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.
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”.
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.
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.”