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A singer transfixed in the rapture of religious ecstasy, sits cross-legged on a carpet while he belts out long, improvised melismas against a small backup chorus with accompanying harmonium and percussion instruments—this is the proverbial image of qawwali, the musical expression of Sufi poetry in South Asia.
Today, such an aura of musico-spiritual devotion via extreme emotion is fashioned on two accounts: first, by a contemporary appetite for the mysticism behind the genre’s 1000-year-old history, which traces its roots to the Persian founders of the Delhi Sultanate on the Indian subcontinent; and second, a result of its highly-mediated delivery by a rising pantheon of semi-secular superstars, most famously helmed by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The romantic view of traditional qawwali sees its protagonists as exclusively male and hailing from long, elite lineages attached to important Islamic Sufi shrines.
In its allegedly oldest and purest form, musicians sing all night, with each song lasting as long as an hour. A pir, literally referring to an old man, sits at one end of the shrine gathering, acting as de facto chief.
Each qawwali session opens with a reading from the Qu’ran. But it is the singers sitting at the opposite end of the shrine who take full control of the scene—manipulating text, musical structures, and hand and body gestures to achieve the state of Sufi sama, or “ecstatic audition”.
The aim for performers is not only to evoke their spiritual emotionality through music, but also arouse this devotion within their listeners in the act of musical communion such that they become receptive to the hidden messages of the songs, delivered in Farsi, Punjabi, Urdu or literary Hindi.
Not surprisingly, this divinity—to be found in audition, music and spirituality, and channelled through the singer’s grain of voice—has been interpreted variously throughout the centuries within and beyond the Indian subcontinent. The situation has been further complicated by the often ambiguous nature of qawwali poetry itself, which frequently invokes the sacred by calling to fore the unabashedly profane.
The 12th century Sufi poet Ali Qalandar for example wrote of being an “intoxicated slave…the chief of all drinkers and the dog of the streets of the lion of Yazd.” Six centuries later, 18th century Punjab bard Bulleh Shah of Kasur described in his lyrics earthly love, and by extension the pains and pleasures of earthly lovers.
Still, what can be said is that the once guarded realm of qawwali, dominated by the religious elite, has since opened to wider worlds following the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Qawwali has also benefited from the rise of popular culture, and been rapidly mediatised through the Hindi film industry. It has also been on the forefront of globalisation.
Today, qawwali singers work actively in different contexts—and dare we say markets—negotiating the enclosures of shrines, the rock arena stages of world music festivals, and the private rooms of elite politicians.
They also thrive in the studio, creating qawwali-inspired theme songs and soundtracks to Bollywood flicks. Thanks to a burgeoning broadcast, film and media industry, many qawwali singers have become rock stars in their own right.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, already a household name in Pakistan for one, came to the attention of the West following his collaborations with Canadian guitarist Michael Brook. Other recent masters who have made names in the world music circuit include the Sabri brothers, Faiz Ali Faiz, Fareed Ayaz, and Abu Muhammad.
Beyond didactic texts, qawwali singers have also become storytellers and entertainers. They code switch between distinct vocal styles of the religious poetry reader, the Bollywood film singer, and even the Western pop/rock artist. Qawwali performances may run on overnight today in temples, although 90-minute sets featuring extensive electronic amplification have also increasingly become the norm.
And still, qawwali singers hail the status of their ancient shrine associations and traditional lineages as badges of identity.
Pakistan-born Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohamed for example speak of their distinct gharana, or school, as hailing from the Bachchon Ka Gharana of Delhi and descending from one of the fabled originators of qawwali himself, Amir Khusro. The duo wear their high-collared shervani coats as badges of their identity, and hold their spiritual ecstasy as sacrosanct—even as they rock their stages as modern day idols.
Qawwali performances usually comprise a team of six to eight singers, with lead singers at the forefront and their chorus seated at the sides and back. In the past, a small bowed fiddle known as the sarangi would accompany the performance, although in recent years this has been replaced by the harmonium. Percussion instruments—usually the tabla and the two-ended barrel-shaped dholak—keep time and heighten the ecstatic grooves of the performance.
Different types of Sufi poetry are named according to their religious subjects. In modern concert settings, a qawwali session opens with a hamd, or a song dedicated to Allah. This is usually followed by a naat, praising the Prophet Muhammad. Several manqabat, or songs made in the name of Sufi saints, are then heard, intermixed with ghazal, or Arabic love songs featuring lyrics that mix the raunchy with the spiritual. On special occasions, such as a commemoration of a specific religious chief, or of the dead, or of an important feast, special praise songs are presented.
While Islamic Sufi poetry makes up the backbone of text structure in a qawwali performance, most singers use by default the devices of Hindustani North Indian traditions to create musical structure and mark time in performance. As such, expect to hear first a short, slow instrumental prelude during which the raga for the song is presented. A formal alap is then delivered, where the main notes of the raga are re-introduced on the voice and given improvisational treatment, without a steady beat. Once the general atmosphere is set, the qawwali singer launches into the third and main section of the piece, denoted by the entry of the percussion instruments and a steady rhythm. Leaders may take on spontaneous solos, often running off into excursions of call-and-response singing with collaborators and singers, or reintroduce an unmetered alap segment again. As singers ramp up their emotive dynamics, the speed of the song increases and the drummers work harder.
These cyclical segments forge a familiar skeletal melody into the listener’s consciousness while keeping one’s memory challenged by variations and extemporisations. Such a process allows for the heightening of emotion and a build-up towards a moment of ecstasy, providing for the ultimate reception of the religious message. Often, soloists break out into syllabic scat singing known as sargam. They work out improvisatory passages using the sa re ga ma positions of Indian raga (parallel to the do re mi of Western scales).
Both the singers on stage, as well as members of the audience, partake of their musical communion through moving their hands and bodies in rhythm and response. Clapping—in and out of rhythm, to a bravura solo, or towards a climax—is par for the course.
Tan Shzr Ee is an ethnomusicologist and Senior Lecturer at the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.
1 A hair braid accessory
2 The poet here refers to his lover who has renounced the world, presumably to seek out the divine, suffering his own spiritual inability to follow suit.