Pakistani ensemble Hamza Akram Qawwal & Brothers are set to perform on Saturday April 13, 2019 at Roulette in New York City. The concert is part of the A World in Trance series.
Hamza Akram Qawwal & Brothers, grandsons of the revered Munshi Raziuddin, have been acclaimed for their dazzling interpretations of qawwali, the ecstatic improvisational Sufi vocal tradition made famous in the West by the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
This award-winning ensemble represents the 26th generation of the seven centuries-old Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana of Delhi founded by Saamat bin Ibrahim, the first qawwal of the subcontinent and principal student of mystic Amir Khusrau.
Hamza has studied with the renowned Naseeruddin Saami, as well as with his uncle, Farid Ayaz Qawwal, with whom he and his brothers have toured.
The ensemble creates a state of ecstasy through rhythmic handclapping, drumming and powerful vocals (in a call-and-response manner), and performs songs that range from 13th century mystical Persian poems to more recent Punjabi poems that speak of the intoxication of divine love.
Farid Ayaz Qawwal and Brothers perform the ecstatic devotional music of Sufi Muslims. The ensemble has gained recognition for both the popular traditional form of qawwali and the more introspective ancient classical qawwali that is seldom heard today. In qawwali, which is similar to gospel in its use of call-and-response and spiritual fervor, the lead singers are accompanied by percussive hand clapping, harmonium, tabla (drums) and a chorus.
Farid Ayaz Qawwal & Brothers is one of Pakistan’s best known ensembles. It has promoted the art of qawwali throughout Pakistan, India, Europe, Iran, the Middle East, and the U.S. The group members specialize in classical qawwali, which they learned from their forefathers. They belong to the Delhi gharana (school) of Ustad Tan Ras Khan Sahib, who was the teacher of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The group sings in many languages including Urdu, Seraiki, Punjabi, Sindhi, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Bengali and Purbi.
“It’s totally soul music, and I think we can call it devotional music,” said Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. “It’s spiritual music from the soul.”
He was talking about Qawwali, the musical component of the mystical tradition of Islam known as Sufism. But for him, even more momentous than serving as a musical ambassador from Pakistan to the United States, there is the mantle he is now assuming.
The legacy of a great qawwali master is not a matter to inherit lightly. Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was personally groomed by his uncle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for most of his life. Nusrat, who died in 1997, was considered “the voice from heaven” and the greatest living practitioner of qawwali. But Nusrat had no sons and the qawwali tradition requires that a master choose a successor. Although Nusrat appointed Rahat as his successor during his lifetime, when Rahat was still very young, according to tradition, on the 40th day after the death of the qawwali master, there was an announcement, and most of the qawwali singers in Pakistan and India attended. The head of the master’s family came out and announced Rahat as Nusrat’s successor. When Rahat was born, his father (Nusrat’s younger brother, Farroukh Fateh Ali Khan) washed the baby and brought him to Nusrat who blessed him. Rahat began his vocal training at the age of three, “even with the baby bottle in his mouth, he would remove it to sing each syllable,” said Shafiq Saddiqui, who worked with Nusrat and now works closely with Rahat.
At the age of six he was officially entered into the training of qawwali with Nusrat teaching him ragas, classic vocal training, and at nine, Rahat appeared on stage for the first time, at the anniversary of his grandfather’s death.
With Nusrat’s permission, Rahat gave his first public performance in front of thousands of people. At the age of fifteen he made his first trip outside of Pakistan as Nusrat’s second singer, on a tour of England. From then on, he was with his uncle on all of Nusrat’s worldwide tours.
And so 40 days after Nusrat’s death, according to tradition, Nusrat’s wife recognized Rahat as Nusrat’s successor. Since then, Rahat has been leading the same 10-piece band that Nusrat made famous, and carrying on the family legacy, one that goes back 600 years in their family.
“I love qawwali, it’s in my spirit it’s in my soul,” Rahat said. “Qawwali is a music which stays forever, and it is food for the human spirit. Other music sounds good, but it doesn’t stay forever.”
After releasing a dozen solo albums in Pakistan, Rahat decided to bring his music to a western audience. He did not, however, in any way dilute or water down the qawwali tradition. “There is no twist in this traditional music,” he said firmly. “The only change you can say is that whoever is the singer has different vocal chords and that makes a difference and has an impact on the music, but basically it has been running for 700 years and no one ever changed it. Most of the poetry comes from Sufi saints like Rumi, who lived 600 years ago, but even if the works by newer Sufi poets are used, we do not stray far from tradition.”
“My family carried the tradition for 700 years and my mission is to explore qawwali and to give the message of peace and love and lovely brotherhood to the world, without regard to race and religion, and that comes through the traditional qawwali. I am also very interested in collaborating with other singers, as well as Western singers. I will definitely do it in the future.”
With two people playing harmoniums and one musician playing a pair of tablas, Rahat’s band conjures waves of ecstatic poetry, his voice rhythmically dancing with the tablas, spiraling ever upward in a gripping display of emotional and spiritual devotion. If you have never heard qawwali before, it is a powerful even life-changing experience, one in which the most sensual human impulses are perfectly united with the purest and most spiritual qualities.
