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Interview And Essay On Qawwali'S

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Autor:  anton  23 October 2010
Tags:  Interview,  Qawwalis
Words: 2868   |   Pages: 12
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In modern society, diversity among people is an admired quality, which many feel strengthens all of humanity. Diversity in today’s world is a result of many cultures coming together to share and celebrate their various backgrounds. Music is one of the largest facets of culture worldwide, and therefore is an essential part of each individual person’s culture no matter where they are from. For the purpose of this assignment, I chose to interview a very close family friend, Mr. Asif Rawjani. In order to understand the role that music has played in his life so far, it is important to first attempt to grasp an understanding of his cultural background as well as his life experiences with music. This includes both his musical memories and the role that said music played in his life. It is also very important to remember to put these experiences into a broader cultural and historical context when attempting to understand the reason that Mr. Rawjani listens to a particular type of music, namely a type of ghazal called the qawwali, and how this relates back to his culture as well as to his life experiences. Qawwali’s are a very small portion of the entire worlds music scene and are regarded at most times to be religious music, for this reason, many people do not know specific details about this type of music and what it symbolizes. While researching for this assignment, I often found that documents failed to include proper examples of qawwali performers and this proved rather exhausting when searching for examples of music, as it is habitually easier to write about an event or an occurrence, which one has experienced oneself. Fortunately, Mr. Rawjani was very forthcoming with detailed information regarding his experiences with music, as well as providing comprehensive answers to various questions pertaining to his background, in addition to providing me with some examples of qawwalis, which made writing this essay quite an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

Mr. Rawjani can trace his lineage back to the town of Jamnagar, in the state of Gujarat, India and was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in East Africa and moved to Canada at the age of twenty-three, he has also traveled the world extensively. He has lived in different parts of the Middle East for seven out of the last ten years with his family and has lived in Canada for the other three years. Throughout this time, Mr. Rawjani insists that he has exposed himself to an assortment of world music, but still feels a strong affinity to qawwali’s. Mr. Rawjani comes from a fairly modern Muslim family and he insists that this, combined with his geographical, historical and cultural background has played a large role in shaping his musical tastes. He was born in nineteen fifty-seven, a mere ten years after India gained its independence from Britain, at that time, his father and grandfather immigrated to East Africa in pursuit of a better life as well as to escape the turmoil and bloodshed in India at the time. These atrocities were a consequence of the partition between India and Pakistan, which resulted in a grave amount of religious hatred and intolerance {Gooptu}. Mr. Rawjani grew up in a world, which was just recovering from the turmoil of the partition between India and Pakistan, and his family, community, culture and world at large were all affected by it. In order to accurately comprehend the intensity of the partition and all the harm that it caused, and also to understand the reason for many peoples anger and hatred it is imperative that one look at the partition through the experiences of someone who understands the finer points of it and is able to articulate them in a scholarly format. As I did not know many details about the Indo-Pakistani partition, and since it seemed to affect every aspect of Mr. Rawjani’s life and therefore choices in music, I asked him many questions, as I simply did not understand the gravity of the situation. He directed my attention to the fact that over one million people were killed during the riots surrounding the partition and up to fourteen million people were made to re-locate because of the rules stipulated by the British. {Gooptu} It was because of all this upheaval that people in India and Pakistan became steadfast and strict in the way in which they followed their faith and by extension their individual cultures. According to Mr. Rawjani, in times of crisis it is quite customary for one to grasp and hold steadfast to any concrete form of culture in order to feel a sense of belonging, this can result in communities of people becoming very exclusive toward other cultures in order to ensure that their progeny follows the same path as their parents with similar morals and values.

Although many people may not consider music to be a concrete substance of culture to adhere to, Mr. Rawjani explained to me very specifically the way in which if enough importance is placed on it, then music too can become a concrete vehicle that parents can use to pass cultural and religious values on to their children with. Whilst he was growing up, Mr. Rawjani attended many mahfils, assemblies of Islamic mysticism {Qureshi 459}, which are performances of Islamic mystical music at which qawwali’s were usually performed. He attended these events with many people; however, the gathering was usually very intimate, with people sitting in clusters with their families or with their friends. Qawwali’s are not created for a target audience, but are created because the singers have such a passion to sing and therefore pray at the same time. As it is a form of prayer and entertainment at the same time, mahfils were attended by people of all ages. As qawwali’s stem from the South-Asian Islamic tradition of music, they are a type of song with musical accompaniment, {Qureshi, 459} and are usually written in the language of Urdu, now the national language of Pakistan. Urdu is a Persianized variation of Hindi, the primary language of much of India. Urdu established itself as the language of Muslim religion and culture in the Indian sub-continent {Qureshi 458} and for that reason most qawwali’s are written in the Urdu language as opposed to in Hindi.

