Abiding with the light: Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project in Cairo

On Wednesday 24 September Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project fused music with spirituality in a unique performance at the Cairo Opera House

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“Manam, Naman… I am yet I am not. I am so lost in your love, I am in this world and I am not…” Thus read the Farsi poem behind one composition by the Indian musician Sonam Kalra and her Sufi Gospel Project, to which the Egyptian audience had the privilege of listening during the seventh International Samaa Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting (20-27 September).

The festival filled a number of Cairo theatres with Egyptian and international troupes that mix music with spirituality. Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project performed for the festival’s opening and closing nights, and gave a special concert at the Opera on Wednesday 24 September.

With her versatile experience and captivating voice, Kalra travels along the numerous paths of faith, picking up a creative blend of mundane and otherworldly material to deliver her message. At times reaching out to poetry in her music, at other times singing well-known Western songs arranged by Kalra, the group brings about a sense of interfaith harmony. As she explained during the opera evening, Sonam Kalra, the Sufi Gospel Project represents different voices of faith, religion and language welded by the musicians into a single voice, “the inner voice of God” as she puts it.

Kalra represents the Sikh religion, yet throughout her artistic development she has sung Christian gospel songs. She believes that “since God has many religions,” she “should be allowed to call out to Him in any way, any language, any manner that seems right.” As such Kalra touches on much musical material, from the gospels and jazz to bhakti devotion music and Sufi rituals.

Kalra’s velvet voice, almost angelic in its texture, is strong and pure. Her peaceful on-stage disposition is reinforced by the equally inspiring musicians seated on either side of her. Ahsan Ali, a remarkably talented performer, plays the sarangi (a bowed, short-necked string instrument known to Hindustani classical music); at times he also sings, a second voice that generates wonderful harmony with Kalra, enriched by the occasional third voice of Rajesh Prasanna, who mainly plays traditional Indian bamboo flutes. Amaan Ali Khan plays tabla, Tarit Pal percussion and Anil Chawla keyboard and piano. Most of the musicians in the project come from gharana families that maintain musician lineages. At the same time, they are a melting pot of faiths, Christian, Muslim and Hindu as well as Sikh.

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project

Anil Chawla on keyboard (left) – (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Though the musicians have performed together for only three years, there is an uncanny understanding between them, as if they grew up in the same household and shared the same life experiences. The music they create together has about it a captivating sense of unity that affects them, it seems, as much as the audience. At times they move between rhythmic frames, while at other times they go beyond them altogether, wandering the terrain of improvisations in which they move as one unanimous entity. What joins them together is art they create, straight out of their souls, convincing the audience with their musical capabilities, intuition and intellect emerging from the many arrangements, original compositions and improvisations, as well as the sheer honesty of their artistic expression.

“The music is not here because of us, but rather we are here because of music. I always underline the fact that we have to cherish and respect it, we have to remember that it’s a gift from God,” Kalra says, explaining her sense of family within the group.

The Cairo evening included songs to Farsi and Panjabi Sufi poetry, along with the well-known Christian hymns Abide with Me, Cohen’s Hallelujah, Ray Charles’ Hallelujah I Love Her So, John Lennon’s Imagine and a rendition of an Irish traditional tune. In the hands of Kalra, even such well-known compositions take on new meaning. Kalra takes her time telling each story; her songs are lengthy, with each turning into a memorable journey through music and lyrics.

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Yet Kalra’s project is not intended to touch the soul of religious listeners only; it does not recognise borders, be they religious, spiritual or intellectual. It is the creative rendition of the group’s spiritual and artistic sense of identity, which carries them above any one specific religion and past any musical genre. Kalra’s music speaks to everybody, and everybody can enjoy its intensity. As much as the Sufi Gospel Project’s history reveals how natural and spontaneous the group’s formation was, disconnected from any one religion, it is the artistic and spiritual development of Kalra herself, a singer with her own musical philosophy, that gives the Sufi Gospel Project its central beat.

Born in New Delhi to parents who valued art, music and literature, and filled the household with knowledge and liberal thinking, Kalra believes that both her mother and father were her greatest teachers.

“My parents have had a great influence on me. People always ask me where and what I’ve been studying. And though I studied Indian classical as well as Western music and explored jazz and gospel, it is important to underline that it was my parents who launched my philosophy of life and beliefs,” she tells Ahram Online.

