Qawwali as a Genre

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Qawwali is a venerable yet refreshing musical tradition that dates back to the late 13th century. The word qaul refers to an “utterance (of the prophet)” and the first Qawwals (qawwali artists) repeated these qauls by making them the subject matter of their qawwalis.

Famous among qawwali artists is the name of Amir Khusrow. He was a philosopher, an inventor, a gifted poet, and is mythologically credited to have created the genre of qawwali. More than 700 years since Amir Khusrow composed the famous qaul ‘Man Kunto Maula’, Riyaaz Qawwali envisions modernizing the genre for today’s audience, while staying true to the ethos of qawwali.

In this regard, Riyaaz idolizes Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who took semi-classical qawwali to new heights of popularity in both the Hindustani Shastriya Sangeet as well as the World Music circles through the 1980s and the 1990s. Riyaaz Qawwali hopes to take this niche tradition of Sufiana Kalaam and expand its reaches by introducing newer poets to traditional compositions and modernizing the sound while keeping authentic elements, all in efforts to reach new audiences.

Qawwali is an amazing genre of music, with lively rhythmic cycles, gripping melodies and a unique approach to adding improvisational poetry. It is no wonder then that this genre has gripped the attention of each musician that has joined the Riyaaz Qawwali ensemble. It is the ensemble’s goal to re-familiarize audiences in the United States with this unique musical style.

The songs which constitute the qawwali repertoire are mostly in Urdu and Punjabi (almost equally divided between the two), 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). Qawwalis are classified by their content into several categories:

  1. Hamd – praise for Allah
  2. Naat – praise of the Prophet Muhammad
  3. Manqabat – praise of either Imam Ali or one of the Sufi saints
  4. Marsiya – dirge lamenting the death of much of Imam Husayn’s family in the Battle of Karbala
  5. Kafi – devotional poem themed around heroic and great romantic tales from the folkfore, often used as a metaphor for mystical truths, and spiritual longing characterized by a musical refrain that sets a mood much like in a Ghazal
  6. Munadjaat – song where the singer displays his gratefulness to Allah through a variety of linguistic techniques
  7. Ghazal – poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Although the ghazal is most prominently a form of Persian and Urdu poetry, today it is found in the poetry of many languages.

In an attempt to modernize the sound and reach newer audiences, Riyaaz Qawwali started ‘Project Kashti’. Therein, Riyaaz also performs the following in a Qawwali format:

  1. Bhajan – generalized religious devotional song integral but not limited to the bhakti movement
  2. Shabad – hymn or paragraph or sections that appear in The Guru Granth Sahib (holy text of Sikhism)



Riyaaz Qawwali