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Your backstage pass to Northeast Ohio's independent music scene.

Pakistani native Slowspin explores the immigrant experience with electronic music

 Cleveland-based artist Slowspin poses for the cover of her debut album
Alyse Nelson
Zeerak Ahmed, 32, released her lush and experimental debut album as Slowspin last month. The Pakistani artist lives in Cleveland and will perform at the Re:Sound festival June 11.

Making music under the name Slowspin, Zeerak Ahmed blends North Indian classical vocal traditions with modern shoegaze, psychedelic rock, folk, ambient and experimental sounds.

Ahmed first came to the United States to attend Hiram College in 2009, and she has lived in Cleveland since 2019. She spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art and composing music.

The Pakistani-born multimedia artist released her first full-length, “Talisman,” last month. She collaborated on the album with a group of notable musicians and producers in Brooklyn, New York.

"We just swam in sound,” Ahmed said. “It's like the first time I wrote the song is the recording you hear. And I build around that. Let all the deep sounds of the lows and the highs - and the flutes and all the textures in between the two - wash through you.”

Learning to make music in Pakistan

While this is Slowspin’s first full-length release, the artist is not new to making music.

Her journey began in her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, where she grew up in a strong creative and musical family.

Ahmed began taking vocal lessons in Pakistan around age 15.

Electronic music started to grow in popularity within the region’s underground music scene, and Ahmed was fascinated by the digital technologies used to produce the sounds.

She came to the U.S. to study visual arts, and Hiram’s quiet campus gave her the space and inspiration to begin writing her own music.

"I was spending a lot of time, just me, myself, my acoustic guitar on GarageBand, recording these little melodies,” she said. “That felt like my truth.”

Ahmed realized she could best express herself through sound, rather than the visual arts she originally pursued.

"There's something deeply spiritual and powerful about sound. And it really, really resonated with me."
Zeerak Ahmed

She told her parents, “I want to actually use my voice to say the things that I want to say."

She fell in love with Ohio for its green, natural beauty, which she said contrasts with Karachi’s landscape.

“All my friends were going to schools they either visited or heard of before. I was going to a school that nobody knew of. The third day I called my dad. I was like, ‘Biggest mistake. There are more cows than people. I've never seen so much land.’ I'm joking about the cows. It was just fantastic,” she said.

After college, she returned to her hometown in 2012. Around this time, she became a formative member of the independent music scene in Karachi, where she was part of the “muhajir,” or immigrant community.

Countercultural music was a primarily male-dominated space, and she said that presented challenges despite her successfully releasing an EP and working with an indie record label there.

“I knew I was coming into this place, which politically was going through its own turmoils. And there was a great risk being at shows or having shows,” she said. “That, added with the constant threat of being this female always at the risk of being objectified, and that taking over, as opposed to your craft being respected and given attention.”

She said in the last decade, she has noticed a shift in her native Pakistan with more women being embraced by the underground music scene.

“They're doing phenomenal work, and there's a lot more support,” she said.

Creating her debut full-length album

Ahmed has traveled between Pakistan, Germany and the U.S. releasing six total Slowspin EPs and creating voice-based sound sculptures and installations.

 Zeerak Ahmed poses with a microphone and headphones
Alyse Nelson
Zeerak Ahmed worked on her Slowspin album, "Talisman," with notable producers and musicians in Brooklyn, New York, during the pandemic. She plans to move from Cleveland to New York to pursue music full time.

Her distinct sound is rooted in the Hindustani classical vocal style, with elements like ambient soundscapes accented by plucky folk guitars.

On her debut LP, Ahmed worked with producer Grey Mcmurray, noted for his collaborations with artists like Gil-Scott Heron and John Cale.

Over the course of three days, Ahmed and Mcmurray conducted an extended improv session with Shahzad Ismaily, Aaron Roche and Greg Fox at Figure 8 recording studio in New York.

The three days of sound experimentation turned into three years of writing “Talisman.”

"It's got songs that belong to lyrical traditions, poetic traditions, I don't know, 700 years old or older. But there's also so much of my own writing there as well,” Ahmed said.

She said her compositions and the arrangements on the album represent her journey as a migrant experiencing new things and longing for those she had to let go of.

The 10 songs feature vocals in English as well as Urdu, Farsi and Purbi. The lead single, “Hamari,” pulls from a devotional poem by Muslim Sufi poet Nawab Sadiq Jung Bahadur Hilm.

Other tracks tie universal feelings of love and loss with the migrant experience, all accented by dreamy production and instrumentation.

A migrating artist

Ahmed returns to Pakistan every year and works with Karachi Community Radio, which features emerging artists in the region’s electronic music scene.

In 2019, Ahmed met her now-partner while visiting college friends in Cleveland.

“And here we are. I wasn't too sure about Cleveland being my new home, but March of 2020, I was visiting my partner and seven days later, so seven days into the trip, I got a text from Emirates saying, ‘Due to the global pandemic, all flights back are indefinitely canceled,’” she said.

Aside from making music, Ahmed is still heavily involved in other art forms, teaching liberal arts and visual arts at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

In 2022, she received the CAN Triennial Prize for her Akron Art Museum sound installations.

Her current work focuses on archiving South Asian female folk music traditions and creating new visual work from these histories.

“There's something deeply comforting. There's something deeply spiritual and powerful about sound. And it really, really resonated with me. The notes, the ways to channel sound through the body,” she said. “I thought that was incredibly powerful and it was very healing. That became a kind of guide throughout my life.”

Ahmed plans to relocate from Cleveland to New York to pursue music full time. Before then, she will perform as Slowspin at Cleveland’s Re:Sound, a festival for new and experimental music, June 11.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.