The video opens with a drawing of an Indian woman, and Zain Alam sitting on a grass-covered hexagon in the middle of a white room, wearing all white and surrounded by bright green foliage. First he’s alone, and then two girls — also dressed in white — appear, dancing while Alam sings in a mixture of Hindi-Urdu and English. At some point, his kohl-circled eyes look longingly at a guitar across the room, and the girls try to stop him as he reaches for the instrument through the fronds. He eventually picks it up and sits on the floor, the guitar sitting in his lap like a sitar. The lyrics fade away into an interlude, and the video shifts to kaleidoscopic imagery.
“Running, running, running, running, get running, get running, run, run from the law,” Alam sings.
This is the music video for the song “For Love, From the Law,” the second video by Alam’s band, Humeysha, and the opening number on the band’s fourteen-track, self-titled debut. But it’s difficult to discuss the video in any more detail without further explanation: The song, which Alam wrote during a trip to India, is deeply tied to his family’s history; the two go hand in hand.
Alam’s family originates from Lucknow, India, but culturally spans Pakistan and India: His parents are both Pakistani citizens, and he has family in both countries. They were split by the 1947 partition, some ending up in India, some in Pakistan. His grandfather began telling him the family’s story, which fascinated Alam, when he was a child. So while attending college at Wesleyan University, he began taking South Asian history and politics classes.
He decided to write his undergraduate thesis on his relatives’ partition story, and ended up receiving grants to travel to India and Pakistan before his senior year of school. It was his first time in India, and he was the first person in his family to go back in forty years. As Pakistani citizens, his parents can’t travel to India; since Alam was born in the U.S., it’s easier for him (though obtaining visas to both countries is still rare and complicated). He spent a month abroad: three weeks in India and one in Pakistan.
Yet, when he graduated, he didn’t feel like his research was complete. He applied for the American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship — which had partnered with the 1947 Partition Archive — and was accepted. His study focused on recording the oral histories of the people who were directly affected by the partition. He also began writing and recording music while in Lucknow, but that wasn’t part of the project.
“I just started to feel very alone in this place that was familiar and totally recognizable. I could understand everything that was going on, but I very much felt in my own headspace because Lucknow…is still a very, very conservative, old, Muslim-influenced city that really doesn’t have the same spaces for expression or youth or creativity or even mingling in public spaces,” Alam tells the Voice.
Making music had been part of his routine at Wesleyan, so he found the one decent music store in Lucknow, and bought one of the cheapest guitars it had. Luckily, he’d brought a portable recording device with him, and began recording loops and sounds from daily life in India. The music was extremely lo-fi, but eventually started to coalesce into distinct songs that were equally informed by a childhood listening to Bollywood music and by the sounds that he heard in India.
Alam never intended for anyone to hear his music. His family in India didn’t know he was making music; he just thought of it as this “little bedroom recording project”—as these “headspace” songs. But he let his best friend, Dylan Bostick, listen, and Bostick wanted to rerecord the songs in a studio. Humeysha, which was initially just Alam, soon became a four-piece band, with Bostick on lead guitar, Adrien DeFontaine on bass and vocals, John Snyder on drums, and Alam as lead vocalist and backing guitar. They released their eponymous debut, Humeysha, on October 2, 2015.
Alam recoils at the idea that Humeysha could potentially be labeled “fusion.” His academics are so deeply intertwined with the music of the band that, to him, they can hardly be separated. “For me, it was both lived experience and academic study of the culture, of these musical traditions, of how raga works, of how rhythms are supposed to work.”
The song “For Love, From the Law” was one of the first songs he wrote, and alternates between the same Hindi-Urdu verse and an English chorus.
“I remember that when I had [written the songs] in the way that I did and picked the words that I did, it was after having the realization that so many of these stories that I was hearing of people displaced from Pakistan to India, India to Pakistan — leaving for something, leaving for someone, and then having this very unfulfilled dream of what migration would entail.”
He keeps the lyrics simple because the song acts as a distillation of these stories, which he was hearing from strangers and family members alike. Through the song, he articulates a common immigrant experience — the feeling of striving for so much but then feeling let down once reality sets in. “For Love, From the Law” particularly communicates themes of moving and longing.
For Alam, the music is something that straddles his tri-cultural background — Indian, Pakistani, and American — and allows him to explore how his cultures will live side-by-side. And Humeysha allows him to process his identity in a space that his peers can more readily understand (though if you’re not desi — and none of Alam’s bandmates are — the music’s references might require some research). But the band also proffers something that many music groups don’t: a thesis.
“I think the reason [my bandmates] were so excited to jump into the project is because it’s trying to explore what we think is an unexplored continuity between this set of sounds that I’m referring to and this set of sounds that are in the context of a rock band. I think that is the thesis of the project, and not necessarily my ethnicity or religious background, even though, of course, both have informed the project’s formation.”
While Alam hasn’t drawn any definitive conclusions from spending time in India and Pakistan, or from making music with Humeysha, he’s not worried. He’s more interested in asking questions, and finding new avenues to explore.
If he’s discovered anything, it’s that “there’s nothing wrong with having very strong attachments and identifications and belongings with things…. There’s more there than just one [identity]…or more than what you think there is.” And what he’s found through his exploration of the subcontinent and of Humeysha’s sound is a way of answering, ” ‘Which one am I? Which one am I not? How am I supposed to define myself?’ That’s what matters.”
Humeysha play the Knitting Factory along with Echo Bloom, the Ludwigs, and REC on Monday, April 18 at 8 p.m. Find tickets and more information here.