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.
Balancing act between preservation and reinvention
Over the past two decades, Faridi and his band have given 1500 concerts, most of them at western music festivals – a balancing act between preservation and reinvention. “It is important for us to preserve the essence of the tradition,” says Faridi. "The traditional form of Qawwali has sufficient magnetism to attract people in the West, so I am not worried that I have to modify it.”
In concert videos of Fanna-fi-Allah on YouTube, scantily dressed festival visitors can be seen dancing wildly to the sounds of tabla and harmonium, or hymns praising the prophet's cousin Ali. Of course, there are bound to be some negative comments from orthodox Muslims or puritans who disagree with this. But change, Faridi stresses, is in the nature of the genre: "Anyone who knows Qawwali is aware that it is something that was created to be shared. In its essence, Qawwali was a combination of different cultural elements, and it was this openness of the tradition that helped spread the stories and wisdom of the masters and bring people to the faith of Islam."
After all, the dance moves of festival visitors are not so different from the dhamal, the spontaneous ecstatic dance of dervishes performed at Pakistani shrines. For the first time in the history of Qawwali, Tahir Faridi is also introducing women to the tradition through training in the "Sama Music School" which he founded. "We conducted some research and could find no good reason why women should not be allowed to participate in the tradition," says Faridi. "It’s the right time to honour women, just like they were honoured in the time of the prophet." Aminah Chishti, percussionist at Fanna-fi-Allah, is considered the first female tabla player in the history of Qawwali.
Committed to documenting and preserving Qawwali
In addition to their concerts, Fanna-fi-Allah is committed to the documentation and preservation of Qawwali. With a scholarship from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Faridi and his group travelled to the Sufi shrines of Pakistan and India for a film project, meeting the great ustads and devoting themselves to a thorough research of the historical, cultural and spiritual background of Qawwali. The result is an eight-part documentary series entitled "Qawwali – The Music of the Mystics”, which has been published in episodes in recent months.
Watching these films from the heart of Qawwali culture, it becomes clear to what extent Faridi and his band have internalised the tradition. The film presents musicians from different Qawwali schools of the subcontinent who try to put their music – many of them probably for the first time – into words. Of particular value are the recordings of live performances in the courtyards of Sufi shrines, in Ajmer at the grave of Moinuddin Chishti, at the shrine of Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Pakistan, but also in less well-known places such as Aroop Sharif, a pilgrimage site in Gujranwala.
The documentary impresses with its dynamic camera work and high quality shots, which create a meditative, often dreamy atmosphere. Faridi also uses the documentary to portray numerous musicians who died either in the course of filming or more recently.
In the first episode, for instance, Amjad Fareed Sabri can be seen singing a well-known Qawwali piece a cappella into the night sky. This scene is particularly valuable because Sabri, who comes from the family of the famous "Sabri Brothers”, was shot dead in Karachi in the summer of 2016 by hired killers of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, a murder which sent shock waves through Pakistan's Qawwali scene.
Preservation for the future
Thus "Qawwali – The Music of the Mystics" is also a valuable contemporary document that preserves Qawwali traditions for the future. This is all the more important today: not only are fundamentalists in Pakistan threatening Qawwali culture, but Muslim cultural heritage in neighbouring India is also at risk owing to the ascendance of Hindu nationalism.
As recently as January 2020, the prime minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh had a live performance of Qawwali interrupted in Lucknow, ironically one of the most traditional centres of Islamic culture on the subcontinent – with the curt explanation that “Qawwali cannot happen here.”
Faridi also aims to build bridges between the two neighbouring countries, which share a common cultural legacy, yet have been enemies for decades:
"It is our strength that we can see the culture of the two countries from a bird's eye view, which Muslims in Pakistan or Hindus in India could never have. This way we can perceive the beauty of both cultures and religions with their respective ways of life. In conversations, we have told Pakistanis and Indians about our positive experiences in the other country and have thus, to a certain extent, confronted their prejudices towards the neighbour.”
© Qantara.de 2021