Riyaaz Qawwali, an ensemble, whose musicians have been performing qawwali professionally for the past 15 years, brings you a brief introduction to this powerful form of music.
What is Qawwali?
Qawwali is a genre of music that has been used for centuries to spark religious devotion and bring listeners to a state of spiritual union with God. Qawwalis are often sung by Sufis as praise for religious teachers, saints, and scholars. Qawwali lyrics draw inspiration from Islam and use several poetry forms such as Ghazals, Hamd, and Kafi. However, spiritual love is expressed through the themes of worldly love and intoxication. Qawwali songs are mostly sung in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, and Bengali languages.
How is Qawwali music performed?
Qawwali music is usually performed by an ensemble consisting of a lead singer, a harmonium and a tabla or dholak player, and several side singers that serve as the chorus. This type of music is characterized by the voices of the lead singer and chorus, as well as hand clapping. A concert (traditionally as part of a ‘mehfil-e sama’) in such a setting can bring a Sufi into a state of ecstasy.
The name Qawwali comes from the word “qaul”, which roughly translates to an “utterance [ of the prophet or God ]” and the first Qawwals (qawwali music artists) repeated these qauls by making them the subject of their qawwali songs. Qawwali music is often described as hypnotic. It is a musical expression within the Islamic religion, which has the power of creating ‘a spiritual and physical connection with Allah.’ Listeners in the audience can experience ecstasy, euphoria, enlightenment, and a heightened state of awareness, from listening to the words or the poetic phrases.
There was a time when women were forbidden to perform Qawwali, but that has changed. Women are now welcomed both as performers and audience members alike. Importantly, you do not have to be Muslim to enjoy a Qawwali performance; even people who are not Sufis and don’t follow the Islamic faith or tradition can enjoy the passion of the performers, as well as the swell and lulls of the music.
Qawwali music dates back to the 13th century. The music originates from South Asia and is likely to have started in Delhi, India, but many of the biggest names to have garnered worldwide attention for the tradition have been born in both India and Pakistan. Amir Khusrow is one of the most famous names in qawwali music. He was a philosopher, an inventor, a gifted poet. He is regarded as “the father of qawwali”, being mythologically credited to have created the genre from a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indian influences. His teacher, Nizamuddin Auliya, was a mystic saint in India. The lineage dating back to Nizamuddin Auliya of Sufi singers is active today, and his shrine is a favorite among Sufis.
Spreading to America
The first group to bring this musical tradition in front of the United States audience was the Sabri Brothers, in the mid-seventies. Their lineup of concerts was no small tour. They made the news by being the first Asian artists to perform this unique style of music at Carnegie Hall, which was arranged by Robert Browning of WMI. In the late 20th century, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers brought qawwali music, the sounds from Sufi shrines, to the United States. It was Nusrat’s ‘Mustt Mustt’ record that gripped the world music scene and lit the fire for qawwali on the global stage.
Finding Global Success
In the 1980s and 1990s, Real World Records (founded by ex-Genesis singer Peter Gabriel) started to help world music artists spread their cultures, traditions and sounds around the globe. One of the artists that found the most success and made their name on an international scale was a qawwal (a performer of qawwali) called Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took qawwali to new heights of popularity within the Indian subcontinent and across the globe with his impassioned performances and powerful vocals.
Collaboration with Western Musicians
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is sometimes known as the the unofficial Pakistani ambassador to the world due to his success with spreading awareness of qawwali – through Real World Records, he collaborated with major names in the Western music scene including Michael Brook, Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder.
After Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Sabri Brothers
After Nusrat’s death in the late 1990s, Faiz Ali Faiz gained some notoriety. Born in Pakistan, he rose to prominence in the qawwali music scene. When Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan became ill, he requested that Faiz Ali Faiz take his place singing in a Qawwali mehfil, which was a huge honor for the young qawwal and displayed a high level of respect. In 2005, he collaborated in an unprecedented performance with Spanish flamenco artists at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, bringing the experience of a qawwali performance to a new audience. Wadali Brothers and more recently Nooran Sisters have also revived qawwali and sufi music.
Now, a new group based in Texas hopes to emulate the success that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan found during the world music boom, by taking traditional qawwali or Sufiana Kalaam and introducing classic and contemporary poets to traditional compositions. They hope to modernize the experience while keeping the authentic elements, in an effort to reach new audiences without alienating existing fans. One of the most unique things is that the Texas group strays away from Bollywood renderings, sticking to the old sound.
The Future of Qawwali
More than 700 years after Amir Khusrow composed arguably the most influential qual of Qawwali, “Man kunto maula fa’aza Ali un maula,” and around two decades after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was at his peak, the Riyaaz Qawwali ensemble is attempting to modernize the tradition of qawwali music for today’s audiences and is well known among diverse audiences for its unique style. Qawwali is a gripping genre of music, with lively rhythmic cycles, catchy melodies, and a unique approach to adding improvisational poetry which mesmerizes people listening to it. It is no wonder then that this genre has captivated each of the musicians that has joined the Riyaaz Qawwali ensemble. It is the ensemble’s goal to re-familiarize audiences in the United States with this unique music, and to spread it around the world.
The songs which constitute the qawwali repertoire are mostly in Urdu, Persi and Punjabi (almost equally divided between the three), although there are several songs in Brajbhasha and Persian. The poetry is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning and the central themes are love, devotion and longing (for the Divine). Qawwali songs are classified by their content into several categories:
- Hamd – praise for Allah
- Naat – praise of the Prophet Muhammad
- Manqabat – praise of either Imam Ali or one of the Sufi saints
- Marsiya – dirge lamenting the death of much of Imam Husayn’s family in the Battle of Karbala
- Kafi – devotional poem themed around heroic and great romantic tales from the folklore, often used as a metaphor for mystical truths, and spiritual longing characterized by a musical refrain that sets a mood
- Munadjaat – a song where the singer displays his gratefulness to Allah through a variety of linguistic techniques
- Ghazal – poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Although it is most prominently a form of Persian and Urdu poetry, today it is found in the poetry of many languages
Contemporary Categories (Riyaaz Qawwali Project Kashti)
Riyaaz Qawwali started Project Kashti as part of their efforts to modernize and refresh qawwali for hybrid audiences. With Project Kashti, Riyaaz also performs kirtan singing in a qawwali format:
- Bhajan – generalized religious devotional song integral but not limited to the bhakti movement
- Shabad – hymn or paragraph or sections that appear in The Guru Granth Sahib (holy text of Sikhism)
Instruments and Performance
A musician performing a qawwali is called a qawwal. The ensemble is usually headed up by one or two singers that take the lead, and a chorus of other singers that handle refrains and keep the beat with their hands. The melody is lead by the singers but is underpinned by the percussion which consists of either a tabla or a dholak. The melody is also supported by an instrument called a harmonium, which is a small hand-organ, or a sarangi a – a short, stringed instrument not dissimilar to a fiddle. Learn more about qawwali instruments.
Diving into Qawwali Music
Listeners looking to get into Qawwali can start in a variety of places, but I would recommend starting with the albums of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, specifically his album Night Song, which is Grammy-nominated and has been described by Billboard as ‘a work of great beauty’. Other albums to experience from prominent qawwals include Qawwali Flamenco from Faiz Ali Faiz, and the album Qawwali from the Sabri Brothers, which is a live recording of a performance in the Royal Albert Hall. The next generation of Pakistani qawwali artists include Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Amjad Sabri and Farid Ayyaz.
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