Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Magic of Qawwali

For the last few weeks I have been immersed in listening to traditional Qawwali music and what a transporting experience it has been! The initial impetus was a couple of divine Coke Studio Pakistan performances this season by the scions of the "Qawwal Bachhay" gharana: Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad's "Kangna" (Raga Malkauns) in episode 2 and Ustad Naseeruddin Saami's "Mundari" (Raga Adana) in episode 3. Additionally, I have drawn endless inspiration from Musab's blog "Tangled up in Blue" which has become my home destination when I want to learn about qawwali and its traditions and savor the offerings of the great qawwals. (Musab is someone I have gotten to know only in the blogosphere but this 24 year old in Pakistan genuinely makes me optimistic that our rich cultural heritage will survive and maybe even thrive for many more generations!)

For me, a large part of the pleasure in the arts comes from sharing treasures with others who also love the diversity and ingenuity of human creativity. So here are a few qawwalis I have been enjoying by some of the masters of this genre.

Let me start with the most famous practitioner of all: Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He recorded so much and experimented with so many things during his final few years that some of his music started to lose its sufi / qawwali essence. Poorly done fusion tracks, thumping incongruous beats and amateurish videos of the Ustad singing "Afreen, Afreen" can only be described as regrettable. For, he was indeed a great qawwal! You have to listen to his traditional qawwalis to remember his magic and to recall the great tradition of qawwali in Punjab to which he was an heir. (We are fortunate that with his father Fateh Ali Khan, uncle Mubarak Ali Khan, cousin Badar Miandad and nephew Rahat Fateh Ali we have access to three generations of this family's qawwali music.) Here's Amir Khusrau's famous kalaam, "Mun Kunto Maula" in a wonderful live rendition in London in 1989:

The next piece is by the lesser known Javed Taufiq Niazi and party from the Khurji Noharbani gharana of Bulundshehr, U.P. Along with Punjab, Delhi and U.P. are the other great centers of qawwali tradition in the sub-continent. Niazi sahib and party are based in Karachi. I hope that they gain more public prominence as their style of singing still feels beautifully rooted in the soil of U.P. and retains a great charm. (Zak, maybe you folks can invite them to T2F!). I have listened to the qawwali "Aaya bana aaya, haryala bana aaya" below at least a couple of dozen times in the last few days. The imagery of Hazrat Imam Hussain (visualized as a bridegroom) transformed to the U.P. landscape mixes the spiritual and the local in a manner unique to the syncretistic culture of the region.

Haider ka poot aaya, Zainab ka jaaya aaya
Haider ka poot aaya, Zehra ka jaaya aaya
Hoor-o-malak nay gaaya
Haryala bana aaya, dulara bana aaya

The last piece is a well-known qawwali (among the afficionado) but what makes it quite unusual is that it is a bhajan with lyrics by Nawab Hilm of Hyderabad. This version below is by Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal, the worthy current flag bearers (along with Naseeruddin Saami) of the longest line of qawwali singers originating in Delhi at the time of Amir Khusrau. Just the "Qawwal Bachhay" generation ahead of them boasted the great Munshi Raziuddin, Manzoor Niazi and Bahauddin/Qutbuddin Qawwals. I understand that recently the sons of Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad had their initiation and gave their first public performance in Karachi inaugurating the next generation of the 750 year old tradition. I wish them the very best in keeping alive the illustrious family tradition. Here is "Kanhaiya yaad hai kuch bhi hamari".