Qawwali: Sufi Devotional Music from South Asia

Music Video Examples

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “Mustt Mustt” live:
Abida Parveen performance:
Ilahi women’s Qawwali group:
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan WOMAD Concert:

It is July of 1985, and a group of Pakistani traditional musicians travels to a small island off thesoutheast coast of Britain to participate in the WOMAD international festival of world music. Headlining acts, which include popular electronic and post-punk musicians from the United Kingdom, play their sets throughout the afternoon and evening, and it isn’t until after midnight that the Pakistani contingent takes the stage. Few in the audience have an idea what to expect, as this style of music is rarely performed outside of the Asian subcontinent. There are ten performers in total, all sitting closely together on the small, carpeted stage. The men, nearly all of them related, sit cross legged on the stage floor. Two play pump organs, another taps out rhythm on a hand drum, while multiple members contribute hand claps in unison. At the forefront of the performance, and its literal raison d’etre, are the vocals: ecstatic, improvised, and sung entirely in Urdu and/or Punjabi. The lead singer’s voice cascades and drones in powerful and nuanced leaps, glissandos, and stuttered utterances. Most of the time he seems completely lost in the music, eyes closed, hands in motion around his face. The rapturous singer at the center of the performance is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The music is Qawwali.

Qawwali as a musical form originated in South Asia, predominantly in what is now India and Pakistan, around the 13th century CE. It is rooted in mystical Sufism, an offshoot of Islam that emerged after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. Sufis seek a direct personal connection with their god that allows for a visceral experience of divine love. In pre-Islamic Arabia, some early cultural traditions included celebratory group dancing, as well as melodic recitations of poems by a group of singers. Often these incantatory poetic readings would have musical accompaniment. In this early secular context, both men and women participated in the ritual.

Qawwali as an art form arose from these secular beginnings. Sufi literature, which includes many poems of love and devotion, is widely regarded as a pinnacle of the form in this era and is the source material for most Qawwali lyrics. The term Qawwali derives from the Arabic word Qawl, meaning ‘utterance.’ One who utters divine words is thus a Qawwal, a central figure who conveys a spiritual message aloud to an audience through speaking or singing. Sufi love poems are often romantic in nature, but the love they describe, even when between two people, is an all encompassing one, an ecstatic feeling of being of one body, mind, and soul with another. As such, the idea of love can be applied to feelings one might have for a romantic partner, but this same intense love can be platonic, as a mother might have for a child, or spiritual, as a worshiper might have for a deity and that deity might have for its worshippers.

The goal of the Qawwal, then, is to sing about transcendental love in such a way as to bring the listener closer to God (Allah). The vocal performance is meant to break through any logical thinking and tap into a raw emotional core, bringing the listener to a state of literal ecstasy that creates a sense of union with the divine. This is achieved through an equally ecstatic singing style, reinforced through forceful repetition of sentences, phrases, words, and even syllables by the Qawwal. While the lyrics are set, the expression of them is not. Vocal improvisation is key to leading the audience toward a trance state. Individual songs often last 20, 30, or upwards of 60 minutes, starting softly and building slowly toward a powerful crescendo. Supporting instrumentation is spare. A harmonium, a type of small pump organ with a limited keyboard, typically plays a droning, repetitive melodic line that underpins the vocals. Hand drums, such as tablas and dholaks, provide percussion, as do handclaps by the party members. Other players and participants take their lead from the main vocalist and repeat his lines and vocal melodies to emphasize the poetic message.

The most traditional of Qawwali performances are held at Sufi shrines and are deeply interwoven with Sufi mysticism. Each shrine will have its own Qawwal who sings his own particular repertoire of songs. Most often the opening song is in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, after which come songs that exalt the particular Sufi saint associated with the shrine. Qawwali was (and often remains) a family affair, as fathers and uncles raise and train their sons and nephews in the art form, as tradition dictates that Qawwals are exclusively male. It is not uncommon for a Qawwali group, or party, to contain brothers, fathers, sons, cousins, and/or other blood relatives. Some Qawwals can trace their lineage, both genealogically and as performers, back to the time of Muhammad. Initially, Qawwali was a purely vocal endeavor. Over time, however, other instruments and percussive elements were added.

Prior to the 1980s, few people outside of the Indian sub-continent had heard of Qawwali or been witness to a performance. The renowned Pakistani group the Sabri Brothers, dubbed the ‘King of Kings’ of Qawwali, performed in the United States and Great Britain in the 1970s. But it was after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s performance at the WOMAD music festival in 1985, followed by performances later that same year in Paris, that the world seemed to catch on to this regional art form. Khan is widely acknowledged as the greatest modern Qawwali singer, and his global popularity attests to his talent and his ability to draw in an audience. Through the power and grace of his vocal delivery, he managed to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and connect with audiences across the world. Sadly, Khan died in 1997 at the age of 48. Notable contemporary Qawwali performers include: Abida Parveen, a female Pakistani Sufi singer known as the “Queen of Sufi music” who sings a variety of Sufi musical genres, including Qawwali; Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, a group fronted by two of Nurat Fateh Ali Khan’s nephews; Faiz Ali Faiz, a seventh-generation Qawwal; and Amjad Sabri, a descendant of the famous Sabri Brothers Qawwali group.

Traditionalists often denounce the performance of Qawwali outside its original religious context as regrettable or even sacreligious. These critics feel that foreign audiences, the majority of whom do not comprehend the lyrics, can only appreciate the music as pure entertainment devoid of its liturgical purpose. Others see the use of modern production techniques and the addition of electronic instrumentation as diluting the poetic intensity of the songs. (Some ‘pop’ versions of Qawwali songs use synthesizers, drum tracks, and backup singers.) Still others see female performers as a radical break from tradition and refuse to acknowledge female performers as true Qawwals. Yet, the popularity of Qawwali performances around the world is growing. Indian Bollywood films have, at times, incorporated Qawwali or Qawwali-inspired musical numbers (a genre referred to as filmi Qawwali), and Hollywood movies have also featured Qawwali performances in their soundtracks.

As with many art forms that originate in small, cloistered communities, there is always a trade-off between exposure and authenticity. The farther something travels from its source, the more divorced it becomes from its original context. With Qawwali, the first casualty of global popularity is a spiritual one. Those attending Qawwali performances who are themselves not Sufi or do not speak the languages in which the songs are sung have no comprehension of the divine love invoked by the lyrics. While it is true that the religious messaging and purpose of the music may be absent for secular listeners, what remains for these listeners is often a profound appreciation–intuited rather than comprehended–for the quality of the singing and its heartfelt expression of love and devotion. In other words, the Qawwali singers’ attempts to bring an audience to an ecstatic state may still occur, but in a much less literal way than intended. Qawwali itself exists in large part because Sufis believe that communion with the divine cannot be understood logically. Rather, it must be induced in a way that transcends or supercedes rational thought. So, while a secular audience may not feel the spiritual ecstasy aimed for by the Qawwal, many audience goers find they have been emotionally affected by what they have heard. In this way, it is possible that Qawwali’s broader audience gets to experience a small sampling of what the art form has to offer and observe a glimmer of the greater depth of feeling accessible to those for whom Qawwali is an essential aspect of their religious practice.


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