By Rik Abels ’21, Arts Ambassador
People take their seats and the lights are dimmed, on the evening of January 19, in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium. A group of men in traditional South Asian dress walk onto the stage. A silence overtakes the auditorium. The leader of the group, a charismatic 33-year-old from the heart of Texas, invites the audience to join him on a “spiritual journey.” This is Riyaaz Qawwali.
Qawwali is a form of devotional music founded in Sufism, which is often referred to as Islamic mysticism. Its roots trace back to the late 13th century, when it started as a fusion of Arabic, Indian, Turkish and Persian musical traditions. This diversity would go on to become one of the key features of the genre. It gained international popularity in the late 20th century.
Even though the music tradition is originally Muslim, Riyaaz Qawwali is decidedly not. Its artistic director, who goes only by his first name Sonny, emphasizes the group’s diversity and interfaith nature: “We won’t go into who is what,” says Sonny in a 2015 NPR interview, “but sitting even around this room and in our group, there are people from Indian, Pakistani, Afghani and Bangladeshi identity. But we’re all American today. And religiously, we’re Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs, agnostics, atheists.” This is reflected in their performances, where they draw from a wide array of poems, stories and other forms of art.
The story of the group’s emergence is an inspirational one. They started out as a few people at the University of Texas at Austin passionate about qawwali music. When they were asked to perform at a black-tie gala, both the audience and the performance were captivated by the connection they had. They realized their passion had a broader audience, and started performing statewide and soon nationwide, growing into a respected group of independent artists. Last October, they had their European debut, performing in the Hague and subsequently in Paris. The connection with the audience that started their journey is still at the very heart of what Riyaaz Qawwali is about today. Sonny, in a 2015 Huffington Post interview: “Qawwali tradition is supposed to be a practice of ecstasy to bring people into an intellectual conversation. It’s supposed to be a conversation between an audience and performers.”
The greatest thing about Riyaaz Qawwali is the absolute dedication they have to their mission and their undeniable passion to bring this cultural delight to a broader public. They deeply care about representing and advancing the qawwali tradition and manage to take their listeners on a journey of what they call personal reflection. There is a purpose to their performance that manages to captivate the audience in a way that can only be achieved by a group of dedicated individuals who care about their art, their audience, and their impact. This is Riyaaz Qawwali.