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.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

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