He is regarded as a successor to the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Faiz Ali Faiz from Sharaqpur in Pakistan comes from a long line of qawwali musicians. He is the seventh generation of his family to practice the song form that aims to establish contact with God through ecstatic rapture. Stefan Franzen interviewed him
Faiz Ali Faiz, the music of the Sufi is practised across the entire Islamic world, from Senegal to Indonesia. How would you explain the special features of Pakistani Sufi music, qawwali, to a European?
Faiz Ali Faiz: Qawwali arose 700 years ago, when Muslim scholars and holy men came to the subcontinent. The music is performed by a vocal ensemble, accompanied by two harmoniums, rhythm instruments and in addition, we clap the rhythms while we sing.
The texts exalt Sufi holy men and the Prophet. The character of the music always depends considerably on the attitude and the emotions of the audience, as qawwali has both sacred and secular traits. It began life in the temples, but today it is also played in concert halls. But regardless of whether it is secular or divine, the message of qawwali is always love.
Sufis try to attain a state of ecstasy through music, a state of oneness with the highest power. How do they do this?
Faiz: During the song we use a constant rhythmic clapping and percussion instruments, we thereby create a cyclical structure and incessantly repeat sacred words and several verses from Sufi poetry. These sacred words are aimed directly at the listeners, who are invited to go into a trance together with us, the musicians.
The verses often express a yearning for a lover and the frustration at being separated from this person. How did this unusual tension between earthly and divine love come about?
Faiz: Sometimes the Sufis turn very directly to God, but sometimes they also employ a transliteration. In the end it is always Allah who is being addressed, either by name or between the lines. That also depends on the audience sitting in front of us: Although they may understand the music as addressing a beloved person, the original Sufi poetry texts are always directed at Allah.
The regions where qawwali is sung today are among the most dangerous in the world, places where fundamentalist tendencies are very strong. Can qawwali help to convey a peaceful image of Islam?
Faiz: Qawwali is absolutely the best way of propagating a peaceful coexistence between people, if it is given the space and opportunity to find complete expression in the midst of all these conflicts. This music has the power to placate people. When we make music or recite poetry, it goes straight to the heart of the people. Qawwali does not disseminate any sense of offence or threat at all.
You are often described as a successor to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great qawwali singer who died in 1997. Do you feel honoured by this title or is your form of qawwali distinct from his, do you follow another method?
Faiz: When I started up my own qawwali group, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was without doubt our biggest influence. I was also tutored by a master who was a contemporary of his father.
How did your current project with the French musician Titi Robin come about?
Faiz: My record company Accords Croisés introduced me to Robin. We met in France, I listened to his music and immediately noticed its highly oriental flavour. I thought there was great potential there for a good co-project. We put our commonalities to the test in a half-hour session, I recited a few verses and he played an accompaniment. Then we took it to the stage with my qawwali group and the audience loved us. That encouraged us to turn it into a large-scale project.
Have you altered traditional ways of playing in your cooperation with Robin?
Faiz: Titi Robin wrote the music and as it turned out, I didn't have to change much in my traditional style to integrate myself into the pieces. There are a few passages in the compositions in which I have tried to integrate slight changes, modifications. They are semi-classical passages that always remain in qawwali style.
Five years ago you were involved in another transcultural programme, the qawwali flamenco project, and you've also sung with American gospel musicians. Is qawwali a music that harmonises well with other cultures?
Faiz: The spiritual musicians who devised qawwali 700 years ago established a style that is very receptive and accessible to other genres. We can integrate semi-classical music from northern India, the Tumri, sung Sufi poetry known as Kafi, and also love poetry known as Ghazal into qawwali. That's why qawwali is, more than other styles from the subcontinent, well suited to play a major role in a world music context.
And as my experience working together with international musicians has shown, language becomes secondary to the creative process. I don't speak the same language as the flamenco musicians, and I also don't speak the same language as Thierry Robin. But through music we get along just fine.
© Qantara.de 2010
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de