Born and raised in Faisalbad, Pakistan, he could not recall when he was first inspired by qawwali because the music was such an integral part of his life. “When I first heard it, it was my wish to learn this music and become a qawwali singer. I did not go to any school, for there is no such school better than my house, which was a musical institute, I learned everything at home. We were living in a joint family all in one house.”
His relationship to his famous uncle remains a defining factor in Rahat’s life. Having toured with Nusrat from 1985 to 1997, he spent twelve years as a member of Nusrat’s touring band and as many years before that receiving instruction. “First of all, he was my great uncle, and second he adopted me at a very young age as his son and successor. Not only that he was my best friend and my great teacher and I learned from him, from day one until the end of his life. We had not only a father-son and uncle-nephew relationship but he was also a very good friend.”
Still, for Rahat, the burden of inheriting Nusrat’s legacy has been a two-sided sword. “The positive side is that it is an honor for me to be his successor and I enjoy that and I am carrying the message of Nusrat. No one is like Nusrat and even I am not like Nusrat. That voice might not come again for centuries, but I am fulfilling his mission because I learned from him. It really surprises me when expect that I will be doing the same thing he did. I have my own vocal sound and my own styleI learned from him and he also expected me to be a different singer who carries the same message. I hope people will understand this when they listen to me.”
The first glimpse that many Americans got of Rahat was in The Voice from Heaven, a film that explored Nusrat’s legacy. Immediately after his uncle’s death, in the spring of 1998, Rahat performed at his shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, at the largest festival in South Asia. Rahat was the youngest qawwali singer in the history of the 3-day festival and more than 200,000 attended the all-night performance. He performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1998, for the Dead Man Walking benefit concert, along with Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam.
He returned to the US in August 1999 for eleven concerts including appearances in Central Park and the Hollywood Bowl, as well as Chicago, and Washington, DC. The music remains a form of spiritual practice to Rahat. “I wake up early in the morning every day, around 6 a.m., and start singing special ragas that are very difficult to practice for five or six hours a day. Qawwali is basically a form of prayer. It is a way of explaining to the world the message of those Sufis, through their phrases and poetry, which qawwali expresses through devotional music, it is basically preaching peace and love, but it is also prayer.”
Working with Rick Rubin, who co-founded one of rap’s premier labels (Def Jam), might seem an odd move for a singer of devotional music. Despite the fact that Rick comes from the rock and roll world and Rahat comes from a religious world (he prays five times day, and at the age of 12 he went to Mecca for Haj, a pilgrimage) there was never a big gap to overcome between the two men. “I didn’t feel any gap between Rick and my music,” Rahat said. “I felt him approaching the music with a spiritual attitude. I like Rick very much. I feel like he understands the music in a way only someone who lived with Sufis could understand it. So I am very happy to work with him, because our approaches are so similar, where I go, his mind is always there before me. I am very pleased he produced my record.”
For now though, Rahat remains single-pointedly focused on the message of traditional qawwali. “The qawwali music is not only music, it is a message. It was created by Sufis, and when we compose and practice this music, it stays forever. Other music comes and goes, but qawwali never goes. Once you start listening, it goes in your soul, goes in your spirit, and you become more human. I feel that this music is my duty, to go and give the message of Sufism. My future is that one day I will fulfill the desire of Nusrat to give this message to the world.”
Pakistan’s fresh young ensemble, Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, though still in their teens, are already proving to be masters of the Sufis’ devotional music. The two young brothers who lead the group, Rizwan Mujahid Ali Khan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan, have an impeccable musical pedigree — their grandfather was an uncle of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and personally taught Nusrat the art of Qawwali singing. These nephews of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan come from a direct family line of Qawwali vocal music that spans over five centuries. Their inventive reinterpretations of spiritual love songs based upon classical Islamic and Sufi texts were first showcased in the UK, in July 1998, at the WOMAD Festival in Reading (Great Britain), and received much critical acclaim.
Performers of Qawwali believe that they have a religious mission: to evoke the name of Allah in a quest for total transcendence. They use music as a vehicle to enlightenment or to achieve inner knowledge — via rhythmic hand clapping, percussion, harmonium and a vast repertoire of sung poetry. By repeatedly chanting salient phrases, they transport audiences to a spiritual nirvana or trance-like state. Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali is made up of two lead singers (Rizwan and Muazzam), five secondary singers leading the choral response and vigorous hand claps, two harmonium players and a tabla player. They perform in traditional Qawwali style — sitting on the ground rather than on seats — which they believe brings them closer to God.
A typical Qawwali song will usually begin with a slow instrumental vamp that introduces the melody. The lead singer then meanders in with the first line and establishes a call-and-response pattern. Phrases are repeated over and over again, punctuated by sudden and furious breaks of florid virtuoso singing by the leader. As the piece progresses, the tempo and volume are gradually increased, elevating the listeners to higher and higher states of entrancement. Traditionally, women are forbidden to sing Qawwali.
