Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home, I listened to a lot of religious music. I’m talking about Catholic choirs, Pentecostal shout sessions, Southern gospel quartets, Black gospel testifying, and, of course, Contemporary Christian Music. Depending upon the situation, music could be used for contemplation, edification, exhortation or salvation. But those environments also discouraged me from enjoying music, which is why I got in trouble with my pastors and Sunday School teachers for listening to Christian rock music because I liked the beat. Music was supposed to be about God and nothing else, so it took me a few years to learn how to appreciate music in other contexts.
When faced with art that conjures up in me the feelings and sensations of spiritual transcendence, I am often struck dumb. I wasn’t sure how to react or respond to the eight songs of Intiha, the new collaboration between author Ali Sethi and electronic producer Nicolás Jaar. Released on Other People, the album combines Sethi’s love for ghazal, a form of ecstatic poetry performed by Sufi mystics, with Jaar’s passion for freewheeling improvisation. In fact, much of the music for this project has been repurposed and reimagined from Jaar’s acclaimed 2020 album Telas.
On first glance, it sounds like something created by a writer dabbling in magical realism. One half of the duo has written poetry in Urdu that hearkens back to the work of Islamic mystics performing at courts from Persia to India. The other has reinterpreted his own songs, disassembling them into their component parts before reshaping them into ethereal electro soundscapes. However, the resulting combination fills me with a sense of fantastical elation akin to the times I’ve spent deep in prayer or meditation throughout my life.
To be clear, I don’t think that Sethi and Jaar intended to craft an album specifically religious in nature. Yes, ghazal poetry was written and performed by religious clerics for hundreds of years, but Intiha focuses on the artistic cooperation between two highly congenial creators. However, to my ears, the mystery inculcated by Jaar’s creeping brand of electro and Sethi’s entrancing vocal delivery compel me to cathartic contemplation.
The entire effect is meditative, not sleepy; monastic, not dervish. It all begins with the intentional instrumentation. If you don’t pay close attention, you will miss the delicate interplay between the various keyboards and percussion that float in and out of the mix as dreamy washes of sound. Synth pads, piano melodies, Wurlitzer warbles, and Farfisa chords all get their moment in the sun, but I’m in awe of how Jaar brings the underlying assembly of snaps, claps, clicks, footsteps, and insect-like sound effects to life with such artful flair.
But even that undersells the impact of Sethi’s voice. Depending upon the demands of the tune, it’s alternately searching, pleading, pursuing, and cajoling. You can hear it most prominently on “Muddat,” “Chiragh,” and the title track. No, I don’t speak Urdu, so I don’t understand what he’s saying, but I absolutely believe every word he sings. He packs so much urgency and heart into each utterance that it’s hard for me not to think of a choir soloist or spiritual leader as they call out to God, speaking for a congregation.
Though it’s quite distant from the religion of my youth, I cannot ignore the righteous fervency on display throughout Intiha. A prayerful intimacy flows in and out of this music, even as it’s also perfect for a downtempo DJ set at 3 a.m. Maybe it’s the understated passion. Maybe it’s the sweeping vocals dancing atop loops of sound and layers of echoes. Or maybe it’s the haunting liquidity of it all. Simply put, my soul feels washed cleaned when listening to the music of Ali Sethi and Nicolás Jaar in ways that it never felt, even in the depths of my religious upbringing. And that fills me with a sense of reverence I rarely feel in everyday life.
Label: Other People