A shaky first performance from a group claiming to perform contemporary Sufi music
Put Vasundhara Das and Rajasthani Sufi singer Mir Mukhtiyar Ali in a concert hall, and their voices could fill it with their power and purity. So it’s unclear why the duo’s voices are boringly offset with the hackneyed drums-guitar-bass of a pop-rock ensemble.
Not to say, of course, that the musicians of The Shah Hussain Project are anything but obviously talented and expressive. Comprising Roberto Narrain (drums), Shalini Mohan (bass), Hemanth Diwakaran and Anish Nadh (guitars) and Rajan Tisge (keyboards) besides the two vocalists, the Project — named after the 16th-century Sufi poet who wrote passionate songs of love and loss – is clearly filled to the brim with great musicians – both well-established and new. And yet, the overall sound audiences heard at a recent concert in Bangalore, organised by Bhoomija Trust, wasn’t anything beyond a simplistic mash-up of genres.
Through the concert, the band performed songs from its debut album. “Sajan bina” spoke of unending nights of separation; the mellow “Tum se”, the first song that Das and Ali collaborated on, became popular enough to be requested as encore. “Mere Sona Sajan” opened with pounding drums from Narrain, setting a markedly darker tone than the sentimentality that dominated previous songs. “Kaha na paave chain” had me bobbing along to its funky, slick beat – through a nagging feeling that somehow, sound didn’t match with sense: the restless desperation of the lyrics wasn’t matched in the music.
“Phakeera ho bhi na ho,” a rousing song of gratitude sung by Mukhtiyar Ali, received calls for one more. Indeed, the moving power of Mir Mukhtiyar Ali's voice was perhaps tapped into too little. Ali, who has recorded as part of Shabnam Virmani’s Kabir Project, among other ventures – comes from a Mirasi community (from the Thar Desert), known for its strong tradition of Sufiana Kalam.
I especially enjoyed the pumping bass lines from Shalini Mohan – whom Bangaloreans are familiar with from bands like Lagori and Allegro Fudge. Roberto Narrain is powerful on drums, but on that evening it didn’t quite go down well with the audience (when, after a break, the band asked the audience if they were too loud, a chorus in response asked for less drums).
But if we wanted to put away our misgiving and look for the gold, we were distracted by a series of glitches: besides sound issues, there were false, unsure endings, and moments of shaky coordination. A few songs in, we had begun to become weary. The initial excitement among the crowd at seeing Vasundhara Das live (as band members walked onstage, she received the loudest cheer) had begun to dim: there are few things more depressing in concerts than a band coaxing audience to clap – and receiving a tepid-at-best response.
Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of energy onstage, especially due to Vasundhara Das, who holds nothing back in rocking out completely to the more upbeat numbers.
Despite the glitches, the uncertainties, there was no denying the particular pleasure of the two lead vocalists’ voices: pure as the summer sky. But the attempt to “contemporise” Sufi music will take more than awkward English lyrics or slapping on a wailing, rock-style solos and bright keyboards, it appears.