In the middle of a rough year, Philly-based poet and spoken work artist Ursula Rucker opened an email that stretched back to the 16th century.
It was an out-of-the-blue invitation from strangers, from two producers she had never crossed paths with, working on an album of songs based on the poetry of Kabir, an Indian mystic and poet, and woven around the sublimely precise, stunningly earthy voice of renowned Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal. She listened, felt the common thread, and co-created No Stranger Here, a polyphonic, multifaceted tribute to love, earthly and divine. With Kabir as the binding tie, Rucker, Mudgal, and the Business-Class Refugees (led by veteran cross-cultural, genre-defying producers Patrick Sebag and Yotam Agam) render in lush sonic form the shared experience of alienation and longing.
Balancing the elegant subtleties of Indian classical tradition, Western orchestral music, rich bursts of electronica, and Rucker’s insistent words, No Stranger Here flows from the universal sense of strangerhood, that mysterious alienation that haunts both our contemporary lives and echoes in centuries-old poems. “None of us are strangers to that feeling,” remarks Sonya Mazumdar, EarthSync CEO and producer. “Yet it is the very feeling of not belonging that highlights the intensity of love.”
“Their tracks suggested a mood or tone, and I would look back on the poetry I’d been reading and take little bits from the poems,” Mudgal recalls. “Khayal, one of the styles I specialize in, uses phonetics to great advantage, and allows me to take a very tiny, 30-second composition and turn it into an extended exploration of pulse and sound. You can discover a lot as a musician, just in those few phrases.”
Agam, Sebag, and the rest of the Refugees—bassist Eval Mazig arranged the soaring orchestral parts—worked with Mudgal’s inspired improvisations—but realized that something was missing. Familiar with Rucker’s albums, they began dropping her voice onto a few tracks and realized she was it. Months of emails later, and Rucker, surprised by the invite and uplifted by its timing, crafted her own words and vocal tracks in response to Kabir and Mudgal’s.
Unexpected, the dialogue unfolds beautifully: “Steadfast” weaves the meditative perfection of Mudgal’s vocal lines with Rucker’s gentle yet firm explorations of love’s many angles. “Seraphim Tones” moves through intense longing to prayerful gratitude and connection, as Mudgal flies over scintillating beats and Rucker sings and speaks with an immediacy that shows just how alive the tie between ancient poems and contemporary poet can be.
To balance the Eastern elements and the Western orchestra, the distinctive voices of a highly trained singer and a veteran wordsmith, Agam and Sebag drew guidance from the narrative thread suggested by the pieces. “We look at it like a film that has two major actors that tell the same story but each from his place and environment,” they note. “Every song is a different story and should leave room for everyone to tell their stories in harmony. That's what music and collaboration is all about. That is what we love doing.”