Fusion artist Karim Gillani and his Sufi Ensemble make love, not war – curious arts

Karim Gillani Feature Image

Pluralism through Poetry, Sufi Style

On a particularly bright and breezy afternoon, I met with University of Alberta-based ethnomusicologist and devoted musician Karim Gillani to discuss his forthcoming album, RAAH-E-ISHQ: The Path of Love. An artist that draws on a wide-range of multicultural experiences as inspiration, our conversation turned to his personal thesis on inner peace and cultural plurality.

“Even intellect, on many levels, can be twisted and manipulated,” Gillani explained. “In Sufism, the friendship between intellect and heart is particularly important. The mind will leads us to the question, but only through love can we find answers.”

Recently featured on CBC Searchlight, Gillani weaves the philosophy of Sufi teachings into his work and life. For those unfamiliar with this faith, Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that seeks to open the heart and inner dimensions of the human soul—not exactly simple subject matter. Yet as he recites couplets and parables in a remote garden just off of Saskatchewan Drive, Gillani’s lofty verse reveals the often enigmatic nature of Eastern thought.

“It’s about the journey of the human soul,” he says. “There is a circular dimension to everything.”

Karim Gillani. Photo by Phil Musani.

Karim Gillani. Photo by Phil Musani.

As intricate as patterns etched in gilded domes of mosques, the details of mystical Sufi poetry dovetail Gillani’s academic and musical leanings. Moving from his native Pakistan to London in 2000 to study at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, Gillani found himself bridged between two cultures deeply scarred by the devastating events of 9/11. Devoted to his Muslim spiritual roots but invested in a Western academic path, Gillani was suddenly brought face to face with violence and xenophobia. In order to cope, he drew from his spiritual teachings and looked to music for solace.

“This is not the first time that extremism has existed in society,” he recalls, a realization that set him on a journey to discover mystics and scholars who spoke of solutions to divisive conflict long ago. While studying volumes of lyrical Sufi texts, he had but one driving question: “How did the great poets address these existential issues?”

Years later, Gillani found himself in Canada earning a PhD in Music and Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. His position as a world music instructor at the Department of Music brought him into close contact with students and colleagues hailing from diverse musical and cultural backgrounds.

Raah-e-Ishq The Path of Love

Raah-e-Ishq The Path of Love.

Combining Sufi texts with original compositions for his album, RAAH-E-ISHQ: The Path of Love, Gillani has shaped a sound that blends East and West and addresses the question of conflict with compassion. In order to achieve a sonic signature that complimented the project’s theme, Gillani enlisted the talents of over twenty esteemed local musicians. Singing in Urdu, Punjabi, Persian, and Gujarati to the tune of mystic poets from the 13th Century to present day, he led his Sufi-inspired ensemble through a richly rewarding collaborative process.

“I wanted tradition on one hand, and transition on the other,” he explains. “We had classical musicians, jazz musicians, tabla players, mandolin, saxophone, electric bass…I wanted to open up this project to every kind of musician.”

The record features Gillani’s agile vocals and harmonium skills alongside the considerable artistry of his contributors. Yet he treads the ground of genre-blending carefully. “Sometimes fusion is confusion,” he says with a grin. “I would like to see the fusion tradition develop, instead of staying stagnant. The music must evolve.”

CD Release Concert:

Karim Gillani
Personal Website: http://www.karimsangeet.ca/
CBC profile: http://music.cbc.ca/#/artists/Karim-Gillani

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