In order to fully appreciate the musical tastes of Mr. Rawjani, it is imperative to first examine the historical and cultural background of qawwali’s and understand their cultural significance. However, since qawwali’s are an essentially a form of religious song, it is crucial to understand the religion that gave birth to the music before trying to understand the music itself. Qawwali’s originated in western Afghanistan, from the Sufi’s in the small village of Chist, they are now referred to as the Chisti sect {Neubauer} and their form of music eventually spread to the northwest part of the Indian sub-continent before it spread all over the world in the nineteen eighties. They are usually only performed by men who follow the Sufi sub-sect of Islam and they are considered to be mystics and heretics of sort. Not all Muslims listen to qawwali’s as many find the Sufi philosophy to be far too different from that of orthodox Muslims. However, the qawwali movement has picked up steam in recent years since globalization has helped this small group of performers receive international acclaim. Mr. Rawjani helped me understand the essence of Sufism, and I realized how it might be a difficult concept to grasp as it is unlike any religion or religious philosophy that exists in the west. According to Hazrat Inayat Khan, father of Sufism, who started the religion in nineteen ten, “…Sufism is not a religion or a philosophy, it is neither deism nor atheism, nor is it a moral, nor a special kind of mysticism, being free from the usual religious sectarianism. If ever it could be called a religion, it would only be as a religion of love, harmony, and beauty. If it be called a philosophy it is beyond that because a Sufi, through the study of metaphysics, escapes the selfishness produced by philosophy and kindles the fire of devotion with one's eyes open to reason and logic. The Sufi prays to Allah every moment in one's life, invoking God's Name and realizing at the same time that the self is no other than God. For to a Sufi God is not a personal being but a mighty healer to awaken the soul from its delusion of earthly individuality, and a guide to lead it to self-realization, the only aim in life.” {Khan}. This explanation of Sufism provides an excellent backdrop when one considers the way in which qawwali’s were created. Qawwali’s are performed as a form of prayer in which one submits to the will of god and thanks god for all that one has accomplished and been blessed with. Once the concept of Sufism and its relation to qawwali music has been understood, the music itself makes a lot more sense.

Qawwali’s are songs articulating mystical emotion, performed traditionally by a gathering of Sufi’s chanted in a responsorial manner accompanied with a strong beat and sometimes music. {Qureshi 459} Hereditary male professional singers usually perform qawwali’s with harmoniums and are always supported by drums, such as the tabla and the dholak, also an important facet of qawwali’s is that there is always hand clapping and other voices in solo or chorus, so that a group of people are singing as opposed to just one. {Neubauer} Verses of Urdu poetry are recited with emphasis on the syllables and the tabla and the clapping enforcing the weight of the meaning in the music. There are three main instruments used for the performance of a qawwali, the tablas, the dholak and the harmonium and the sarangi is also sometimes included.

Tablas are a pair of asymmetrical tuned hand-played drums of North and Central India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. {Dick & Devdan}. The tabla are the principal drums of modern music of the Indian Sub-continent and are made of a wooden or metallic base and a tight leather surface. They accompany vocal and instrumental music and are also found today in various popular and devotional music such as the hindu bhajan and the Chisti Sufi qawwali. The word tablв is a Persian and Urdu diminutive of the Arabic generic drum-name tabl. {Dick & Devdan}. In addition to the tabla’s, a dholak is often included in the precussion instruments because it produces a different sound than the tabla and is used to emphasize important messeges being conveyed by the singers. A dholak is a cylindrical barrell drum that was used as a court music drum during the Muhgal period, but was also a domestic intrument used by women to accompany birth and wedding sogs {Dick, Babiracki & Webber}. The modern dholak is quite large and is often misinterpreted as a large tabla, which is it not. Since it is a barrell drum, there are surfaces to be played on both sides as opposed to the tabla which only have one surface each {Dick, Babiracki & Webber}. In addition to these two precussion instruments, is the harmonium. It is included in most qawwali mehfils, or gatherings as a melodious accompaniment to the singers and to help the listeners experience more sentiments through the music. It is sometimes played by the principal singer and often shows his status among the group of persormers. The harmonium is a reed organ that was created by Alexandre-Fracois Debain in eighteen forty-two. {Owen}. It is played whilst sitting on the floor and the player usually uses the left hand to pump, and the right hand playing the notes on the keyboard itself. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians online, its use is widespread in the provision of heterophonic contrapuntal texture for vocal music where it is often played by the singer himself in a wide range of classical and urban popular styles. {Owen}. The sarangi is sometimes included to aid the harmonium in adding melody to the qawwali and was used far more frequently for performances a few decades back, as playing the harmonium on Indian radio was banned for some time. {Owen}. The sarangi looks like a short necked fiddle made of wood and goat skin and the strings are made of goat gut. {Sorrell}. These four instruments only provide support for the voices of the singers of the qawwali, as that is where the magic of a qawwali comes into play according to Mr. Rawjani.

