‘Music is an ocean of majesty and to use its power is a sacred trust’

Anjali Jhangiani
Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Chatting up British Sufi artist Sami Yusuf before his debut performance in India at The Sufi Route music festival

Making his debut in India, British singer-songwriter of Azerbaijani origin Sami Yusuf will be performing at The Sufi Route music festival in Delhi later this week. An initiative by Friday Music Project, the musical event is aimed at spreading the charm of Sufi poetry and music. We catch up with the artist to find out more about his work... 

What draws you to Sufi music?
For over a thousand years, Sufism has been the source of one of the world’s most beautiful music genres as well as a most profound spiritual poetry tradition. The complex melodies and cadences of Sufi music have been transmitted across centuries from generation to generation, nourishing the souls of listeners and performers alike. Frequently wed to exquisite mystical poetry, these arts communicate intricate spiritual concepts directly to the soul of the listener.

What encouraged you to participate in The Sufi Route music festival?
I fully support the undertaking of A R Rahman to bring Sufi music to a wider audience. I see this festival as an opportunity to have an effect not only intellectually as a way for people to learn about this living heritage, but also spiritually as a way to transform the hearts of those who experience it. And so when I was invited to perform, I was very honoured to accept. 

Have you heard the music of the other artists who are performing at the festival? What plans do you have for your trip to India?
I first met A R Rahman in 2006 and was struck by his character, his humility and his great devotion to music. I’m looking forward to seeing him again and also to meeting the other performers about whom I have heard so much. My plans for my time in India aren’t set as yet, but among places I would love to visit are Agra, the Nizamuddin Auliya dargah, and, if time allows, the holy city of Varanasi. And, of course I’m anticipating some delicious authentic Indian meals.

What is the Sufi music scene like in London and the rest of Europe where you’ve been touring?
Unfortunately, Sufi music is not very popular in Europe, and the reasons for this are quite complicated. On one level, its appeal to a wide audience is limited due to some negative, false notions about Sufism arising from modernism, extremism and Islamophobia. Additionally, there is a widespread and false idea that Sufism is something that is ‘made up’, that it does not belong to any religious tradition. 

Each religion has an inner, esoteric dimension, and for Islam it is Sufism, just as Advaita Vedanta is one of the inner dimensions of Hinduism. In fact, to strip Sufism away from Islam would be an error. However, our modern world with its ever increasing emphasis on the material, the external, the superficial, has caused a disruption in the transmission of these inner traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation. This trend towards the external is leading many people to view others — people of other faiths, nationalities, ethnic or linguistic groups — as essentially alien and, therefore, easily demonised. 

I would love to see this trend reversed so that our differences could be respected and appreciated, and rather than looking to what separates us, we look to what unites us and what we can learn from one another. Although the effects of this disruption on Sufi music are widely felt, fortunately in some regions, Morocco for example, and certain parts of India, the traditions of Sufism and its arts are still very much alive. 

Tell us about your musical style called Spiritique.
When I began my music career, nothing like my sound had been heard before; it didn’t fit into existing categories. I named the genre Spiritique. It is a sound meant to evoke a sense of spirituality, and the lyrics at times celebrate the sacred, at times have an uplifting message promoting positive values of social cohesion, tolerance and unity. 

I was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Roehampton University for what they termed my extraordinary contribution to the field of music, and I was the youngest recipient of that award. I have been devoting much of my energy towards preserving tradition and legacy through music. 

You’ve come out with seven studio albums. How have you seen your music evolve through all of them?
My ethnic roots anchor me in the Sufi music and poetry tradition. Although I grew up in London, I always felt connected to another world. I still remember the first time, as a young child, I heard qawwali and felt its astonishing power. I later learnt more about Carnatic music and Hindustani music in their various aspects and nuances. 

As a teen, I loved to listen to ragas played by Pt Ravi Shankar. And so I had all these influences along with the Persian Sufi music and Azerbaijani mughams. The inter-weaving of these different strands is seamless and for me and my listeners, it is not seen as fusion. My goal has always been to create music for a higher purpose than just entertainment, starting with Al Muallim. My earlier albums had a more popular sound, but in the past several years, I have focused on traditional Sufi music. For me, music is an ocean of majesty and to use its power is a sacred trust. 

Tell us why, when and how you learnt the traditional instruments like the oud, setar and tonbak.
My first exposure to traditional music comes from my father, who is a great composer, musician and poet. As a small child, I was fascinated by the traditional instruments in our home. At age six, I started to play the tonbak, moving on to the santur, tar, violin, piano and oud. I also learnt their adab (etiquette and manners). At the heart of learning, the performance of traditional music is the master-apprentice relationship. 

How do you use your talent for humanitarian work? Tell us about your work as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the World Food Programme.
Since 2003, I have tried to use my platform for humanitarian work. I’m committed to using my voice to encourage acts that will change the tragic status quo of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. 

We are living in a world out of balance, and this is the root cause for hunger, poverty, injustice, the environmental crisis, war. These are all strands of a frightful tapestry that has become too familiar. To restore that balance is the challenge of our time. Each of us has to do our part; apathy is no longer an option. I am honoured to participate in campaigns organised by the WFP and I share their vision.

Tell us about your future plans.
I am currently working on a new album called Ecstasy which I hope to launch in London later this year. We have already done some recording for it in the Moroccan city of Meknes. The title refers to an elevated spiritual state, a state that transcends ordinary mundane consciousness.
This album will feature collaborations with remarkable world musicians such as Alim Qasimov, the great mugham singer and national treasure of Azerbaijan, as well as qawwali and other renowned maestros.

I will continue to be engaged in on-going projects including Andante Studios, our audio-visual boutique production house that promotes new talent and creates bespoke packages from pre-production to distribution. And, of course, I look forward to continuing my support for the incredibly important work of the World Food Programme.

ST Reader Service
The Sufi Route music festival will be held at Kalagram, Garden of Five Senses, Delhi, which will simultaneously be launched by Delhi Tourism, on February 9, 4 pm onwards

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