INTERVIEW with Nicolas Sheikholeslami -- ÇAYKH!

If you haven't heard his genius EP "Où" (on Akuphone,) we hope this insightful interview sends you running for it.

  PHOTO: Copyrighted -

In the realm of exotic World music, the best albums should represent a travelogue. To be captured by the rhythms and the sounds is sometimes not enough. Nicolas Sheikholeslami (better known as ÇAYKH - pron. chake) created an EP last year that turned travel into an otherworldly experience. As he details below, the three tracks on "Où" represent a mountain of work as the combination of sounds, patterns, rhythms, and textures on the Akuphone release needed to both represent the destinations he had carefully chosen and transport you there for an illuminating half-hour.

T-BONES: Music like "Où" represents an aural travelogue for us to hear. Can you tell me about where you made these recordings and what events happened that led you to know that you must record this?

NICOLAS SHEIKHOLESLAMI: In Winter 2014-15, I became obsessed with the music of Somalia. The material that I found on YouTube about Somalian music and its scene before the war led me to the mixtape "Au Revoir, Mogadishu". I started to look into these videos, downloading the ones that I liked. I grew fascinated with the sound aesthetics of those recordings. They were super lo-fi, being YouTube rips of material that had been digitized from old VHS and audio cassettes. Prior to their upload, these tapes were already a copy of a copy of a copy. So, they were full of artifacts.

I began loading them into a project, trying to make sense of them as I was sampling. Most often I started with the drums. However, I was dealing not only with the music — but rather with the sound of the tape itself. After these initial loops, I turned to playing around with their combinations and thought it would be cool to try to connect them into a working song. Eventually, those experiments would lead to the track "Mogadishoù" (on Où).

That was the starting point for the EP back in 2015. I sensed that the different parts of this song were to shift quickly - the problem was how to combine them. That took me quite a while. I would have these five different bits and needed to figure out how to craft them into a journey from one part to another. When I came up with the first composition, I remember thinking this was not exactly the way I wanted to make music. I felt more like an architect. There I was with all of the material laid out in front of me as if I was planning a city. So I was making all sorts of decisions but the intuitive parts of the process had stopped immediately after coming up with the initial bits. Then again, although it was not exactly the process of music-making, I really liked the result.

Later on, I heard some tape sounds from Sumatra and thought "wow, these might work as well.” Then I found recordings from an Indian record company on Soundcloud that had uploaded their archives of B-Music. Which led me to "Moùmbai."  As I look at the compositions now, it seems like Prog Rock - too many ideas to squeeze into one song.. but still, you want to do it.

T-BONES: As you built these tracks from "field recordings," did you go into it with any set ideas musically?

NICOLAS: I would call these samples. They are pre-recorded sounds that were popular back in the day. My idea was to work only with the samples and without any instruments. The exceptions are very small excerpts from Jazz songs with upright bass, which appear on two of the tracks. My contribution was solely processing and arranging the selection of samples.

T-BONES: Was the idea of "Où" to have three tracks that either join together or even represent three smaller journeys?

NICOLAS: These three recordings were created over about two years. I would gradually arrange them, working on one for a while and then changing to the other. Only later I realized that all of these samples originate around the Indian Ocean, providing the contextual connection. Of course, they also have the same approach in terms of composing. However, they are rather a journey in themselves. If the listener perceives that the whole record follows a narrative thread, I am very pleased - but that was not initially intended.

T-BONES: Where do you musically take your inspiration from?

NICOLAS: That is a tough question. Almost impossible. I was doing what I was doing and it was "automatic writing” - whereby the subconscious does what it does and you try not to question what you do. I hear something like “that” and I follow it - whatever I think I can relate to. When you are younger, there is definitely a thing called "inspiration." However, later on, it shifts and becomes perception. That’s what makes you do what you do. It's like layers. Every time you hear, experience or even taste something new, it becomes a part of your perception. It's hard to pigeonhole where this inspiration comes from. I think about my youth. An example of the music that shaped my younger self is "Music For 18 Musicians" by Steve Reich. You suggested that the attitude of sampling reminds you of "It's Gonna Rain," which is very flattering for me. However, I wouldn't necessarily say this was an "influence" on my work. I also love techno. Honestly, there is no big border for me between Reich and a techno composition. Sometimes you even find very sophisticated techno DJ's who know the piece by heart.

T-BONES: Do you feel like you make "adventurous" music that defies categories and pigeonholing?

NICOLAS: For me, it is more of a universal approach. Sometimes I listen to so-called "traditional folk” music. Yet it almost sounds like it could be played in a club. It needs transposition, which is often what happens in the mind. So I tried to recreate that with this record. I hear a sample, and I think "it sounds like modern-day club music” - which is really not too different from ancient ritualistic music. I aimed to select the material that is easily felt, that would let the listener hear what I’m hearing. But sure, you could also say that I try to blend the borders between genres of music.

T-BONES: How did you get hooked with Akuphone?

NICOLAS: I’m playing in two other projects in which I am the drummer and producer. One is Spiritczuatic Enhancement Center and we released our first LP with Akuphone in 2019. During the process of completing that release, I was exchanging materials with Fabrice (Gery a/k/a Cheb Gero) who runs the label. I asked him if he would also be interested in releasing “Où”. Since I have put so much time into it, it will be lovely to see it finally released on vinyl.

T-BONES: Finally, this "from the ground up" view of your composition sounds like an extension of your personal philosophy as opposed to just your work ethic.

NICOLAS: Working with samples functions for me like a mantra. Through repetition, it accumulates its power. All the samples you find on the record are super short – 1 or 2 bar locked grooves. I would play them as loops to see if they gained strength or rather got annoying. I hope to find these powerful mantras - be it drums or vocals. Yet samples can be so full of texture, that playing with rhythms becomes playing with "sound colors."

Thank you to Nicolas for granting us this interview. His EP as ÇAYKH is one of the most entrancing and fascinating EPs of 2020. This and many other adventurous Akuphone LPs are available from order from T-BONE'S.

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