Searching for God's love
It is not easy to learn a musical tradition that has grown organically over the centuries and produced successions of masters while striving for ever greater levels of perfection – especially when you yourself come from a completely different culture.
The Canadian Tahir Faridi Qawwal, born Geoffrey Lyons, dared to do it anyway. As a teenager, Faridi, whose name is derived from Baba Farid – a 13th century Sufi saint – travelled through India as a meditating wandering ascetic. At the age of seventeen he found a Sufi master, converted to Islam and took the name Tahir. Immersing himself in traditional Qawwali music during numerous stays in Pakistan and India, Faridi gradually penetrated the spiritual world of South Asia’s Islamic mystics.
Today, Faridi is the lead singer of Fanna-fi-Allah, the West’s most successful Qawwali ensemble. Its band members first came together in 2001 as a group of hippies and breakaways whose quest for meaning had led them to the Indian subcontinent. What united them was a passion for the music of the great Qawwals – especially the singing of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Over the years that followed, Faridi, together with his band colleagues, studied with the masters of the tradition, including renowned singers such as Nusrat's nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. He also dedicated himself to learning the harmonium, Qawwali’s most important accompanying instrument.
"The ustads in Pakistan were intrigued by the devotion in our hearts and by the fact that we had come all the way to follow it," Farid says. "The deeper we got into this music, the more we had to prove our dedication to the tradition – that we would go on showing up to receive more. As a result the masters took us all the more seriously."
"Annihilation in Allah"
Fanna-fi-Allah – a kind of Islamic counterpart to Buddhist nirvana – can be translated as "annihilation in Allah". Faridi defines the name of the ensemble as an "ultimate state of complete realisation of Allah when the veil of duality is lifted."
"Qawwali" in turn is derived from the Arabic "qal" meaning utterance or pronunciation. The origins of Qawwali go back some 900 years. The poet and singer Amir Khusro, a disciple of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, is considered the founder of the genre. Qawwali combined the musical styles of ancient Indian classical music such as dhrupad with the poems and emotions of the Islamic mystics.
Qawwali, with its complex rhythm, virtuoso singing and impulsive, impassioned delivery, is a ritualised form of music that triggers ecstatic states in musicians and listeners, thus making the divine tangible at an individual level.
Traditionally, Qawwali performances take place either in the courtyards of the Sufi shrines of India and Pakistan or in the presence of a spiritual master. The qawwals' repertoires include religious hymns, songs of praise in honour of the Prophet and his family, and poems from the Persian and Indian Sufi traditions.
Tahir Faridi Qawwal, whose trademark are his long dreadlocks that he wraps around his head in the shape of a turban, speaks Urdu and is well-versed in Sufi philosophy. Faridi is so at home in the Qawwali tradition that his South Asian masters gave him their blessing to introduce the music to Western audiences. Back in the eighties and nineties, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had brought Qawwali to the U.S. and Europe and experimented in fusion projects with rock singers.