A Night of Spiritual Rapture: The Orchestral Qawwali Project at the Royal Albert Hall

A spell-bounding blend of Sufi music and orchestral grandeur, the Orchestral Qawwali Project, led by Rushil Ranjan and featuring the enchanting vocals of Abi Sampa, delivered a soul-stirring performance that transcended cultural boundaries and left the audience in awe.

Cover image credit: Andy Porter

The Royal Albert Hall witnessed a mesmerising spectacle last bank holiday weekend as the Orchestral Qawwali Project took centre stage. An exciting collaboration, spearheaded by self-taught composer and arranger Rushil Ranjan, brought together the soaring vocals of Abi Sampa, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the National Youth Chamber Choir, and London Voices for an unforgettable musical journey. 

With roots deeply entrenched in the tradition of Sufi poetry, the Orchestral Qawwali Project reimagines traditional Qawwali compositions on an unprecedented scale. The fusion of Sufi music with orchestral arrangements speaks to the soul, transcending cultural boundaries. Forming just four years ago, with a debut performance at Bradford Literature Festival, the project’s evolution has been remarkable. 

The hall was singing with excitement from the moment I entered the doors. It became apparent that this performance was well known within the cultural community, a largely South Asian audience dressed in beautiful vibrancies and jewellery. 

As the sell-out performance began, I was met with a sound so fulfilling, rich and emotive that it brought up an overwhelming response of tears. From the beginning, there was complete clarity as to what The Guardian described as having the ‘…gravitas of a Hans Zimmer score’. The Orchestral Qawwali Project hold the power to uplift, inspire, and connect its listeners to a greater feeling.

The performance showcased a new sound, blending traditional elements with contemporary orchestration in a way that felt both innovative and timeless. At the forefront were the radiant vocals of Abi Sampa, whose emotive delivery intertwined seamlessly with the rich orchestral textures and powerful chants. In line with Qawwali tradition, Sampha’s hand movement (which I often found myself lost in) became an extension of her voice and gestured to help communicate the emotion and narrative of the music. The stage was decorated with an abundance of instruments, those of traditional Sufi music as well as that of a typical classical orchestra. While some musicians only had a few moments to play, those moments were divine. From the talented drummer’s showcase to the use of the hall’s grand organ, no detail was overlooked, ensuring every instrument and performer had their moment to shine. Dressed in white, the lead performers exuded an ethereal presence, while seated singers and traditional musicians formed a row behind. 

Image credit: Isabella Spicer

As the lights danced across the crowd and the stage in sync with the music, it showcased the beauty of the hall. A humble yet impactful performance, where even the simplicity of hand claps became an integral part of the music. This communal instrument invited the audience, making them an active part of the rhythm and beat. The show was punctuated with unprompted audience participation, with joyful hand claps and spontaneous dancing adding to the playful vibe. Drawn into a world of spiritual rapture and emotional highs, each lull in the music was met with eager anticipation, leading to explosive crescendos that left the crowd in rapturous applause. I witnessed incredible passion from both the performers and the audience, creating a dynamic exchange of energy.

Image credit: Andy Porter

The evening was not just a musical journey but also a cultural celebration. The Orchestral Qawwali Project goes beyond mere auditory ecstasy, incorporating some of India’s most celebrated classical dancers into their performances. Figures like Aakash Odedra and Vidya Patel graced the stage, infusing each movement with grace and emotion. This added another layer of depth to the already enchanting experience, as they twirled and drifted across the stage. Before the encore, we saw choreographer Vidya Patel join on stage with seven dancers, creating a kaleidoscope of movement. 

I have conflicting opinions about an encore. Where it has historically been something relatively unplanned, and unexpected, it feels as though it is now a tool used in every performance for much more than ‘one more song’. The ‘last song’ was introduced, performed and applauded before a short interlude where the front band left and returned to the stage for three more songs. While this performance was one most definitely deserving of an encore, in my opinion, an unplanned repetition of an already played song, rather than a rehearsed trio, would have had a greater impact and authenticity. 

Ranjan and Sampha addressed the audience throughout the performance, whether through a personal touch of mutual praise or heartfelt gratitude for the support from friends, family, the Bagri Foundation and the entire production team. Ranjan spoke of ‘‘seeing so many of [his] dreams coming true’’ in that moment. He raised awareness that while “music does the same thing to all of us across the world’’, the project “can only happen in this time, in this place”, and “this is a London thing”. A special mention was given to the conductor Melvin Tay, whose guidance was instrumental in bringing the performance together.

In reflection as someone with little knowledge or experience of Sufi music and the associated culture, it felt like an honour to be a part of this experience and has left me wanting more. I have been moved so deeply that I consider myself as a demonstration that the Orchestral Qawwali Project has achieved its original intention of leading the listener to a spiritual rapture; indeed, a testament to the idea that music has the power to transcend boundaries, bringing people together in a shared experience of joy, spirituality, and cultural appreciation. I was somewhat hesitant about whether this performance would be something I’d be able to fully connect with, but I have been left in awe of what has been created and hope that I have inspired you to visit one of their future performances.

Editor’s note: you can find out more about the Orchestral Qawwali Project on their website here.  

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