Dan Kurfirst is a composer, percussionist, and educator based in New York City. He is not a flashy drummer as stereotyped by Sesame Street’s character Animal. Dan brings a thoughtful, considered approach to his music. His playing is compelling, drawing the listener into a gentle dance.
Dan was born and has spent most of his life in New York. An early memory is of having a toy drum set. Other instruments also came into his life as a child. He took guitar lessons. At fourteen, he became aware that some boys at his school were starting a rock group. He offered to play guitar, but they said they needed a drummer. He chuckles and says “I tried to play drums.”
Later, Dan studied percussion with Shane Shanahan, a musician who knows drumming traditions from around the world. He also learnt from Hakan Kaya, a famed percussionist from Turkey. Beginning in 2009, Dan made regular trips to Istanbul to explore the connections between Sufism and Middle Eastern music. His playing is rooted in jazz and rock to which he brings elements of Middle Eastern, Indian, and West African music. Dan performs with several groups in New York City, including Ensemble Fanaa and the American Sufi Project that have attracted a following. In conversation, he is quiet and unassuming. We spoke about both his experience as an educator and as a musician.
Other than the frame drum that is a large round, flat percussive drum and the drum set, what percussion do you play?
I play the darbuka (a goblet shaped percussion drum.) I love the calabash from Mali (which is a drum in a half circle hollowed out from the calabash tree), that is the next one I would like to make deep study of.
You were musical Director with the Children’s Museum for an exhibit entitled, “Manhattan America to Zanzibar, Muslim cultures near and far.” Can you describe that experience?
Yes, it was an amazing exhibit that covered the entire Muslim world. The exhibitors wanted to do a touch screen app where the kids could press pictures of different instruments and hear them. They contacted me to direct the musicians for the app. We had a kora, a tabla, a gigeck – it’s like a stand up violin, a ney that is a flute, a frame drum, and an oud. It was not a complicated composition, but all the instruments sounded good together and it was a great project.
Does such an exhibit make the understanding of world music more vivid for young children?
Yes, that was the idea, there were descriptive texts so the children could learn by reading about the different instruments and where they come from. We did some live performances, so the kids loved that. Hearing music is a better way to learn about different cultures than by reading about them.
I saw a YouTube video where your group American Sufi Project talked about the ney instrument. Is your work with the Sufi Project also educational?
We did some educational videos with our first album release.This group’s focus is to record and perform music. But American Sufi Project is more than a band, our hope is to connect people to all kinds of artistic expression from the American Sufi community. I am the Director of the musical component of the group.
“Meet Yourself, Mast Qualander,” is a highlight track from American Sufi Project’s second album of the same name. It was a collaboration with Dhruv Sangari, a vocalist from the Qawaali genre. Qawaali is Sufi devotional music from India. Dhruv sings with such longing on this track, accompanied by your steady frame drum, among other instruments. How did you come to work with him?
I met Dhruv in 2009, when I was in Turkey and first interested in music from that part of the world. I got into a taxi with some other musicians. In the car, there was a nice older man, he asked us, “What are you?” And we said, “You know we are musicians,” And the man said, “Well, you know music is a sin.” He was half joking. Dhruv who was also in the car then had this great response. He said, “Yeah, I hope I won’t need it one day.” His answer made me immediately like him a lot.
We spent several nights singing and playing together, then I found out he was the last official disciple of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which is powerful (Khan was a singer who made the Qawaali genre more celebrated worldwide). Dhruv comes to the United States quite a lot,because he has family here. We were able to record together in 2014.
He has an evocative voice…
Yes, well he is now the true representative of the Qawaali tradition.
There is also a track called “Drawn to the Light of Love,” from American Sufi Project’s first album that I enjoyed. It brings to mind the image of a caterpillar slowly winding up a leaf. There is a mournful quality as the ney plays long, drawn out, notes. Can you talk about this track?
That is a traditional Turkish Ilahi form. An Ilahi is a religious hymn in Sufism. As a group, we’ve tried to study Sufi musical traditions, but you realize that you cannot hope to achieve the exact sound of someone who comes from generations within a certain culture. So you learn from the traditions and bring your interpretations to them, perhaps jazz improvisation. On that track, I played in a rhythm that is not the traditional three beat cycle for an Ilahi. But it worked.
When you play live, is it a meditative feeling that you are aiming for?
Yes, you need to maintain a focal point. I once heard a saying that goes something like “The way of the Sufi is sobriety within ecstasy.” But with this music if you lose your focus, it is going to fall apart. You have to be there with it for the audience.
Would you say the purpose of Sufi music is to elevate the audience’s spirit?
Yes, but if you are the musician you have a difficult job.You have to maintain your sobriety, it is more of a service for the audience.Although there are tremendous benefits for the soul in practicing and playing this music, there’s no doubt about that. Your question reminds me of the jazz musician Bill Evans, who was more concerned with the layperson’s immediate reaction to his music than musicians who cannot help but hear the technical aspect and what might be wrong with the music.
What is it about Sufi music that may resonate with someone’s spirit or is that hard to speak to?
Yes, it’s all hard to speak to. (We both laugh). In Near Eastern music there is an untempered tonal system. In the Western system like on the piano, you have twelve very defined notes that are equal steps away from each other. The Eastern systems are not like that, they vary in terms of complexity. In the Turkish system there are a lot more than twelve notes in an octave. You know, for example, you can have a B half flat and in certain music in Turkey it is even a little more flat. Tom Chess who is the ney player for the American Sufi Project described it very well when he said, ‘When you have a twelve tone system, you have the emotions of I am happy or I am sad, but when you have the subtlety of the microtonal systems,emotions become more complex, such as I am somewhere in between happy and sad.That’s also more of what real life is like.’
Maqam is the word for scale in the Turkish tradition. Maqam also means both the place and the grave where a holy person is buried. Each Maqam is like a little emotional place that you explore inside a group of notes. There are different emotional and spiritual qualities that are associated with each Maqam. I don’t think Eastern music is more transcendent than Western music, generally, to me it is a different type of transcendence. John Coltrane had one way, Taksim another way,and Qawaali another way. No culture has a monopoly on transcendence of soul or anything like that.
You mention the musician John Coltrane, has he inspired you?
Yes, I’ve heard his recordings my whole life, because my father played them, but in my twenties I started to experience his music differently. His playing opened me up to a deeper understanding of music. At its apex, the music coming out of John Coltrane’s horn and ensembles sounds like pure love to me.
It is clear from our conversation that Dan has spent true time nurturing his craft. He is a dedicated musician. His group Ensemble Fanaa released their self-titled debut album in September to good response. His journey of tying together Eastern music with Western continues.
For more information about Dan Kurfirst, you can visit his website at: dankurfirstmusic.com
To purchase Ensemble Fanaa’s latest album ensemblefanaa.bandcamp.com/releases