After learning so much about the past of qawwali music and how it is structured, it is important to look for positive examples of prevalent and successful qawwali singers and to understand their appeal. The first names that comes to mind, either because of their popularity, or because they are Mr. Rawjani’s personal favorites, is a group called the Sabri Brothers and a man called Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The Sabri Brothers popularized qawwali’s in North America when they performed at Carnegie Hall in nineteen seventy-five and had a very favorable review I the New York Times {Sakata}. Qawwali’s by the Sabri Brothers have been said to be “the trance inducing music of the divine” as they evoke such strong emotion, which makes one want to fall in love with it every time that one hears it. The Sabri Brothers and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all have two parts to their music, the mastery of the words, a qawwal, or speaker is supposed to have and mastery of the music. The two come together in a great harmony to create the qawwali’s that have been popularized today. Mr. Rawjani has mentioned that his favorite qawwali is one that was performed by the Sabri Brothers and is called Dai Halima. It talks about the good fortune of a nursemaid named Halima, who would have the good fortune to nurse the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. They use fantastic metaphors that are not only deep and well thought out, but are immensely beautiful as they make one feel as if they were part of the experience of being with the divine, which the goal of every Sufi – to experience the divine. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan re-popularized qawwali’s in India and Pakistan and made them into a more common form of religious expression, as well as a secular form of entertainment. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s later qawwali’s sounded somewhat like pop music as he diversified his use of instruments to include instruments that had never been used before in qawwali performances. There is only one real way to fully understand the qawwali music phenomenon, and that is to experience it firsthand. It is unlike anything mainstream and so it is gaining popularity at an alarming rate. Recently, even Bollywood films have even started including them in very successful releases, such as in the film Kisna and in the film Mangal Pandey, both of which were quite acclaimed by critics all over the world. This may not seem like that much of an evolution, but its important to note that only sixty years ago, India and Pakistan were ravaged by religious hatred and intolerance, and now, a predominantly Hindu country is including Muslim heretic music in their blockbuster movies.

The emergence of qawwali’s as an international music form is an excellent example of the positive aspects of globalization. A musical revolution that started with one man in a small village in Afghanistan has not reached the whole global village per say, and this can only mean one thing, that people are becoming more tolerant of each others cultures and religions and this is the first step in both the idealistic concept of world peace and the more realistic concepts of religious tolerance and diversity. In the larger global context of things, this is excellent. It is the first step to trying to understand and appreciate the same things as people on the other side of the world. Sufism talks about unconditional love and promotes the concept through its song and actions. It is an interesting albeit different approach to religion and music, but in many peoples opinions it is helping to bring the world together through the only real universal language, music.


Rawjani, Asif (November 1 2005). [Interview by Author]. Mississauga, Ontario

Dick, A.; Babiracki, C.M. & Webber, N. ‘Dholak’, Grove Music Online (Accessed November 10 2005),


Dick, A. & Devdan S. ‘Tabla’, Grove Music Online (Accessed November 10 2005),


Gooptu, Dr. N. ‘India and Partition’, St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford (Accessed 10 November 2005),

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Khan, Hazrat Inayat. ‘What is Sufism according to the Sufi Order?’ Sufi Order International (Accessed 10 November 2005),


Neubauer, E. & Doubleday, V.: ‘Islamic Religious Music’, Grove Music Online (Accessed 10 November 2005),


Owen, B. & Dick, A. ‘Harmonium’, Grove Music Online (Accessed 10 November 2005),


Qureshi, R.B. ‘Musical Gesture and Extra-Musical Meaning: Words and Music in the Urdu Ghazal’ Journal of American Musicological Society (Accessed 10 November 2005),


Sakata, H. L. ‘The Sabri Brothers: Ya Mustapha’ JSTOR (Accessed 10 November 2005),


Sorrell, N. ‘Sarangi’, Grove Music Online (Accessed 10 November 2005),


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