By Ugur Yavuz ‘21, Hopkins Center Arts Ambassador
On the night of January 19, we had the pleasure of having Riyaaz Qawwali, a qawwali group based in Austin, Texas, on the stage of the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
A music not very well known by Western audiences, qawwali is a form of devotional music that originated in Northern India and Pakistan, stretching back for more than 700 years. It has its roots in the Sufi tradition. Sufism represents a mystical aspect of Islam characterized by asceticism and music that has a doctrine of spiritual intuition of the divine truth at its center. As someone from a Muslim country, Turkey, that played an important role in the formation of the Sufi tradition, I was interested to see similar cultural elements in a musical tradition that was developed thousands of miles away in India and Pakistan.
This devotion inspired considerable artistic innovation and creativity in its adherents, with many talented Sufi poets such as Rumi, Yunus Emre, Farid al-Din Attar and al-Ghazali producing influential poetry throughout the Islamic world. This school of poetry, in turn, brought about a new musical tradition: Sufi music, with qawwali being its current best-known form.
Sufi saint, poet and scholar Amir Khusrow is credited with merging Indian, Persian, Arabic and Turkish musical traditions together in late 13th century in Indi, to create qawwali as we know it today. The word “qawwali” comes from the Arabic word “qaul,” or “utterance” (of the prophet, in this context). A “qawwal” is one who repeats a qaul, and “qawwalli” is what a qawwal sings.
Usually sung in Urdu and Punjabi, qawwali poetry is understood to be spiritual in its meaning even though the lyrics can occasionally sound secular or sybaritic. The central themes are love, devotion and longing for divinity, in line with the Sufi tradition.
A group of qawwali musicians, called humnawa in Urdu, traditionally consists of eight to ten men: a lead singer, one or two side singers, a chorus of four or five, one to two harmonium players and percussionists, who usually play the tabla and dholak and are occasionally aided by hand-clapping. The performers sit cross-legged in two rows: the chorus and percussionists in the back and the lead singer, side singers and harmonium players in the front.
Qawwali songs usually last between 15 minutes to half an hour. They start with an instrumental prelude, followed by the alap, a tonal improvised melody where singers intone long notes. Then the lead singer arhythmically sings preamble verses that are thematically related to the main song, with his own improvisation. This leads into the main song, which usually builds in tempo and emotion, with each singer attempting to better the other in vocal skills and acrobatics. The songs usually end abruptly.
Originally performed at Sufi shrines, qawwali gained popularity and international exposure around the end of the 20th century through the work of Pakistani singers like Sabri Brothers and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And today, the group of dedicated and talented individuals that form Riyaaz Qawwali, is keeping this centuries-long tradition alive, in the United States.