The Brightest Star of Qawwali

John Cho

Because of music's undeniable power to move the human body as well as the spirit, religions that abhor the tendencies of the flesh have always treated music with suspicion. Many cultures that are dominated by such religions have developed dual musical modes, sacred versus secular, segregating each kind to its proper place and purpose, the church versus the dance hall, the temple versus the brothel, the "Ave Maria" versus Madonna.

But other religions (usually the "heretical" offshoots of the major brands or syncretic results of colonizations) have embraced the sensual side of music in a quest for total transcendence, i.e., music as a vehicle of transport to the gods or to enlightenment. Practitioners of such trance music are found all over the world, from the Sanghyang dancers of Bali to the nomadic tribe known as the Deadheads in the continental United States. The Sufi, with more than nine million adherents, is one of the larger religious sects that practice such musical entrancement. Qawwali, which means "utterance" in Arabic, is the musical medium through which the Sufis of Pakistan and India travel toward a state of mystical bliss.

Since its inception in the seventh century, orthodox Islam has been particularly fearful of the corrupting influence of music. Singing and the playing of instruments were long considered sinful, and to this day music has no place in the mosque. But perhaps it is not surprising, given the rich roots of Arabic and Persian music that long predate Islam, that an alternate Muslim sect embracing the power of music was born. Sufism originated in tenth century Persia and generated various factions, one of which was the Chisti order that traveled 200 years later to the Indian subcontinent where the modern form of qawwali evolved. (Another well-known Sufi diaspora group is the whirling dervish of Sudan.)

The original qawwali repertoire of Farsi (Persian), Punjabi, and Braj Bhasha (an old form of Hindi) has given way in recent times to Urdu and Arabic. The text usually consists of a few lines that are repeated over and over, with such unorthodox subjects as romantic love and alcoholic intoxication used as metaphors for spiritual adoration and mystical enlightenment, e.g., "The eyes of my sweetheart are so bewitching that even the best wine of the tavern pales in comparison."* It is no wonder that qawwali, minus the religious interpretations, has become a staple of Indian film scores.

The typical modern-day qawwali group consists of a qawwal (the lead singer) backed up by a harmonium, dholak (a double-headed finger drum), tabla, plus a couple of backup singers leading the choral response and vigorous hand claps. Often a song will begin with a slow instrumental vamp that introduces the melodic motif. The qawwal then meanders in with the first line and soon the call-and-response pattern is established. Phrases are repeated ad infinitum punctuated by sudden and furious breaks of virtuoso coloratura singing by the leader. As the piece progresses the tempo and volume are gradually increased thus elevating the listeners to higher and higher states of entrancement. A seasoned qawwal alertly monitors the audience response and adjusts the degree of repetition and the "heat" accordingly.

By far the most famous qawwal today is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan. Since his introduction to the West in 1985 by Peter Gabriel's WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) project, the Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali (Brightest Star of Qawwali) has contributed music for the films Last Temptation of Christ, Natural Born Killers, and Dead Man Walking, played on MTV, been profiled by Rolling Stone, and currently has three albums on the World Music chart. Nusrat's huge, reedy voice has even raised the consciousness (or at least the adrenaline level) of dance floor regulars courtesy of sampling by the English group Massive Attack. He himself has been eager to collaborate with Western musicians and several crossover albums have resulted.

Nusrat's father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, was one of the great qawwals of his time. But in the tradition of well-intentioned but misguided parents, he tried to persuade his son to become a doctor instead. Nusrat had to resort to eavesdropping on his father's music classes to absorb the fundamentals. Soon after his father's death he joined an uncle's qawwali group; he was seventeen years old. Fame and acclaim soon followed in Pakistan. Now at forty-six years of age, he has transcended genre and national borders to be recognized as one of the unique vocal treasures of the world.

By religious proscription a traditional qawwali gathering is exclusively male. Nusrat himself believes that women do not have the stamina required to be a master qawwal like himself. Ironically his only child is a daughter. If she is even now eavesdropping on her father's music lessons, we should not be surprised to see in thirty years that the new Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali is a woman.

Selected Discography for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


Shahen-Shah (RealWorld/Caroline)
The Day, the Night, the Dawn, the Dusk (Shanachie)
Revelation (Interra)
The Last Prophet (RealWorld/Caroline)


Musst Musst (RealWorld/Caroline)
Night Song (RealWorld/Caroline)

* From "Yeh Jo Halka Halka," The Day, the Night, the Dawn, the Dusk.

Copyright 1996, The San Juan Star

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