The original Qawwali repertoire of Farsi (Persian), Punjabi, and BrajBhasha (an old form of Hindi) has given way in recent times to Urdu and Arabic. Romantic love is used as a metaphor for spiritual adoration and mystical enlightenment, drawing upon a rich vein of poetic imagery. It is not surprising, therefore, that Qawwali has become a staple of Hollywood film scores.
Day of Colours, released in 2004, was recorded in four days in a tiny studio in Lahore. It features customary praise songs to Allah and Mohammed, along with praises to Sufi saints such as Ali Ahmed Sabir and Khawaja Muhammad Deveen in languages ranging from Persian to Urdu to Punjabi.
“Qawwali is a precious thing that has stood the test of time,” Rizwan said. “The songs connect to the human spirit and freshen the human soul. Its main message is love and the aim of this record [Day of Colours] is to spread peace and understanding.”
“We know that no one can emulate Nusrat,” Muazzam added. “We just want to carry on where he left off and, God willing, we can take the craft forward.”
Shabaz combined eleven generations of vocal history with a modern global sensibility and the wicked rhythms of the dance floor. Shabaz featured the voices of siblings Sukhawat Ali Khan and Riffat Salamat, the living embodiment of the ancient Sham Chorasi singing tradition. The pair can trace their lineage back to the court musicians for ruler Akbar the Great.
Their father Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was one of the great classical Indian singers and an influence on the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sukhawat began singing at the age of seven and has performed around the world for presidents and kings. Renowned for his technique and passion, he shared vocal duties with sister Riffat who took Qawwali to places it’s never been before. American multi-instrumentalist and producer Richard Michos, the third member of Shabaz spent years exploring Indian music as both player and scholar.
With influences ranging from Zakir Hussain to Jimi Hendrix and dance music he brings an open Western sensibility to the band’s sound adding the colors and textures of electronic beats, dance, rock and ambient music to create a heady irresistible mix. As the Ali Khan Band, Shabaz (which translates as ‘Chief Eagle’) recorded two albums for City of Tribes. Their 1998 debut Tawsir appeared at the top of the CMJ New World Music chart and Zindagi (Urdu for ‘Life’) their follow-up disc reached similar heights in 2000.
Based in the San Francisco area, they played with artists like Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade transporting crowds with every gig. They continued to work and shape their sound polishing and refining pushing their unique talents across more musical boundaries from the rhythmic richness of ̶Bhangra, to the experimentation of ̶Chela, where club beats frame intoxicating passionate vocals. They had their unique vision of a true world fusion where continents and histories come together in the music of the dance. As Sukhawat Ali Khan said, “It’s an extraordinary time for communicating through music. Music is becoming a melting pot a place where cultures cross.”
Sukhawat Ali Khan later formed a new band called Baraka Moon.
American qawwali music ensemble Riyaaz Qawwali is set to perform on Sunday, April 30, 2017 at 7:00 pm at Roulette in New York City.
Riyaaz Qawwali performs the trance-like improvisational Sufi vocal tradition made famous in the West by the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, enthralling listeners with its lively rhythms, joyous melodies and inspirational poetry.
In addition to performing traditional qawwali that has been in existence for over 700 years, the ensemble also adds various songs and poetry of South Asia into the qawwali framework, using qawwali as a universal message of oneness that transcends religious boundaries.
Most qawwali ensembles are composed of Muslim family members, but Riyaaz Qawwali, which is based in Texas, is composed of musicians who represent the diversity of South and Central Asia; they are of Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, and Bangladeshi descent, and come from various spiritual backgrounds, including Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
The ensemble’s discography includes Kashti and Ishq.
Babu Fakir specializes in Qawwali and Baul/Fakiri songs and is an extremely powerful singer in Fakiri music. Through Qawwali repertoire, he maitains a hundred year old oral tradition that praises both Allah and Lord Krishna. As a Dotara player, he is also renowned for his Kirtan repertoires.
Golam Fakir is an acclaimed singer and Dotara player (an instrument much associated with the musical culture of the Bengali people and highly favored by the Baul). Golam comes from Gorbhanga village located in Nadia District of West Bengal, a state of Eastern India. Golam specializes in Marfati, Murshidi and Qawwali repertoire and is regarded as one of the leading singers in Fakiri music.
News reports from Pakistan indicate that renowned Qawwali musician Amjad Sabri, one of Pakistan’s most well-known Sufi musicians, was shot and killed on Wednesday, June 22, 2016 in the southern city of Karachi.
Amjad Farid Sabri was born on December 23, 1976 and was a member of one of the most famous Qawwali music ensembles in Pakistan, the Sabri Brothers.
The Sabri Brothers is Pakistan’s best known, extraordinarily successful family of devotional Sufi singers, from Kalyana in the East Punjab and with over 30 years of sung religious poetry behind them.
In 2012, Amjad Sabri released a solo album titled Ecstasy of the Soul.
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