credit katia gort

Celtic Connections 2023: Qawwali

By Katia Gort

Spirituality meets classical music in this mesmerising performance.

When choosing what events to attend for this year’s Celtic Connections, I made a conscious decision to include as diverse of a musical selection as possible, honouring the festival’s intercultural composition. One such multicultural performance was the Orchestral Qawwali. The product of writer and composer Rushil and vocalist Abi Shampa, the Orchestral Qawwali Project seamlessly blends elements of classical music with Sufi poetry. Immediately drawn to the concept of the Orchestral Qawwali Project, it was my most anticipated concert ,as its boundary-crossing style and composition promised a once in a lifetime experience, and I was not disappointed.

The event was hosted at City Halls, a spacious and elegant venue with ample seating space which was quickly filled. In contrast to most of the other venues featured in the festival, I had already attended a concert at City Halls, however, on this occasion the stage was laid out in a very different manner. A large, slightly elevated, platform had been placed at the front of the stage with a piano sitting idly on it, and behind this platform was the traditional orchestra set up. This change in composition created a sort of transformation to the venue, making it a more intimate set up, which would only be emphasised by the presence of the musicians.

The opening act, the Indian musical duo, Vedanth & Gurupriya, started off the night with some enchanting lullabies. Seated gracefully on the floor of the elevated platform, Vedanth played the guitar and sang, while Gurupriya chanted beautiful meandering melodies, their voices creating delightful harmonies as they weaved in and out of each other. For several of their songs, they were joined on stage by a proficient saxophone and flute player who added an additional layer to the enchanting melodies, which at times sounded almost improvised. Once the impressive opening act, which could have easily been a main performance concluded, a short break allowed the audience a chance to use the bathroom or get a drink while the orchestra started setting up for the main act. The first act had blown me away; however, nothing could have prepared me for the spectacular performance that was about to begin.

By the time most of the audience had returned to their seats, the Royal Conservatoire Orchestra, under the direction of Greg Lawson, had finished tuning and had gone quiet. Orchestral Qawwali walked on stage to the sound of applause and settled into their positions on the stage. At the front and centre sat singer Abi Sampa, back-up singers and percussion to her right, box accordion, cellist and Rushi at the piano on her left. Much like the performance before, this grounded arrangement drew the audience’s attention to the faces and hands of the performers at the front with the now added depth of the orchestra in the back. When Abi Sampa started to sing it was immediately obvious how amazing her voice was. Not only did she deliver complicated melodic lines in a flawless manner, but she also processed a mesmerising quality that rippled through the air, travelling on creative inflections and playful rhythms. Additionally, the back-up singers created an expansive effect, echoing and chanting with and around her. The music ebbed and flowed in magical ways, giving space for her voice and taking on a voice of its own.

The pieces they played were very long and complex, reminiscent of classical music, with long, almost improvisational, moments where the voice or instrument would meander and explore beyond the established form, and return once more. The power behind each piece conveyed an almost spiritual experience with Abi Sampa leading the prayer – goddess and priestess – rocking back and forth and gesturing with her hands as if experiencing the music through the physicality of her body. I was compelled to stand and move as a unit, feeling the ritual of the music surrounding me. The crowd could feel that something special was being achieved in that concert hall, and with every song they clapped and cheered louder, giving back a bit of the energy and passion that was being shared from the stage. Once the performance ended, the crowd gave the musicians a standing ovation, refusing to leave the venue even after the lights were turned on, which finally resulted in the encore they so desperately desired.

Not only was this concert the highlight of the Celtic Connections festival, in my opinion, it was also one of the most unique and engaging experiences I have ever had. I would encourage anybody who has the chance to see the Orchestra Qawwali Project live to do so immediately, for they are truly a rare example of how performative art can transcend and transform the boundaries of its nature. I hope Celtic Connections understands the value of this project and continues to platform them in the upcoming years, and if they do, you can be certain that I will be there.


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