These musicians and thinkers want to spotlight the mystical dimension of Islam

In the world premiere of their Misaq-E-Ishq show at Aga Khan Museum, Ali Sethi, Noah Georgeson and Ali Asani showed the spiritual depth of Sufi love songs


MISAQ-E-ISHQ featuring ALI SETHI, NOAH GEORGESON and ALI ASANI at Aga Khan Museum, Sunday, August 19. Rating: NNN


The Misaq-E-Ishq performance started late, but I didn’t mind. It gave me time to learn about my seat partner’s love for poetry – which started suddenly after reading an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem in university, and had consumed her – and the afflictions of her heart. 

I won’t name her suffice it to say that she’s young, moved to Toronto from India four years ago by herself, lives and works downtown, has been on several disastrous dates, and is clearly “in like” with a man who doesn’t want to commit to a relationship. In short, the perfect audience member for this show, even though she did not know who the performers were. She was just there for the poetry – alone.

The majority of the audience had come to see Ali Sethi, a young Pakistani singer who has written a book, The Wish Maker, and contributed to publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker. He was joined onstage with Grammy-award winning musician Noah Georgeson, recently famous for composing the title music for the hit Netflix show Narcos. Dr. Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University, rounded out the trio. 

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Akber Dewji

Noah Georgeson

Their performance was described as a world premiere of a concept that Sethi, Georgeson and Asani have been playing around with since January 2017, when the first iteration of this idea was performed in Lahore, Pakistan. Turns out that Sethi was once a student of Asani at Harvard, and it was in Asani’s classes that he discovered a deeper meaning to the love songs that he had grown up listening to merely as entertainment.

At a time when “political Islam or loud Islam, as I like to call it, is taking up all the space in the media – and that’s what people are focusing on: this minority of people who claim to represent Islam – we want to give voice to the Islam of the majority, who have a spiritual relation to Islam, and which can be seen in these songs,” said Asani in a phone interview the day after the show.

The performance is a primer for those who don’t know the history of the Sufi tradition in South Asia, which professes a more mystical approach to Islam. 

After Sethi introduced the group onstage, which included two local performers – Mehul Joshi on tabla and dholak, and Asad Khan on harmonium – Asani began with his explanations. 

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Akber Dewji

At a time when “political Islam or loud Islam is taking up all the space in the media, we want to give voice to the Islam of the majority, who have a spiritual relation to Islam,” says professor Ali Asani.

Tracing the lives of mystic poets such as Moinuddin Chishti, Amir Khusrow, Shams Sabzwari, Siraj Aurangabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the tradition of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Asani gave brief introductions to famous poems like Khwaja Mere Khwaja, Ghoom Charakhra and Mujhse Pehli Si Muhabbat. Asani explained that many Sufi poets approached divine love through imageries of romantic love, using metaphors such as reunion with a beloved, obsession with a lover or the Hindu idea of darshan (to see and be seen by God), that these songs reflected a syncretism of thoughts and traditions.

Asani’s forewords were then followed by Sethi performing excerpts of the songs or ghazals, along with Georgeson on guitar and the two accompanying musicians. Sethi’s soaring vocals also indulged in elements of harkat, which can be thought of as a South Asian version of melisma. Sethi performed some songs such as Khwaja Mere Khwaja and Mujhse Pehli Si Muhabbat in their traditional form, adding his own anecdotes about the songs as a prelude, with Georgeson’s bass guitar adding a funky groove to Ghoom Charakhra.

However, a famous ghazal by Siraj Aurangabadi (Khabar E Thayyur E Ishq Sun), was presented as Sethi and Georgeson’s original musical composition. Their acoustic version stripped down the poem to its basic melody, with Georgeson’s mellow guitar chords a lovely counterpoint to Sethi’s assured vocal gymnastics. 

The show ended with Dam Mast Qalandar, a celebrated song sung by qawwali legends like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen. Introducing it, Asani and Sethi talked about the tradition of dhamaal, a rapturous performance where listeners are known to get up and start dancing, lost in the trance of the repeated phrases of music. The shortened version that Sethi and crew presented did not quite build up to that rapture, but the enthusiastic audience clapped along nonetheless.

For me, the evening was full of teasers I wish that the trio had chosen fewer songs and sung them to completion. The band also needs to work out how they present the show in future. While Asani’s explanations provide great insight into the tradition, at times the delivery felt more like a lecture than a show. As well, sitting next to a clearly animated Sethi and engrossed Georgeson, both consummate performers, Asani’s impassive appreciation of the duo’s performance was a strange accompaniment to musical magic of the poetry. 

There are future plans to build up to a longer concert, said Asani. The concert at the Aga Khan Museum was an experiment that they hope to revisit in the coming months and work on a concert series. The most immediate result of this collaboration will be a music video for Sethi and Georgeson’s version of Khabar E Tahayyur E Ishq Sun. There are also plans for a book.

Nevertheless, the show was a success for many attendees, especially younger audience members who didn’t know the full history of Sufi thought and poetry. They waited patiently after the show for a meet-and-greet with the performers. The young woman sitting next to me left the theatre room with tears streaming down her face. The performance had sparked something in her, she said. She was going to have a talk with that guy she’s “in like” with, asking for answers.

“This was the most amazing thing ever,” she added. “I’m glad I came alone.”

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Akber Dewji

music@nowtoronto.com | @aparita

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