Qawwali Instruments

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What instruments are used in Qawwali?

Traditional qawwali instruments are harmonium, sarangi, tabla, and dholak. Clapping, an important percussive component in qawwali music, serves as a rhythmic drone and is sustained throughout a song. Instruments like congos, khartal, and morsing are sometimes added by regional qawwali ensembles.

A type of Sufi music, Qawwali is performed to drive people into a state of religious devotion and spiritual closeness in search of God. While the lead singer plays an important role in a mehfil -e- sama, it is the instruments (saaz), chorus, and clapping that give the qawwali singing form its signature character. Traditionally, the saaz of qawwali music were tabla (which is invented by Nizamuddin Auliya, who also invented qawwali), tanpura (also known as indian drone instrument) and sarangi. All 3 of these older saaz, the sarangi, tabla and tanpura have been staples of religious sufi qawwali. One of these traditional saaz has been replaced by the harmonium.

This spiritual form of Islamic music has seen new saaz added to recent international concerts, as of late 20th century. New qawwali instruments have been adopted as of early 21st century to contemporize the performance.

Qawwali Harmonium

The harmonium is a staple in qawwali troupes. It is the main melodic sound for qawwali performances. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his ensemble had two secondary vocalists that played harmonium. However, one of the harmonium players was the primary. Sabri Brothers were similar in this regard. Unlike Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one difference was that the lead singer played the harmonium in the case of Sabri ensemble, which was not the case in Rahat or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’ s qawwali music. Different to this are the Wadali Bandhu as well as Sufi musicians like Abida Parveen, and Nooran Sisters. All of these ensembles had only one harmonium player

qawwali harmonium

Qawwali tabla

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Wadali Brothers all use a modified version of the classical set up. In their moving spiritual performance, the idea of love and devotion is sung with the accompaniment of a unique percussion setup. In this setup, the bass side is a dhama (not bayan), which is cylindrical and longer than a traditional bayan. This part of the drum also sits in the musician’s lap, as opposed to sitting on a ring.

Tabla (traditional) and Dholak

The Sabri brothers and Amjad (Brothers son) used a combination of the tabla and bass side of the dholak. In their unique qawwali performance, the percussionists also hit the dholak bass similar to a western musician plays the snare drum. At most Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan, they only use traditional percussion and harmonium as the primary saaz in a mehfile-sama.



A North Indian bowed string instrument. It is fairly loud and stands out in a musical setting because of its unique tonality. It is made from a gourd with six strings, which produce music in the lower register. It was originally played by being held between both arms with one finger on the string to produce notes from different positions. This instrument has its roots in Sufi Islam, where it was developed as an accompaniment to one’s devotional prayers.

It’s tone is often very emotional, which lends itself well to accompanying qawwali as it is driven by the vocals. Recent qawwals are not using it in their ensembles. However, Nusrat did a concert tour across the USA with a Sarangi player. Plus, he worked with one or two popular Sarangi players including Ustad Sultan Khan. In addition to qawwali, it is used in ghazal and classical music.


Hand Clapping

All Qawwali music, from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s troupe to a modern qawwali group, use hand clapping. Whether performed for a live audience of a recorded session, the shorus musicians bind the vocals together with this important element.

Chimta (Chimpta)

Chimta is a unique regional instrument that is sometimes used by qawwali ensembles. Many Sufi singers including Arif Lohar, Alam Lohar, Sartinder Sartaj, and Gurdas Maan use Chimta in their performances. Qawwali songs use it less, but plenty of Sufi artists and songs celebrate the Chimta

Congos, Drums, Keyboard, Guitar – New sounds in Qawwali

While the genre is folk and quite traditional, western devices have certainly made appearances in ensembles across South Asia. Qawwali songs have had to modernize. A simple way of bringing this music and tradition into the present day has been the use of non-traditional musical sounds. Rahat Fateh Ali khan usually does a concert with a drummer. Although harmonium is highlighted, keyboard has been used by several qawwali singers.


While qawwali music dates back to the time of Nizamuddin Auliya, the musical form and this Sufi performance tradition has evolved. Although the devotional song and spiritual aspects remain intact within songs, qawwali music uses the sounds found in other South Asian genres. A qawwal in India may experiment with sounds in folk traditions of Punjab Rajasthan.

A qawwal in Pakistan is judged on staying true to the sound of qawwali as cemented Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sabri Bros. Almost 20 years after their death, these two qawwals remain as the benchmark for singing and performing qawwali.

Riyaaz Qawwali