Ambient soundscapes mixed in alongside Indian and Arabic influences, Sultan's album provides a chilled out and relaxed listening experience that draws from his cultural heritage
Zahed Sultan is a London-based multi-media artist of Kuwaiti and Indian origin, and his music reflects those diverse cultural backgrounds, which is what I found to be most interesting about this album. But before we get to that, however, let’s talk about Zahed Sultan the man. Sultan himself is an interesting character, with many fingers in many pies. The eagle-eyed among you will notice I did not refer to him as a musician, rather as an artist, and that is due to the fact that Sultan has directed and produced short films, music videos, and documentaries, run music festivals, and started social initiatives. In addition, and this has nothing to do with the album and what I think of it, but he has a very swish website, and as someone with little to no computer skills who has laboured intensely to make a website with a friend that doesn’t look completely like we made it back in the dial-up days of 2005 and has only partially succeeded, I am very jealous. Anyway, back to the review.
“Arabic vocals are surmounted upon synthy beats and ambient instrumentation, while Indian tablas come in and out of the mix.”
We have already mentioned that Sultan is of Kuwaiti origin, and his roots are clearly important to him, as they not only appear as musical influences on this album, but also since 2015 he has spearheaded a cultural initiative, named Kuwait Rising, that promotes the arts in Kuwait, in addition to bringing musicians from around the world to Kuwait. For these efforts he has been dubbed ‘Kuwait’s one-man music industry’. As well as this, he has started a separate festival based in the UK that promotes the arts of the Arab and South Asian diasporas. His heritage is clearly a subject close to his heart, and that is evident in his music. Songs like Come to Me have a distinctly Indian feel to it, but as with all of his songs on Hi Fear, Lo Love, it is also distinctly Arabic in its sound. I Want Her But I Don’t Want Her, perhaps his most famous song from this album, similarly combines sounds from both cultures. Arabic vocals are surmounted upon synthy beats and ambient instrumentation, while Indian tablas come in and out of the mix.
The Arab influence is not just manifested in the fact that music is sung in Arabic, but also in the music itself. This is most noticeable in the song My Sad Heart, which appears to use an oud, and has a rhythmic refrain that is similar to what you might hear in Arab pop, though it is mostly played on non-Arab instruments. It also happens to be my favourite song on the album. It has a hypnotic, electro-pop quality to it which I really liked. The third cultural influence, London, is also heard in his use of synths, guitars, and other traditionally Western instruments throughout the album, seamlessly enmeshed with the Arab and Indian influences.
There is even a song sung in English, Walkin Away. It is the one song that sounds similar to what you might hear in any other DJ’s album, and lacks much of the distinctive musical influences that make the rest of the album so listenable. Walkin Away is a decent song, but it does not fit in with the rest of the album. It is sandwiched between two instrumental tracks, by Reflections before it and A New Day after it. These three songs are the weakest aspect of the album, but that’s not to say they’re bad by any means. They are still listenable, but they also represent the album at its most generic, which stands out when the rest of the album has many specific influences. It is, on the whole, a strong album, however, as it ambitiously and successfully combined the music of three diverse cultures and does so in an artful manner.