Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project: When Music Flows From The Heart

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A positive experience I have had during the COVID-19 crisis is getting the opportunity to listen to a series of live chats on social media. An author and motivational speaker herself, Raga Olga D’Silva, the co-founder and director of Speaking Minds, has been conducting a string of discussions on a wide range of issues. Her guests include artists, actors, writers, activists, and citizens from various walks of life. I have found these chats pretty engaging, and some topics have been really interesting and have inspired me to pen down my thoughts.

One of the conversations featured Sufi singer/songwriter/composer Sonam Kalra who has earned appreciation for her Sufi Gospel project. There cannot be a nobler mission than uniting humanity. The purpose of Sonam’s project is to blend many voices of faith to create one universal voice of faith. The music is a harmonious blend of Sufi, gospel, jazz, bhakti, contemporary, and anything that spontaneously and organically flows into the stream.

It’s interesting to learn how the seeds were sown for the creation of the Sufi Gospel project. To mark the birth anniversary of Sufi saint Inayat Khan in 2011, Sonam was invited to sing gospel at Nizamuddin in Delhi. That event planted an idea in her mind that if a Sikh girl could sing gospel in an Islamic space, then it is possible to create a form of music that encompasses all faiths. Hence the project was born, and Sonam over the years has been performing with her band across India and beyond.

What was particularly striking about this live session? Appropriately titled “Matters of the He(Art)”, the conversation was informal in nature and was indeed a heart-to-heart talk between Raga and Sonam. I make a humble attempt to highlight snippets from the conversation which to me were particularly appealing.

What does Sonam say about music and Sufism?

Music as an art form was discussed in a lucid manner minus the jargons that sound alien to ones uninitiated to the discipline. As a trained singer who has earned wide acclaim and praise for her prowess, Sonam doesn’t talk about music in technical terms. She beautifully describes music in our lives as a friend that will never leave us. According to her, every individual connects to music in some way or the other. One does not need to sing in order to understand and appreciate the art. To quote Sonam, “If we were all singers, there would be no listeners!” This, I thought, was a very valid point.

As daunting as it may sound, Sonam assures that “Sufism” is not the big word. She explains in simplistic yet profound terms that Sufism is nothing else but the acceptance of all of humanity as equal.

The variety of music and one’s liberty to enjoy any music that appeals.

Sonam considers herself immensely blessed to grow up in a house which was filled with music. She fondly reminisces sitting on her mother’s lap and listening to the ghazals of Begum Akhtar. From a very early age, she was exposed to diverse genres of music. Melodies of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Harry Bellafonte, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Abida Parveen filled her ears. She also recounts her sisters listening to the Beatles and Eric Clapton.

Sonam expresses that one should be open to listening to different types of music. However, one should be at complete liberty to embrace the form of music that appeals the most to their heart.

What does Sonam bring to the table in the corporate sector?

Sonam has been contributing to the corporate environment by organizing workshops. Art is usually used as a medium for meditation or for de-stressing, and she wanted to extend its wings into the workplace too. “Finding Your Voice” is one such module in her program. It helps people to tune in and develop their artistic side. Voice here does not necessarily mean the singing voice, but rather one which aids to communicate better. Sonam talks about an exercise where a person is asked to stand in a corner and hear himself or herself speak. When the voice bounces back, one realizes what is wrong in the manner of speaking. That helps to set the rhythm or tone to facilitate effective communication.

Is Riyaz important, and do leaders always need a loud, aggressive voice?

In response to a question Raga asked as to whether riyaz is needed prior to presentations in the corporate world, Sonam’s response is in the affirmative. She calls herself a “big stickler” for rehearsals and shares what one of her teachers from theater had said. It is important that a performer rehearses to a point till it becomes one’s intuition. The outcome: even if one forgets, the matter is so deeply ingrained that one will still be able to deliver.

A leader does not necessarily need to have a loud, aggressive voice to be heard, says Sonam. The magic is in the art of communication, and even in a calm voice, one can express what he or she needs to say. An apt comparison was made when Sonam said that just as one needs to play the notes in their mind before singing a song, one should also get their thoughts straightened out in their head before vocally expressing them.

We need to do away with the conditioning.

Women have been conditioned for far too long to have a sweet, soft voice. This extends not just to singing but even while handling issues on a day-to-day basis. Sonam is of the opinion that one needs to go beyond these walls created, push the barriers, and find one’s core voice.

Sonam’s view of the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 lcrisis, in Sonam’s perspective, is going to be a kind of a rebirth of the earth. She sees light at the end of the tunnel and is positive that during this crisis, people will have the opportunity to reflect on what really matters to them and will emerge more compassionate than ever before.

Sonam’s open-mindedness emerges as one of the most admirable traits during her conversation with Raga. She looks upon the world of music as a space that embraces all of mankind. Her definition of a singer transcends stereotypical norms. She dislikes the use of the phrase “non-singer” and is certain that every person has a voice. Sonam articulates that anyone who loves music should step outside the boundaries, give expression to their desire to lend their voice, and cast aside the fear of being judged.

What makes one a real artist is when their love for the craft is soaked in honesty and sensitivity. Sonam Kalra is one such gifted singer who puts faith in truth and the free sprit. She strongly believes that one does not have to emulate others but simply needs to find one’s own soul voice. She endorses the philosophy of the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, who once said: “I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think”.

(This article was featured in Women’s Web )

Image source: YouTube

2 thoughts on “Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project: When Music Flows From The Heart

  1. I really love this, Rashmi. Aside from being a long admirer of Rumi and Sufism, I am also very much a love of music. During this pandemic music, especially of one conductor and symphony that I love, has been a constant source of joy and calm during these turbulent times. This was a very nice interview which I enjoyed very much and your writing, as always, was excellent!

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