Merrell: Balance Yourself With Nature by Nabihah Iqbal

Born in London in the late ‘80s, musician Nabihah Iqbal studied a joint honours BA in History and Ethnomusicology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and here her musical horizons widened irrevocably, with her main performance instrument becoming the Sitar. Nabihah has been focusing fully on her music career since October 2013, and released her debut album “Weighing of the Heart” in 2019, emphasising live instruments and boldly charting the waters where dance and pop music meet.

Nabihah has a black belt in karate and loves to cycle around London. During her time living in South Africa, Nabihah frequently made use of the amazing natural landscapes she found herself in, hiking and climbing around Cape Town’s mountains and trails.

"I’m a Londoner, born and bred: I grew up in the middle of the city, surrounded by people and buildings and traffic, constant cacophony and movement. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There’s a beauty created by millions of lives blurring into a patchwork metropolis, crisscrossing every day.. Each day I cycle to my studio, zipping between cars, taking in the sights and sounds. It never fails to inspire me. For my work as a musician and a DJ, London is the perfect place to be, full of people working hard and pushing things forward; brimming with opportunities, ideas and creativity. 

"Yet through all of this, there’s a force that commands even the busiest city-dweller to take a break, to stop, to look beyond the skyline they see from their office window. We often lose ourselves in the culture of over-saturation and overstimulation, whirring imagery, flashing lights, too much noise, but there’s an innate need within all of us to get outdoors. We want to feel nature. It’s why houses have gardens and cities have parks. It’s why people go on holiday. We all need time for rest and relaxation, but being in nature’s surroundings offers us a lot more than that. The beauty and power of the natural world can never be surpassed. All of us, each living thing on this planet, has a special relationship with nature and the best way to remember that is to make time for it.

"Last month, I went on a hiking trip in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains and it took me way out of my comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong – I love being outdoors and being active. I’ve got my National Trust membership and I’m always up for a good walk in the English countryside. But I’m a city girl at heart, and suddenly being transported to the African wilderness… it was a shock to the system. On the first day, I had to set off before dawn because I needed to reach the mountain peak by sunrise. I woke up at 4am and by 4.30am I was already hiking. It was still dark, and the weather was wet and windy. All I could think about were the poisonous snakes and spiders that I’d been told to watch out for, not to mention the leopards and baboons, and of course the warm bed that I’d been in only half an hour earlier. I was getting grumpy because I hadn’t had a proper breakfast and I could feel the rainwater seeping through my clothes. But I’d committed to the hike and I was determined to get through it.

"About an hour or so later of constant climbing, I reached the top. I didn’t really take in my surroundings straight away, most probably because I was too lost in a jeremiad fuelled by self-pity. But then the sky began to lighten, and the black mountains that were smudged into the horizon started to reveal themselves, drawing me in with a slow hypnosis. I was standing right at the top of a stony peak, and below me was a colossal ravine that plummeted down into jagged rock, that rose again into another mountain. There were mountains in all directions as far as I could see. Suddenly a bit of movement caught the corner of my eye: a singular falcon flying over the ravine. In that moment I realised how far away I was from everything I knew - all the people and places - and it gave me a strangely calming sensation. I’d never been anywhere so remote or beautiful before.

"The sky was getting lighter still. It had gone from a deep navy into grey and lighter blue, and now the blue was getting brighter, poking through from behind the rain clouds, turning pink just above the mountain tops in the distance. Day was breaking. Before I even had time for my next thought, it was as if a giant knife slashed through the clouds to let the yolk of the sun pour through, running over the mountains and bathing everything in the brightest, deepest, most vivid orange. Raindrops shimmered in thick liquid bronze and I found myself standing on top of a mountain made of gold. The fire of the rising sun painted the retreating night sky with pinks and purples, plush like giant rose petals. The rain was still coming down, and as I looked up to the clouds I noticed something. A rainbow was starting to form in the sky behind me. I watched it carve its coloured path through the blue, arched up high, and it didn’t stop. There was no ground below it because of the deep rocky ravine, so the rainbow just carried on until it was a complete ring. A perfect circle! It was like a dream.

"All the discomforts of that morning had been worth it, just to see this mystical sunrise. The cold, the rain, the early start, the tough climb. It all paled into insignificance in this one moment. I felt helpless and miniscule in the face of nature’s vastness, but witnessing this vision was one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. It made me think about the source of beauty, about music, and creativity and what humans strive to do when they ‘create’. I was thinking about how the beauty of this morning would be translated into sound. Is it possible? If there was music as beautiful as what I’d just seen, what would it sound like? What is the relationship between nature, art and sound? What does nature teach us? 

"I’ve always been interested in the sounds of nature and the nature of sound. I often make field recordings of my surroundings, especially when I’m in a new place, because I want to explore the way sounds act as strong links to feelings and memories. In a place as remote as the Cederberg mountains, the only sounds I heard were those that occurred naturally. Sometimes it was the wind, or birds, or the rain. But the thing that had the most lasting impression on me was the silence. The kind of silence I experienced, standing in the middle of a vast mountain range that stretches as far as the eye can see - the feeling that it instils in you cannot be experienced anywhere else. You can never feel it in a city. My mind felt so clear, my body so calm, and creative ideas were flowing. It made me realise that there is just as much inspiration and energy to be gained from silence and stillness as there is from sound and movement. Of course, when it comes to sound and movement, being in a big city like London is the best place to be. But I’ve learned that it’s so important to strike a balance between the rapid ‘city’ and halcyon ‘nature’, and to try and make the most of both."