayeem has tried to build. Yet despite the emotional themes immersed in grief and trauma, Nayeem has put together a powerful record that is both inviting and enveloping. More than anything, it is about what comes after loss – which is resilience.

Back in 2019, Nayeem published a book of poetry called City of Pearls, published by Upset Press, an acknowledgement of her griefs towards her home city of Hyderabad, India. The album title Moti Ka Shahar is a direct translation of that name and an extension of her poems around grief and loss. Since the beginning, the album delivers the repetitive trip-hop sound of Massive Attack, laying a foundation for Nayeem’s crystal clear poetry. The opening track ‘Place of Birth’ (featuring Gabriela Riley) introduces Nayeem’s memories of Hyderabad through a ghostly collage of electronics and quiet spoken word.

Nayeem’s penchant for haunted songwriting gets clearer as the album progresses. On the track ‘Hypothetically Speaking’, Nayeem and Pakistani-American poet and singer Abeeda Talukder are heard traversing between their distinctive styles of poetry. The track also paves the way for a much deeper dive into the trip-hop aesthetics that have taken various shapes on this album. Engaging with a drone-like production in the form of a peaceful elegy, the album has a certain sense of ethereality – except it’s getting increasingly dark. The ether is there, but it seems further and further away. The album cover, that looks like a vestige of Lasse Hoile's artworks on early Steven Wilson records, extends that narrative, suggesting the accrescence of urban decay.

Although for the most part Nayeem’s poetry marries closely with the drum movements, Moti Ka Shahar is not devoid of subtle moments of compositional disconnect. For instance, the track ‘Goddesses and Doormats’ ends up loosely obscuring what in isolation sounds like excellent production. However, in the end, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem has painted a picture of a more resilient future, one that will resonate strongly with all minorities living under the threat of impending genocide.