Qawwali Music

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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

“Qawwali” is a kind of Sufi devotional music with a high-pitched and fast-paced stye of singing. It developed in the 13th century when Sufism was becoming popular on the Indian subcontinent. “Qawwali” literally means "philosophical utterance" in Arabic and has come to mean performing Sufi poetry to music. “Qawwali” songs are based on devotional Sufi poems and often have romantic themes that can be interpreted as love between a devotee and his God or between a man and a woman.

“Qawwali” has a very distinct sound. The "sweeping melodies" and rhythmic hand clapping and the drone of the harmonium is instantly recognizable. It is often featured in Indian films and clubs and gatherings. Describing the appeal of qawwali music, Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, it is music "a rocker could love; it favors rock-hewn, hearty voices and an unstoppable beat."

There are millions of Sufis in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.Max Bearak wrote in the Washington Post: Above all, qawwali is devotional music, and its songs are odes to love of God. They often conjure a relationship between the singer and God that is intensely personal, almost as if they are lovers. The Sufi tradition from which the music derives is unique to South Asia. Its practice often takes the form of mystical, musical folklore, and followers pay respects to dead Sufi saints at shrines big and small. Sufism preaches tolerance and peace, and is about as far as can be from the strict forms of Islam that have gained a foothold in Pakistan in the past generation.” [Source: Max Bearak, Washington Post, June 22, 2016]

Qawwali music evolved out of Sufi poems and chants of God's name (“zikr”) to achieve a trancelike state. The poems are regarded as links to Sufi saints and ultimately to God. The origin of qawwali is attributed to Amir Khursrau (1253-1325), a talented Sufi poet and composer who has also been credited with inventing the sitar and the tabla. He was a disciple of the Delhi-based Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Poems by Khursrau are the core of the qawwali repertoire. Qawwali music has endured through the tradition of “Mahfil-e-Sama” ("Assembly for Listening"), which remains the central ritual today. The act of listening to music (“sama”) is an expression of mystical love and the desire to be unified with the Sufi saints and God.

Qawwali musicians view themselves as religious people entrusted with the responsibility of evoking the name of God. They are trained and led by a religious leader called a “sheik” and traditionally have performed during ceremonies to mark the death of a saint at the saint's shrine. Qawwali musicians also have traditionally performed at shrines on Thursdays, the day Muslim remember the dead; Friday, the day of congregational prayer; and times when many pilgrims arrive. Musicians who perform at Sufi shrines are often descendants of the saints for which the shrine is dedicated.

Qawwali Songs

Qawwali songs tend to be long and have a structure and organization similar to that of northern Indian music. They feature a singing melodic line supported by drones and rhythms. A typical qawwali song features "solo verses punctuated by a choral refrain and instrumental interludes." Qawwali songs also feature "a steady, accelerating beat, a refrain that is repeated with increased passion” and “ a voice that roses to joyful, inspired testimonials of faith."

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and friends

Qawwali songs often have a structure defined by strict rules. They usually begin with a slow prelude, featuring the harmonium and drumming. After the prelude ends the singer begin intoning texts quietly as if in payer. As the song the progresses the tempo speeds up with calls of praises of Allah, the Prophet and Sufi saints. This is followed by call-and-response style exchanges between the soloist and the junior singers. The rhythms become more lively and up tempo, building to crescendo-like climax.

Most tradition qawwali songs are written in Persian or an old form of Hindi called “Braj Bhasha”—the languages used by Khursrau. Many new songs are in Punjabi or Urdu. On the surface many qawwali lyrics seem to be about unrequited love. A closer look reveals that are about longing for god. Both musicians and listeners talk about how the music intoxicates them with divine love. The words to one famous Qawwali song goes: "I have forsaken all and I stand forlorn at your doorstep/ Just one glance from you would fulfil my life's dream/ Take one look at me, and I'll never look back on the world I have spurned in order to cling to you.”

Songs are often extended with “girahs”, additional verses added spontaneously in the middle of a song. There is a repertoire of girahs that singer chose from and skilled singers now to thrown in girahs in unexpected way to keep a song fresh. “Tarana” is a vocalization technique "using syllables derived from esoteric Sufi tradition."

Qawwali Singers and Instruments

Qawwali singers are always men. Part of the reason for this is tradition. Another reason is the belief that women don't posses the stamina to properly sing qawwali. Most qawwali singers some from families of qawwali singers. If a singer has no sons he passes the music on to his nephews.

Qawwali singers learn their crafts beginning at an early age. They memorize poems from the classic repertoire and do certain exercises to train their voice. When they are good enough they join the party (musical group), first as response singer and later, if talented enough, as a soloist. Talented singers form their own parties.

The harmonium (a hand-pump accordion-like instrument) produces a droning sound that supports the melody. The harmonium replaced the “sarangi”, a fretless sitar-like instrument that required constant retuning and was deemed unsuitable for live performances. The rhythm is provided by “dholaks” (heavy, double-headed drums hung from the shoulders and played with the fingers) and tablas, played with a flat palm as opposed to the finger technique favored in Indian music.

Qawwali Music Parties and Performances

A group that plays qawwali music is called a party. It usually includes a lead singer called a “mohri”, secondary singers who usually play the harmonium, and at least one percussionist. Every member of the group joins in the singing and the youngest members provide the rhythmic hand claps.

Describing a qawwali performance, Mark Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post, "The party's lead vocal sang the principal lyrics...His verses were answered by the higher-pitched solo singing of his brother Mehr and the call-and-response and unison of the other eight musicians. While two harmoniums provided the drone." The tabla player "did an exemplary job of keeping and embroidering the beat. Still, much of the evening's music was made simply with trilling voices and clapping hands."

