After a mid-interview break, Saleem Reshamwala returned to the studio to the sound of German laughter.
“I was like, ‘What’d I miss?’” the Durham-based filmmaker-turned-podcaster says. “And the translator’s like, ‘Christian is amused by your studio.’ I was like, ‘Oh, sorry, I’m in my son’s closet.’ And the translator’s like, ‘Yes, he has guessed this.’”
Set-up, punchline, grace note—Reshamwala loves a good story. He’s best known for his work in hip-hop as KidEthnic, whether close to home (he directed G Yamazawa’s epochal “North Cack” video) or documenting Pierce Freelon’s Beat Making Lab around the world.
Now Reshamwala is trying on a new role as the host of Pindrop, a TED podcast that debuted May 27, which he describes in many different ways.
“It’s like a travel show but about ideas,” he says. “It’s definitely not about tourism. It’s trying to capture the feel of being in a new place and being hit by a new idea—the kinds of stories that you might tell about a trip even if it was years in your past.”
Reshamwala didn’t expect to be launching a thinking person’s global-travel podcast during a pandemic that prevented global travel. That’s how he wound up in his son’s closet, the quietest place he could find, to interview the director of a 387-year-old Passion Play in the town of Oberammergau, Germany. It began—you couldn’t make this up—to stave off the bubonic plague, and in recent decades has been purging its anti-Semitic history.
Working with international journalists under the guidance of executive producers like Eric Nuzum, who launched NPR’s podcast network, Reshamwala infuses deeply local stories with gregarious enthusiasm, a well-traveled perspective, and Durham pride.
For the debut episode about adaptability in Bangkok, a traffic-snarled city where motorcycle cops are trained as midwives, Reshamwala interviews local journalist Pailin Wedel as well as his friend Raj Bunnag, a Thai-American Durhamite.
“So we ended up with this gradient: someone from Bangkok reporting a story; Raj, who’s spent lots of time there, a great, entertaining human being; and me, someone who’s never been there, asking questions,” Reshamwala says.
A later episode in season one will feature Peruvian MCs who rap in the indigenous Quechua language. Another finds dinosaur bones in New Jersey. But first, on Wednesday, June 10, we’ll meet Wanuri Kahiu, a filmmaker from Nairobi who tells joyous African stories in a media landscape obsessed with African misery.
True to form, Reshamwala called her in the wee hours of the morning, inside a pillow fort he’d built in his Peruvian hotel room to help with sound.
INDY: So, COVID.
SALEEM RESHAMWALA: I came on to Pindrop in January, when for most people COVID-19 was this international news story that seemed a little foreboding. I was filming another project in Peru in February, and we ended up getting pitched a [Pindrop] story on hip-hop in Peru while I was there. It was a crazy coincidence. That turned out to be the last episode I was really able to travel for. But it’s kind of fascinating to get to call the entire world now.
So the name is like, drop a pin on the map, and also you can hear it—a pin dropping. Out of the infinite stories in the world, what makes one a Pindrop story?
We’re looking for an idea that’s tied to the place it’s from. I’m interested in how stories of people figuring things out in certain places can be a useful metaphor for people all over. What I want people to feel after each episode is that the world is stranger and more interesting than they thought it was. But I don’t mean “stranger” in the othering sense. To me, in perfect travel, you yourself feel a little bit strange.
I grew up in North Carolina and my dad’s from India. My mom’s from Japan. It was a very different time to be a Muslim family here. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to find ways to flip that feeling into a positive thing. KidEthnic, an online handle that became the name of my company, comes from always being the “ethnic” kid, having that phrase used and thinking, how can I flip this into something that makes me feel good?
A Pindrop episode should feel experiential. Every episode starts with a vibe of the place you’re going, and then we dive deep from there. Every time that I travel with a filmmaker, journalist, musician, I get a really interesting perspective on the place. The idea is to take that ideal experience and then have a transferable idea you can take away. It doesn’t have to be direct, but something that’s rich enough that you can metaphorically apply it to your own life.
We’re working on a story on rappers in Peru who are rapping in Quechua, kind of looking at how evolving your traditions can help keep them alive. We’re working on a story on the world’s biggest Passion Play, in Oberammergau, Germany. It’s a 5,000-person town, and 2,500 people are in the play. It’s got a really dark past and we dive pretty deep into it. The New Jersey episode is about the nature of deep time—there’s something fascinating about every place on Earth if you think not just in X and Y coordinates but in time.
And the episode we’re releasing this Wednesday is about Wanuri Kahiu, a filmmaker from Nairobi, and her movement, AFROBUBBLEGUM. She releases fun, fierce, joyous work, and she specifically speaks to how the world needs more African stories that aren’t forced into being about miserable people or overcoming poverty. Those are important stories, but she wants to also be able to be joyous no matter what the conditions are.
So you’re kind of starting from local truth and then refracting it outward through an international viewpoint and staff, and that’s where the story ends up.
Yeah, that’s a good way of looking at it, and it is an evolving show. It’s funny, one of the first music videos I did, we shot super sequentially. It was a zombie music video and you could see it getting better as the makeup artist got better. I think about that a lot, how the making of the project makes the project better. This is my first time hosting a podcast, so it’s a very new process for me. I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling, and now, with a couple kids, a lot of this past seven years has been interesting, alternating between deep-diving into Durham and filming young beatmakers with Pierce Freelon all over the world. So it feels like a natural continuation of finding ways to work internationally and still be very present in Durham.
Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at email@example.com.
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