New album by Nabihah Iqbal: Utopia on the Dancefloor

Euphoria while dancing, free love, old literature and the reverberation in grandma’s bathroom – all this is combined in the music of the London artist Nabihah Iqbal.

Portrait of the musician Nabihah Iqbal with a braid and a leather cap

“Dreaming and dancing”: musician Nabihah Iqbal Photo: Joseph Hayes

Some things happen for a good reason, they say. Nabihah Iqbal hears this wisdom quite often these days when she talks about her new album “Dreamer” – cynically in connection with two of the worst events of her life.

Firstly, the break-in of their London studio, in which the entire production work on their second album was lost and thus destroyed. And second, a call from her grandmother from Pakistan. “She was crying as she told me that my grandfather had suffered a brain hemorrhage,” says the British producer and musician from London. Seriously, where is the good reason?

In any case, Nabihah Iqbal packed her bags after the call and flew to Pakistan without further ado. That was in March 2020, just before the Corona lockdown. Instead of two planned weeks, she stayed two months in her parents’ country of birth.

The 35-year-old not only makes music, she is also active as a DJ, gives lectures on music and has her own program on the British network radio station NTS. In Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, she rummaged through the record shops, bought a sitar and a harmonium, one of the most common instruments in traditional Indian and Pakistani music.

Nabihah Iqbal: “Dreamer”

(Ninja Tune/Rough Trade/Indigo)

Iqbal then began to compose the music for her album from scratch, this time not on the computer in the studio but with analog instruments: Suddenly she found herself with the harmonium on the floor of her grandparents’ bathroom, in a room with high ceilings ceilings and marble walls.

“echo” in Urdu

“The echo in it is incredible. At some point my grandmother came in and asked what I was doing there. I tried to explain it to her but didn’t know the Urdu word for ‘echo’.” Hall and Echo also feature prominently on Dreamer, Iqbal’s second solo album. Not only does she chase her harmonium through various reverberation and effect devices, the synthesizers and her often spoken voice are also so alienated that they waft over to us from far away.

While the alienated harmonium opens and closes the musical series of the album in an elliptical manner, the sitar is placed right in the middle. In “Lilac Twilight” Iqbal layers acoustic guitars and the sitar on top of each other, it is the only piece that remains without alienation effects, and the first time that she ever uses instruments from her cultural Pakistani heritage in her music, Iqbal tells the taz am Telephone from London.

And yet you have to look for them, these two instruments, between the synthesizers, effect devices and drums, which sometimes remind you of New Order’s gloomy 80s pop and sometimes of official electronic club beats.

Beats and synthesizers as well as Iqbal’s soft, ethereal-sounding voice play around one another in the dancy composition “Gentle Heart”. “I’m dreaming and dancing / Dancing and dreaming”, Iqbal sings and describes the experiences of a summer evening, dancing together with people without worrying about anything.

Dancing like in a trance

For this musician, the dance floor remains a utopian place, a safe space for alternative ideas. “Oh yes, definitely! The dance floor is one of those places of collective musical experience. No one can quite explain why music works in a certain way. I think it goes back to something original. In Pakistan, I was at a Sufi gathering in Lahore when people got high on the music. Everyone dances and shakes, as if in a trance, to loud, intense drums.”

The essence of it is the same as in the sound storm on the dance floor of a club: “It’s about simply losing yourself in the music.”

Her debut album The Weighing of the Heart from 2017 was named after an Egyptian myth. “Dreamer” now interpolates, among other things, classic English literature by Thomas Hardy from the late 19th century. In Hardy’s novel “Tess”, a young girl from a poor background experiences every imaginable misfortune as she lives a meager life in a world that is not made for her. “This world couldn’t see us / This world couldn’t keep us”, Iqbal sings in the song of the same name, which ends with the double suicide of two lovers.

In another room

Iqbal intertwines the lyrics about a Victorian English girl’s bondage with thoughts on the freedom of love in the present: “Sometimes it feels like real happiness is never possible. Because our society is not designed for it. Millions of people don’t even enjoy the freedom to do what they want most. Even a society like ours is not as free as one might like to think.”

Her texts sound like epic long poems that float in a poetic cryptic over the ethereal production. But love, in various forms, always seems to play a role: “I knew it was love / And I felt it was glory / But you’ve never told me / The end of the story / Feel the power,” Iqbal sings in “Sunflowers”.

Nabihah Iqbal also owes the album title “Dreamer” to a primary literary source: “It was the first time that a poem made me cry,” she recalls, mentioning a text by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. In “Music Makers”, the British author and zoologist describes the purpose of music to create an alternative world.

This is exactly what Nabihah Iqbal manages to do with her new album “Dreamer”, which intertwines this thought with the world of dreams: “Music can transport you to another place – much like a dream.”

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