Saturday, January 6, 2007


For my Sangam program coming up on Monday I am preparing an extended qawwali set. As I select the pieces to be played I have been musing on the popularity of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the US. He is frequently referred to as the leading qawwal of the twentieth century or the Shahen-Shah-i Qawwali. It seems to me though that about fifteen years or so ago it was the Sabri Brothers that were acknowledged as the masters of qawwali and were very popular in the US.

Looking at my CD collection (bought mostly in Pakistan and a bit in the US) which consists of a market sampling of the artists’ work rather than specific selections on my part, much of Nusrat’s available output consists of geets, and folk or popular songs, many of those in re-mixed versions. The qawwalis are present, of course, but other genres seem to have taken up a lot of his attention. This may also account for his broader popularity. By contrast, the Sabri Brothers’ output consists entirely of qawwalis.

As I listen to various qawwalis, I must say I prefer the work of the Sabri Brothers. Their singing is excellent and the music can be enchanting. To my mind their best pieces are unsurpassed. They recorded a large number of qawwalis and though not every piece is of the highest quality, there is no doubt that the Sabri Brothers are second to none.

One cannot talk of qawwals without paying tribute to Aziz Mian, a unique performer of the art. Sadly, he too passed away two or three years ago. He had a distinct style of performance combining singing with deliveries of fiery rhetoric as he almost leapt up from his seated position.
In both qawwalis and ghazals, the lyrics are paramount and music is an accompaniment. Aziz Mian composed, or at least organized, the lyrics that he used. I believe he had a MA in Urdu but in any case you gain enhanced enjoyment from his qawwalis if you are well-read in Urdu poetry because he would pull ash’aar (couplets) from various poets and incorporate them into standard qawwalis.

Aziz Mian is the thinking person’s qawwal without a doubt. Qawwalis are devotional songs but Aziz Mian was a qawwal who was not ready to submit unquestioningly. He would address God and assert his own autonomy; it was almost as if he wanted God to earn his respect before he would submit. The following sh’er from Bahadur Shah Zafar aptly describes Aziz Mian:

Main woh majnoon whoon keh zindan mein nighebanon ko
Meri zanjeer ki jhankar ney soney na dia

(I am that madman who even when imprisoned kept the guards
Alert to their duty through the clanking of my chains)

Speaking of the Sabri Borthers, you may want read the book “The Lamp of Love” by Amatullah Armstrong Chisti published by the Oxford University Press). The author is an Australian woman who started a 5000 km bicycle journey in the course of which she became a Muslim and then a Sufi. She spent some length of time traveling with the Sabri Brothers and describes her experiences in this book.

Another book that you may want to read is “Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali” by Regula Burckhardt Qureshi who is Professor of Music at the University of Alberta, Canada. This book (again, published by the Oxford University Press) is a scholarly study of qawwali covering both the music and its ethnology. A CD accompanies the book and contains illustrative samples of performances.

If I was wealthy and could engage in philanthropic activity, one of the things that I would like to do would be to set up an Institute for the Advancement of Qawwali. Oh, well …

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