Ayesha: Drum Practice

With a flair for beat science which has wedged her in the thrust of NYC’s techno-not-techno community, Ayesha’s debut album Rhythm Is Memory has everything required to cut through the noise and grab your attention. Oli Warwick dialled up NYC to find out what goes into such a distinctive record. 

There’s a sense of lift-off as ‘Pre Dawn’ opens up Ayesha’s debut album, Rhythm Is Memory. The tuned percussion at the centre of the mix arcs upwards in pitch, instantly triggering a state of alert in anyone with even a shred of rave in their bones. At a time when it’s hard to perceive anyone bringing something fresh to the drum-focused club track, the New York-based artist hooks your attention in an instant without resorting to any obvious build-up-break-down tropes. The best dance music relies on subtlety to elicit excitement, and Ayesha’s approach is as understated as it is thrilling. 

That sense of lift-off is apt, as Rhythm Is Memory feels poised to launch Ayesha into a broader clubbing consciousness. From the outside it might seem like she’s just getting going, and she admits herself it’s quite early to be releasing an album when her first tracks only came out a couple of years ago. But Ayesha has been immersed in club music for a long time, and it’s merely a snowball of circumstances which have led to this moment, breaking through as a fully-fledged artist when dance music was on the ropes, globally. 

“I attempted to put myself out there as a producer in the worst of COVID,” she admits when we catch up on a video call, “and it somehow worked out for me.”

Ayesha’s rising profile as an artist is intrinsically connected to her relationship with fabled NYC nightspot Nowadays, where she holds down a residency alongside a coterie of the city’s most adventurous techno misfits. Techno has to be used in the broadest possible terms here – like her fellow residents, Ayesha’s sound aligns with that undefinable zone between club styles, where techno propulsion and sound design collide with the heft and crooked rhythms of soundsystem-oriented bassweight styles. It’s a position which has emerged relatively quickly for her, having moved to New York from Washington DC around 2018 and starting from scratch as a lone raver enthralled with the Brooklyn club’s atmosphere, crowd and musical attitude. 

Ayesha · Ayesha Nowadays Residency (Aug 6, 2022 )

Ayesha didn’t arrive in New York to make it as a DJ. She had left behind a frenetic life trying to make ends meet as a DJ in DC, holding down as many local gigs as possible to pay the rent. The DC connection figures when you listen to her music – the springy, 3D quality of her  production and the tough, bashy approach to the rhythm section all chime with Future Times and 1432r — labels synonymous with the city, platforming local talents like Soso Tharpa, Sami and, of course, Max D, Jackson Ryland et al. It wasn’t these sounds which she connected with when living in DC though, and her experience points to another thread which helps define Ayesha’s sound as well as that of DC. 

“When I was coming up as a DJ in DC between 2013 and 2018, Jersey club and Baltimore club were very, very popular,” Ayesha points out. “DJs like myself and my good friend Nativesun from Black Rave Culture were definitely purveyors of that music, booking DJs like MikeQ and Jayhood.” 

That tough, sassy, broken swerve makes total sense when you hear a track like ‘Play’, however hybridised and futuristic it might be. “It’s very hard for me to make straight kick tunes,” Ayesha admits. “I just love the swing of Jersey and Baltimore club.”

Sensing an upper limit to her life DJing in DC, Ayesha made the decision to relocate and refocus, but it wasn’t easy to leave behind the life she’d nurtured for so long. “I felt a deep sense of acute identity loss moving to New York and not having that association as a DJ or any community. The way I coped was to stop making footwork edits of Erykah Badu and Outkast. I wasn’t really able to find my own voice doing that.”

When she arrived in New York, Ayesha managed to find a job at sample library giants Splice, which gave her the perfect foundation on which to develop her music practice through access to vast amounts of sounds and software. Putting herself in “producer bootcamp” as she calls it, she started to establish a map of her strengths, weaknesses and intentions as an artist. It quickly became apparent drums and percussion were high up the agenda, while melody took a bit more work to develop. Ayesha’s exploration of percussion holds added significance due to her Punjabi heritage, having partially grown up in South India and been exposed to a wide variety of South Asian music. 

“When it comes to using Asian percussion in particular I have my go-to set of sounds I’ve chosen to use,” Ayesha explains, “and for Rhythm Is Memory I wanted to be consistent with those. There are many nuanced percussion traditions, and I’ve always had a love for certain rhythms and sound palettes that come from the subcontinent, hammered into me in some way through my upbringing.”

