Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
That you've likely never heard of Amman Abbasi, who has achieved international acclaim for his music, owes to several factors. For one, he's never played a headlining show in Little Rock, and it's rare that you'll spot him out and about. He's too busy. Since late last year, the 22-year-old has been managing Masala Grill + Teahouse, a Pakistani restaurant he opened with help from his parents. But you may not know him mainly because he's famous within a relatively arcane corner of contemporary music.
Under the name The Abbasi Brothers, Amman and his brother Yousuf — who lives in New York — make electronic music that's taken them to Iceland to work with Sigur Ros and earned them praise in WIRED magazine. Their debut album, "Something Like Nostalgia," topped the charts in Japan. It's music Amman said is partly inspired by cinema — there are clear echoes of David Lynch's composer of choice, Angelo Badalamenti — and driven by "spontaneity, small observations in life that subconsciously come out through the music."
Sonically, it's an instrumental-only mixture of strings, guitar, piano, electronic sounds and ambient noise. The songs don't follow conventional structure, but instead sort of slowly coalesce, layering flourishes of noise and sparse electronic percussion to create dynamic tension throughout. If you had to stick a label on the music, the elusive "post-rock" tag would fit, but it seems more personal and sincere than some of the other, more grandiose acts typically grouped under that umbrella. It's contemplative, relaxing but engaging, the ideal soundtrack for a long drive or an evening of reading.
After releasing "Something Like Nostalgia," the brothers scored two documentaries, "Warrior Champions," the latest work from Little Rock's Renaud brothers, and "The Wall," about the construction of a 700-mile long fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Working on film was more of a challenge than making an album, Amman said. "[The music was] all about experimentation, scoring the scene in your own head. With the films, the scene determines your creativity."
While he enjoys making music, Amman said his ultimate goal is to make feature films with his brother. They are at work on a film project now; they'll release it before they put out their follow-up to "Something Like Nostalgia."
Amman's love of film has led him to donate his time and talents to the Little Rock Film Festival, which he's been involved with since high school and where he currently assists as a coordinator.
Of course, Masala Grill takes up most of his time in town.
"It's so much work, day and night, mental and physical. I love the challenge, and it excites me knowing that the restaurant is doing well."
Starting a restaurant has been a lifelong dream for Amman, and he credits his parents, Zahid and Shabnam, for Masala's early success.
Amman, who attended Hendrix College for a spell, lived in New York for a time to pursue music and film work before returning to Little Rock to open the restaurant and help with the film festival. He said he enjoys the atmosphere in Little Rock and said that the city provides inspiration for his work: "Little Rock is unique. A lot of my really creative stuff has come out of Arkansas. You can drive 20 minutes and stop seeing concrete, and that's very important to me." He plans to continue to live here while traveling to New York and Reykjavik for future recording opportunities as they arise.
If you've already heard "Something Like Nostalgia" and are waiting for more, Amman has several recent releases and others in the works. He released an EP in January with Josh Varnedore called "Places," which is out on Dynamophone Recordings, and The Brothers recorded a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" for the charity compilation, "Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies." Last month, Amman released an EP under his own name, "i mi$$ 3v3rything," on Cximple Recordings, an imprint he and his brother created (until a vinyl release in August, it's only available digitally in the U.S.). Recorded in Reykjavik with Sigur Ros' Jonsi, in Little Rock with Lucky Dog's Charles Wyrick and in the studio he and his brother share in Manhattan, the EP finds him branching into folk modes, with occasional vocals, guitar and piano. In October, he plans to follow it up with a full-length.
The next time you head over to Masala for a cup of tea or the lunch buffet, remember to bring your laptop and headphones, and check out some of Amman's music online. It will draw you in, slowly but surely, and soon your ears and your taste buds will be in tune, soaking in complex flavors all at once. Both come highly recommended.