Javid Bashir

Qawwali refers to a performance and singer as well as a kind of music. At a traditional show, the audiences is made up of exclusively men in accordance with Sufi traditions. In the old days, qawwali was performed at a Sufi shrines on important religious days. These days it is performed in the West at concerts and in Pakistan and India at gatherings call mahfils.

Qawwali has traditionally been performed at a mahfil. Mahfils are social events in which the audiences and performers relax in comfortable positions on the floor. There is great deal of communication between the audience and performers, with performers adapting their music and performances to the likes and spiritual needs of the audience. Many Qawwali performs don't like performing in auditoriums because the feel intimacy is compromised there.

At marfils, musicians often direct their music towards an experienced group of senior listeners, who often show their appreciation by throwing money on the stage or handing musicians gifts (“nazir”) in appreciation for a particular phrase or riff. These gifts date back to a time when they were the performers principal source of income.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) was considered the greatest “qawwali” singer of his generation. He was praised by Western artists such as R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel, and worked with Ry Cooder, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Peter Gabriel. According to Newsweek Ali Khan "sang of god and love in a voice with seemingly infinite range and startling flexibility." He won a Grammy in 1996 for music for the film “Dead Man Walking”.

Ali Khan was a native of the Punjab. He was born in Faisalabad Pakistan on October 13, 1948. His family had been singing mystical Sufi poetry set to music for 600 years. His father was a famous classical Qawwali singer who sang with his brothers in a famous party. Nusrat's father wanted Nusrat to be a doctor or other kind of professional—anything but a musician. Against his father's wishes, Nusrat listened to his father's classes and practiced on his own. At the age of nine he already displayed extraordinary talent.

In 1965, a year after his farther’s death, Nusrat began singing professionally. He studied classical music and then joined a party led by his uncle. Another uncle taught him the art of qawwali. In 1971, after his uncle died, Nusrat began developing his own style. He listened at length to recordings of his father and uncles and speed up the tempo of his singing to make it more audience-friendly.

Nusrat quickly established himself as the greatest qawwali singer of his generation. He performed widely in Pakistan and India and toured Europe and the United States. As a young man Nusrat dreamed that he would become a Qawwali and perform at a shrine in which no Qawwali had ever performed before. In 1979 that dream came true when he became the first Qawwali to perform at Hzratja Khwaja Mohin-du-din Chishto in Ajmer, India.

Nusrat weighed 105 kilos and always carried a small handkerchief to wipe the sweat that accumulated on his brow during performances. He died of cardiac arrest at the age of 49 on August 16 1997. Newspapers in Pakistan and India took time out from commemorating their 50 years of independence to praise him.

Faiz Ali Faiz

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Performance

Nusrat usually performed while sitting down on rug surrounded by piles of books filled with religious and romantic poetry. A poem dating back to the 14th century was the oldest song in his repertoire. New ones were added all the time. Nusrat's party often composed songs while they performed. They usually select a poem and then choose a raag and taal to go with it. By improvising the party finds out what works and what doesn’t. The song is continually improved over a series of concerts.

Nusrat's group often performed requests that the audience demanded, and sometimes repeated a particular phrase an audience liked over and over to establish the Sufi state of ecstacy. Concerts in Pakistan usually begin with classical songs and then move onto songs that emphasize the words. The audience often chants the lyrics and go into a trance.

Nusrat moved his hands and body as he sang, sweating a lot and frequently mopping his brow. He did this both to convey emotion and to provide conductor-like cues that the members of his party picked up on. Nusrat sang with "acrobatic agility" and a "raw, impassioned tone" according to the New York Times: "Whether he was repeating a refrain with ever-increasing intensity, streaking through elaborate zigzagging lines, letting loose a percussive fusliade or sustaining a climatic note, he made music that united virtuosity and fervor.”

Nusrat recorded music for Indian films and had his music remixed with techno beats. His fans shouted, threw money and leaped in the air in ecstatic burst when he sang. In a typical performance, drums, hand claps and harmonium push his voice ever upwards.

Other Qawwali Performers

Badar Ali Khan, Nusrat's cousin, is credited with modernizing qawwali by shortening the slow preludes, making the music more upbeat and getting right to the passionate call and response passages. Describing him, Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Khan made each song a magnificent vocal display. He swooped upward with his voice, growling rawer as it rose; he traded percussive syllables with his drummer; he bounced syncopated syllables against the beat. Three other singers in the party answered him with falsettos that reached higher and higher."

Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is Nusrat’s nephew and designated successor. He played with Nusrat and did some of his improvizations when Nusrat’s health began to fail. Rahat has a higher and thinner voice than his uncle. He has released his own albums. Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwaku is another group that features two other Nusrat nephews. Their voices are more similar to Nusrat’s and the material they do is regarded as accessible to Westerners.

Other qawwali performers include the Sabri Brothers (since Haji Ghulam Farid Sabrib died in 1994 the group has been led by Maqbool Sabri) and Munhsi Razi-ud-din Ahmed and his sons. The Sabris were arguably the second-most famous qawwali singers after the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One of their members was gunned down in Karachi in 2016 (See Below).

Abida Paveen is regarded as one of the premier Sufi singers. Pareles wrote "her voice has a low, husky edge and it rose to a sustained high that hovered virtually without vibrato...She was a master of dynamics and timing, stringing together her songs in long medleys that went from calm, fervent declamations to high-flying lines.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Salman Ahmad, You Tube

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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