A group of American musicians is introducing New York to the ethereal delights of Sufi music

Since 2014, the American Sufi Project has been giving Sufi music the American touch.

In 2011, writer Amitav Ghosh chanced upon a qawwali performance in a townhouse in New York. A poster taped to the door read “Sold out”, but Ghosh knocked anyway. A man opened and asked for tickets. Ghosh said he had none, but the man let him in. In the centre of the room, on the floor, sat the qawwals while Ghosh joined an audience of New Yorkers – white, black, brown, men, women, children, Asians with dreadlocks and clean-cut lawyers.

“When we stepped outside again the headlines and the news seemed very far removed from where we were,” Ghosh wrote.

A year later, an entrepreneur named Sharib Khan was heading towards the Financial District in Manhattan, New York, when he discovered the same place as Ghosh did. He followed a few people walking into the small entrance of a building and discovered that Jummah gatherings were being held on the ground floor of what was a Sufi dargah. Khan found it beautiful and he became a regular visitor to New York City’s Dergah-Al-Farah.

It was through attending the weekly gatherings for zikr, or a prayer of remembrance, at the dargah that Khan had the idea of creating a compilation of music inspired by the sounds of the prayer. Khan pitched the idea to percussionist Daniel Kurfirst who performed at the zikr sessions. Kurfirst was sold and he got hold of other musicians – thus began the American Sufi Project, a means to give Sufi music the American touch, the way Krishna Das gave an American spin to kirtan music.

American Sufi Project.

Meet Yourself, Mast Qalandar

“We have qawwali in the Indian subcontinent and Sufi-inspired music in Turkish, Iranian and Central Asian settings but nothing that could be called American or even North American,” Khan said. “Rumi is the most widely read poet in the USA but most readers are probably not cognisant of his association to Sufism or Islam.”

In 2015, the American Sufi Project released their debut album American Sufi Project Volume 1, consisting of 12 tracks revolving around Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish traditions. In July this year, the group released their second album Meet Yourself, Mast Qalandar. Clocking at 31 minutes, the three-track album focuses on qawwali. This time, the group released a promotional music video for the title track, an interpretation of Mast Qalandar, sung by Hindustani classical singer Dhruv “Bilal Chishty” Sangari.

While the group’s website mentions that through their music, the American Sufi Project wants to share with all the “taste of the divine love and interconnectedness that they have felt participating in these [zikr] spiritual and musical practices”, a music video essentially serves to promote an album for commercial purposes. Khan agreed. His company Ammi Media, which produces the project, is not a non-profit organisation and thus they need to rely on album sales.

Aziz Rawat, the creative lead of the project, added that the message of the video is beautiful and without a commercial intent. But if it helps sell their music, commerce will be a “happy byproduct of our work”.

Meet Yourself, Mast Qalandar.

Shot over three days in New York City, the video begins with two women in a rabbit and giraffe costume hugging each other. “Hold someone tight today, hug ’em, feel your heart beats merge,” the narrator says before the video cuts to visuals of New Yorkers and the narrator continues to urge the listener to love, empathise and give back. Soon, two Sufi whirlers enter the frame – one dances atop a building. During the shoot, onlookers called the police, asking them to handle the situation – most thought the dancer, Ali, was going to commit suicide.

One of the intentions of the American Sufi Project was to expose the world to the musical traditions of the Islamic world – the beauty of which brought Khan, Kurfirst, guitarist Gabriel Marin and multi-instrumentalist Tomchess together.

The first album contained pieces from the Ottoman Turkish repertoire, and the new album contains qawwali renditions. Next the group looks forward to exploring Arabian, West African and Central Asian traditions of Sufi music. As with the first two albums, the group’s later work will also include guest musicians. “The American Sufi Project is like Coke Studio, bringing in diverse musicians for each release,” Khan added.

“Another part of the group’s intention is to showcase the potential for cross-cultural collaboration, in particular between Western and Islamic cultures,” Kurfist said. “Musically, this means allowing room for our backgrounds as American musicians to come through in the context of these other traditions.” For instance, the composition Drawn to the Light of Love (Hijaz Illahi), which appears in both their albums, features solos and group improvisation which comes from American Jazz traditions and has little to do with Turkish music.

American Sufi Project.

Music for the entire universe

Khan, a big fan of Das, wants the American Kirtan singer to hear American Sufi Project’s music. But nothing would please him more than if the group’s music were added to the playlist of an International Space Station astronaut. “In 1977, when the Voyager spacecraft was being sent to space, it was decided (I believe Carl Sagan had this idea) to send recordings of some of the most iconic human sounds out to space for any life forms that may chance upon this,” he said. “One of the tracks in Voyager’s Golden Record is Jaat Kahan Ho by Surshri Kesarbai and this stuck with me very deeply.”

The group wants to create an artistic contribution for the world each year. In 2015, the group released their first album. In 2016, they performed at the Sufi Sutra festival in India. This year, they released their second album. Next year, the American Sufi Project is promoting and presenting Shaykha, a documentary based on three women who lead Sufi communities in the USA, Turkey and Senegal. They also hope to release their third album in 2018.

Like John Lennon or U2, the American Sufi Project too is idealistic about spreading love and peace through music. “When I first encountered this music, it helped me to think about life and existence in new, deeper, more beautiful ways than I had before,” Kurfirst said. “If through this album we can provide even the smallest piece of that for one person, we would be very grateful.” Kurfirst, Khan and Rawat believe that the message of Sufism is very simple and universal.

“We don’t need to explain Sufism to people,” Rawat said. “Anybody can google and learn about it from multiple sources.”

Their goal, he added, was to share love, peace and unity through the traditions of a culture that is more than what one may hear or see. “I think it’s important for us all, within our own communities and outside of it, to realise that we have a voice,” he continued, “And these voices of music and art can and need to be louder than the current dominant voices of division and politics that paint a narrative of negativity.”

American Sufi Project.
American Sufi Project.
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.