In our conversation, Kalra explains how, throughout their lives, she and her siblings were always exposed to music and the arts, and taught equality. “My father was always telling us, ‘You are not equal to men, you are better than men.’ My parents never put any restrictions on us and never stopped us from doing whatever we wished. We were always taught that if you are given freedom, you must exercise it with intelligence and honesty. I am Sikh yet at home we would talk about each faith and religion with a sense of acceptance towards all of them.”

Kalra recalls both of her parents with love and warmth. In fact, during the Opera performance she referenced her mother’s verses, which have inspired her to date. “My mother headed the Music Heritage Society, specialised in promoting Indian classical music. Music was present in our household all the time,” she clarifies.

The society would gather in homes and hold small intimate concerts, to an audience of 50-60 people, during which they would cherish and share Indian classical music. It became a performance platform for Indian classical music performers, young and old, who otherwise did not receive sufficient attention. It also hosted several acclaimed names. Kalra reveals that many music teachers visited her home; music was part of her life, entering the artist’s soul.

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project at the closing ceremony of the 7th International Samaa Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting, 27 September 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

“My mother loved music; she also wrote poetry, beautifully, she is the reason behind my interest in the arts and literature. I was never forced to study music; music was simply there, my mother exposed me to it as I continued to absorb all the ideologies that my home represented. And when my mother told me how good my voice was, I did not take her remarks to heart, thinking instead that, she loved my voice, because she was my mother.”

In fact Kalra’s mother saw in her daughter much more than just a child who liked to sing in a house soaked in culture. The wise woman knew that she had a girl whose voice could capture people’s hearts beyond gatherings of family and friends or small-scale public appearances. Indeed, as time revealed, Kalra’s voice was yet to speak to international audiences, touching them in a same way as it moved her mother. Her journey to Sufi Gospel Project is filled with love of music, of God and of her home.

Kalra remembers the day she laid the foundation stone of the Sufi Gospel Project:

“In February 2010, I was invited to sing at the Dargah of the Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). Though at this point I usually sang gospels and jazz, together with an instrument player, I decided to prepare something different and special for the evening.  When we walked out, I knew that I found the sound I was looking for; everything started coming together. I went to the recording studio and began recording my music, and coming home to my mother, who by then had fallen ill, I let her listen. Each time she’d love it and encourage me to pursue this path. She passed away in January 2011 and, shortly after that, the musicians and other friends who had kept visiting our house for years asked if I’d like to make a tribute concert. On 20 February I presented a few pieces with the Sufi Gospel Project, our first public appearance. It was as if my mother pushed me to it, making sure I could lose myself in music.”

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project

Sonam Kalra (left) and Rajesh Prasanna on flutes (right) (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Kalra continued working on the songs and arrangements. In May that same year she performed in one of New Delhi’s celebrated arts venue, belonging to the India Habitat Centre. Karla was no stranger to the place as she had performed jazz in its small auditorium a few years before. This time however she was offered the big theatre. The concert proved a great success, with the audience rewarding Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project with an incessant ovation.

“At the end of that evening, an old woman shouted loudly from the audience, ‘Straight from your lips to God’s heart.’ I felt I could hear my mother speak. Ever since we have been very lucky everywhere we went.”

Indeed since then Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project have taken audience around the world by the storm. They have performed on many stages across India and other Asian countries, making equally well-received appearances in the USA, London, and the Arab countries, often at festivals dedicated to Sufi and spiritual music.

At the moment, Kalra is the only person managing the band’s marketing and promotional issues. “I used to have a band manager but it didn’t work out. It was all too business-oriented. Maybe at this stage I am not ready to give the organisation of logistics to someone else, maybe I’m still searching for a second me to do this job.”

Although handling all the logistical aspects of the Sufi Gospel Project gives Kalra extra work, and deprives her of many hours of sleep, she still finds the strength and passion to do it all. “I find great support in my husband. He is very solid and grounded; like a good conscience. He gives me a lot of good advice, and shares his opinion of my music. I am blessed to have had wonderful parents, now a great husband, great in-laws, friends…”

After Egypt, Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project will perform in Tunisia and Lebanon, and later on in London and Singapore.

Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project

From left: Amaan Ali Khan on tabla, Ahsan Ali on sarangi and Sonam Kalra vocals (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly

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