While many people instantly think of tabla when they consider Indian percussion, Ayesha’s focus has been more on obscure kinds of tambour which form part of her regular arsenal now. What is noticeable is the tonal quality of the percussion she uses, which in part answers the question about melody she encountered when shaping out her intentions as a producer. 

“Melody’s never been my strong suit,” she admits, “but I do think through tuned percussion, there are micro melodies. In a lot of my music the melodies are not necessarily intentionally crafted, but they somehow exist in the music, and that gives its own flavour.”

It was equally important to draw on those aforementioned East Coast club influences, too, and bridge them with her developing taste for “weirder, heavier” electronic music and the diasporic sounds of her homeland. She nods here to another DC staple, Dawit Eklund, as an inspiration in his approach to cross-cultural fusions. “I loved the way Dawit brought influences from his diaspora into the format of contemporary electronic music.”

While she first started making music in 2015, it wasn’t until she had been in New York for a couple of years before Ayesha felt like it was time to share something with the world. Setting her expectations low, she gathered together a three-track release and snuck it up on Bandcamp. A touch more slippery and introverted than the sound on Rhythm Is Memory, Let’s Get Visceral comes on like the consummate first Bandcamp release – the ideas spill forth and Ayesha’s individuality as an artist is confirmed, even if the production is a little shy of the engineering demands of the modern club. 

“I felt like I was still learning a lot of the technical aspects of making and finishing music,” she confirms, “but I couldn’t wait any longer. It just felt like the right moment, and this was prior to realising we were going to be in a pandemic for several years. I actually chose the release date for my first self-released EP on my birthday, March 16, 2020.”

As far as strategic times to share club music with the world, that date is a loaded one. On one hand, it’s the precise point when the Western world realised physical social interaction was about to become outlawed, making the idea of new dance music something of a cruel irony. But equally, there wasn’t a pause in people’s passions and if anything the enforced isolation made everyone’s appreciation of the music burn brighter. It might well be that the unique circumstances were how Despina stumbled across Ayesha’s release through Bandcamp Discovery and passed them to Ma Sha at Kindergarten Records. A relationship quickly bloomed and Ma Sha asked for some demos – by November 2020 Ayesha had released her first EP on the label, Natural Phenomena. “2020 was strangely fertile ground to start releasing music and testing the waters as a producer,” she muses.

The Lot Radio · Kindergarten with Ayesha, Ma Sha and DJ Voices @ The Lot Radio 04-15-2023

“Putting music out during that time really connected me to the New York City dance music community. I was connecting a lot with people who stayed in New York — a lot of DJs and artists who didn’t have the luxury to go and live somewhere else through COVID. Those became tight-knit relationships for me, and the seeds for a growing dance music community not just specific to Nowadays, but configuring across different venues and parties.”

The proof of this community manifested when Ayesha announced Rhythm Is Memory – an album egged on by Kindergarten Records’ faith in her music. More than enthusiastic write-ups in the music press — er, yeah, that’d be us — she found a more meaningful validation from her peers as they took to cheering on her milestone with a sense of pride that comes from supporting one of your own. 

“Putting out an album is really putting the notion of community into focus for me,” she confirms. “It’s so grounding to see DJs play the music and support it. It reminds me of my original intention here.

“I never want to think too hard, for instance, about press,” she adds. “When it comes to putting out a creative work, I want to let the label handle everything because I want to keep this sustainable for me.”

It’s a pertinent point Ayesha raises here, making a conscious decision to not fall into the trap of the modern artist as a jack-of-all-trades stretched between label management, self-promoter, tour agent, graphic designer and social media wrangler who occasionally makes tracks. It’s a luxury only afforded by the hard work and support of others – in her case a label like Kindergarten who fell in love with the music and wanted to push it – but if the approach maintains it seems like a much healthier premise for the music to flourish. 

Given the time lapse between making a record and it reaching the public, it’s no wonder Ayesha’s already focused on the music which will come next, albeit amidst a flurry of recognition and a steady stream of gigs both at her spiritual home of Nowadays and internationally. With her DJing now informed by the evolution of her own music, it all feeds into what she calls, “a growing, intact, consistent, creative process.”

Ayesha portrait photos by Karla Del Orbe.

Rhythm Is Memory is out now on Kindergarten Records.