The essence of Sufism can never be destroyed, though its popularity certainly can add 'noise in the signal'

The American Sufi Project was started by a group of artists and seekers who meet at the weekly gatherings for Zikr (remembrance of God) at the Dergah-Al-Farah in New York City. The intention of this project is to transmit through music and art, a taste of the divine love and interconnectedness that they have felt participating in these spiritual and musical practices. Recently they performed here at the SUFI SUTRA. The core members of the group are- Dan Kurfirst, Tomchess, and Gabriel Marin while John Ferrara, Jeff Maan and Maura Tousignant performed as guest artists.

How did you come up with the idea of The American Sufi Project?

Gabriel Marin: Basically Sharib Khan came to the Dergah al-Farah in NYC, where me and Dan (percussionist) are dervishes and perform music during a part of the Zhikr. He expressed that we should record this music so people outside of the Sufi sphere could hear it. Dan plays with Tomchess, who I have been a fan of for a while, so, the three of us played together and it was beautiful. The sound of the fretless guitar and Ney blended so amazingly and fir perfectly with Ottoman Sufi repertoire we wanted to explore. Then to add an element of American music, John and Jeff who I play with in Consider the Source were added to round out the rhythm section.

How does the Western world perceive Sufism and Rumi?

Tomchess: The western perception of Sufism runs the full spectrum from those who understand its essence and function and history as a spiritual practice, even joining Sufi orders and attending Zikher, to those mystified by it as well as those leery of it mainly through it being associated with Islam's modern 'image challenge'. Rumi is known mainly through his poetry and again people understand it on both a superficial level like simple love poetry and this could very well be the majority, to many who understand it's deeper meanings and messages. The Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes are likely the most well known in general yet many who know of them don't really know about them specifically as Sufi or even make the connection with Rumi. Hazrat Inyat Khan is known by many who do have more extensive understanding or are artists and musicians. But I feel the USA in general is searching for a deeper understanding of what life is and can be; more meaningful, truly human, kind and truly connected. The USA a young country so these are baby steps and certainly this is a process with many current and future challenges. Definitely the mainstream media doesn't foreground this or it treats it in an orientalist type of way.

What is it about Sufi music that transcends boundaries?

Tomchess: Sufi music by definition is music in the service of transcending the boundaries within ourselves i.e. the ego.  So naturally this quality manifests in the outside world as well. It's focus on the underlying unity of all things + specifically evoking positive qualities coupled with ancient musical techniques such as repetition, modulation, chant and vibration create vehicles that inherently serve this purpose.

There has been an overload of the term “Sufi” in India in the recent times — Sufi-Rock, Sufi-Kathak, Sufi-Bollywood, Sufi-Festivals at the big metros. We're seeing considerable fusion being applied to traditional music forms now — what are your views on this trend?

Gabriel Marin: I have mixed feelings on it honestly. For the musicians, at least some of the members of the group should formally be Dervishes walking the Sufi path under the guidance of a Tariqa. And musically, the songs and style should have at least some root in a Sufi style, be it Qawwali or Illahi's or whatnot. Sufism is an inclusive spiritual path, but it is not without rules and guidelines, so one should treat that with respect and not use the word just to denote spiritualism in general. To use us as an example, we treat everything from the Microtonal aspects of the melodies to the way Maura( our dancer) presented herself with a full level of respect, and when we step outside of the guideline of the tradition musically, it’s not in a way that would be at odd with Sufi values. I think as long as it’s done with proper knowledge and respect for the tradition it can be a beautiful thing.

Rumi and the Sufi tradition gained enormous popularity especially during the last few years. Do you think this amount of popularity could destroy their essence?

Tomchess: The essence of Sufism can never be destroyed, though its popularity certainly can add 'noise in the signal'. But Sufism has had many challenges throughout its history. So again its inherent nature and purpose allows it to maintain its essence because it creates vehicles specifically to offset the noise created by ego and the world's 'noise'.

How was your experience performing at the Sufi Sutra?

Gabriel Marin: It was one of the most positive touring experiences of my life. The crowds at the shows and workshops were both amazing and attentive. They seemed so open to the various styles being presented to them and seemed to be there to really listen and engage the music and musicians in an open minded way. Also, being around all these musicians from different backgrounds and different languages and cultures for two weeks was such a joy. Everyone, and i really mean everyone seemed to get along beautifully. There were amazing jams in the hotels, people all eating together and hanging out. It really showed how we are truly all one people. And Amitava who organized the fest was a truly inspiring person to be around, with all that he does to help the less fortunate members of society and the organizational ability to make sure eighty something musicians were all always on time and in the right place. Honestly, it was a joy to be able to feel like something bigger than ourselves, that what we all were doing transcended playing normal shows and can hopefully be a small part of a greater change in society.

Tomchess: Personally I really enjoyed SufiSutra. I thought Amitava did an excellent job of organizing as well as creating a great spirit of connectedness, kindness and unity completely in line with a sufi spirit. The other artists were talented and dedicated and it shone through the music. Everyone I met was kind and helpful and I felt honored to be among them. This was my first time in India too, so I will definitely hope to return and I would like to express my gratitude for all of it.

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