Weaving a heady mix of Sufi, Gospel, Jazz, Classical and Broadway ballads into an unimaginably fresh take on music, Sonam Kalra & the Sufi Gospel Project, comprising of herself and five accompanying musicians entranced audiences at the Shamiya Theatre in downtown Kuwait on the evenings of 17 and 18 September.
The Sufi Gospel Project attempts to bring together through song, music and spoken word the voices of different faiths. It highlights the universal truth that no matter what the language of lyrics, or ethnicity of sounds, there is only the language of faith that touches every soul; it proves that different hallelujahs can exist in harmony.
Sonam Kalra, the persona behind Sufi Gospel Project, is humility personified who, with her singular voice, wrings her heart out to the world through the totally new genre of music, the Sufi Gospel Project. She learned Indian music from such greats as Shubha Mudgal and Sarathi Chatterjee; Classical Opera from Hur Chul Yung and Gospel and Jazz from Ashley Clement in Singapore.
Sonam has performed on numerous international stages and at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. Earlier this year she shared the stage with legendary Sufi singer Abida Parveen at the World Sufi Festival, ‘Jahan-e-Khusrau’. She has sung for many causes including Charities for Cancer, children’s education and women’s empowerment, including the worldwide women’s campaign against violence, ‘One Billion Rising’.
In an exclusive interview with The Times Kuwait, Sonam Kalra speaks of her genre of music and the Sufi Gospel Project revealing in the process the persona behind the curtain.
What brought Sufi Gospel Project together?
I've always been really drawn to the Gospel hymn 'Amazing Grace', I used to sing it all the time and it was this hymn that made me decide I wanted to spend some time studying Gospel, but unfortunately it is not sung that much in India. Then, while on five-day holiday in Singapore, I walked into a music school and asked if they had a Gospel teacher. They said they had, and I went in and there was this lovely girl, much younger than me, Ashley Clement. I went in for one class with her and I had such a wonderful time that I kept going back all of the five days I was there. After that I kept returning to Singapore, sometimes for a week at a stretch every three months, to learn Gospel music from her . It was through Gospel that I discovered jazz and other genres of music.
Is it true that you quit your job for music?
Yes, absolutely correct. I quit in the year 2000. I was doing really well in advertising, so I left at a time when I was very happy but I quit because I felt that this is what I wanted to do with my life. But just when I quit my job, I also lost my voice for almost a year. I got laryngitis, throat infections repeatedly and I thought, I can't sing, what am I going to do?"
But it all worked out. Lots of good stuff happened. I got asked to work in television- I hosted a couple of TV shows,- I hosted 2 travel shows-for the BBC and Star Plus - so I got to travel around India which was great! I also hosted a TV show where I test drove cars for a living, which was a pretty cool job. I also did theatre for quote a few years. I feel all these experience put together were perhaps helping me in some way to come to this point. God had a plan, as He always does.
If not music, then what?
Nothing else. I have done all the things I wanted to before music. I have finally come home. The great thing is I have been lucky enough to be able to experience everything that I wanted to. It has been really great. I have been lucky. With music it feels like every day will be new, so that is why I love doing it and that is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Your great language – music and lyrics – where do you get it from?
I think if you open yourself up, it will come your way itself. So if I am reading something that appeals to me, I just remember it because it touches me. Sometime people are kind and they share poetry with me.
Strangely enough, a lot of poetry that I write feels like it has come from somewhere else. So there are some things which your soul knows that you do not need to know through your intellect.
I do write poetry, but I do not know if I will ever publish it because it is personal. I use the pen name 'Shadaja', which means first note of Indian classical music. It is actually a music heritage society which promotes Indian classical music, started by my mother. One of the things I have written is, 'In you I am lost, in you I am found, of you I was born, to you I shall return', -I wrote that for my mother and of course for the Beloved, for the Divine.
I lost my Mum three and a half years ago and I lost my Dad last year. So I feel like a lot of my poetry, a lot of this music comes from them. This is my way of keeping them alive doing what they wanted me to do more than anything else in the world.
It took me a long time to come to music. I was singing from the time I was twelve but I never really pursued it until I felt like I had something to say and now with the Sufi Gospel Project I feel like I have something to say. I feel like maybe I have lived a little, so I have something to say, something I need to say, emotions to share.
Do you have a soft corner for Sufism?
I believe in the basic tenet of Sufism-an acceptance of all humanity. I believe In spirituality and a connection with the Divine. I am very anti-ritual, anti-cult and an absolute non-conformist. I don’t like being labeled. Even now when people say “Oh, you are a Sufi singer”, I say “No, I am a singer, Tomorrow I might sing and experiment with more genres of music, who knows, People feel comfortable when they put you in a box. I am not going to let anyone put me in a box. I am an Aquarian; a dreamer, full of dreams, who lives by her own rules.
Who are some of the singers you admire?
I admire Ella Fitzgerald, Begum Akhtar, Shobha Gurtu, AbidaParveen… women with big voices. I prefer big voices; to me a voice that has weight or texture feels much more moving.
Do any of the singers remind you of yourself?
No, not really, I do not try to be like anyone. You have to make everything you do your own; otherwise you are just going to sound like a poor imitation of someone. People who try and sound like Lataji can never be Lataji; there can only be one Lataji. You should have that individuality; God has made each one of us unique and you need to revel in that uniqueness.
Also, you can be inspired by people; you can try and do certain things that they do. When I meet artists who are really humble, to me, it is the mark of a good artist, not just any famous person. If you have achieved greatness and you have not forgotten humility then that is incredible. For musicians, it is important to remember that the music is not there because of you, you are there because of music.
You've been listed among the 50 creative powerhouses and impresarios who elevated Delhi to world's leading art capitals and also been profiled by Elle in a list of 'Transformers: Women Who Own the Future'. How do you feel about it?
It is lovely to get this kind of recognition… it is really something when someone calls you a 'Transformer who own the future', it is very flattering but I think also to stay grounded is very important. So yes, you take the praise and you allow yourself to feel good but I think it's important to understand that life is so dynamic; one day you can be a powerhouse, but you never know what you are going to be tomorrow. You are only as good as your last concert. And that's why you have to keep working hard.
I don’t do music for recognition, I do it for love. lt took me a long time to finally decide to start singing in public and when I finally decided I would, I said I am going to do it for myself, I am not going to do it for anyone else. I am going to do it because it gives me joy. But yes, it is wonderful that I can touch people and I can connect to people through my music.
- Ghazal Praveen