29/03/2017 3:43 AM IST | Updated 29/03/2017 8:20 AM IST

These American Desis Are Bringing A Fresh, New Energy To Qawwali

Riyaaz Qawwali wants to spread the message of Sufism in Trump’s America.

TBSPhotography / Riyaaz Qawwali / Facebook

They don't come from a family of qawwals. Most of them are trained in Hindustani classical music but also in western music in American campuses. They are a qawwali group in the United States, far away from south Asia, where qawwals can be found dime a dozen.

It is not surprising that the Houston-based Riyaaz Qawwali group has been experimenting with the form, using the qawwali genre to sing in praise of Ganpati, or having a violinist in the group.

The latest experiment from the group is to put out short excerpts of their qawwalis rather than the full performance. The idea is to let listeners enjoy some qawwali while they are on the go, from hostel to class, or between meetings.

They have just released an excerpt from Ishq mujhko nahi, a Ghalib sher sung as qawwali. "In this excerpt, we are focusing on only one aspect of qawwali, the infatuation aspect of devotion," says Sonny (pronounced Sunny), the group's founder.

"I love the essence of all things qawwali: that it has moved from dargahs to concerts; that it is the devotional aspect of Sufi Islam, that it has challenged the traditional and yet remains a relevant art form. But I also feel that artists who represent themselves as qawwals are not adapting to today's listeners," Sonny says.

A qawwali isn't short by definition. It starts slowly, builds up, takes you into a rapture. Aren't short excerpts taking away something from the experience? "Yes of course, it's taking away a lot. But a lot of qawwali fans want that short clip when they are in a hurry. So we have condensed one essence in each excerpt. In Shabaaz Qalandar we have chosen the dhamaal, and in Man Lagyo Yaar we have displayed the introductory shayari that sets up the main piece of a qawwali," explains Sonny.

Making art that speaks to the present time has been a key theme in Riyaaz Qawwali's work.

"For the last two years, for instance, people have loved it when we sing Tahir Faraz's Itna Bhi Karam, as we juxtaposed it with the lives of South Asian Americans today. When we sing Naksha jo mujhey khuld mein dikhlaya gaya tha, we talk about the ideal world we wanted to see and what the world is, the world we imagined as immigrants and the world we have actually made of immigrant life, the walls we create against each other. In a concert in Miami two weeks ago people cried as we sang songs in the context of South Asians who have been killed here because somebody thought they were Arab," says Sonny.

Humanism over identity, a key aspect of Sufi thought, comes into play when Sonny refuses to tell us his full name, though you can find it if you Google hard enough.

"We performed in a concert for two years, it was a qawwali-driven conversation on ishq, which is what qawwali is about, and then a radio journalist asked me what's my full name, where I am from, where I grew up and so on. I asked him, what was the point of what I did on stage for two hours if you are just going to fit me in neat boxes of nation, religion, region? And our group is diverse, it's not just me."

Sonny's grandfather used to sing and explain to him the songs of Heer and Baba Bulleh Shah when he was growing up, and then he would listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan every night.

The group began with a heavy Nusrat influence, and it's impossible to do Nusrat better than Nusrat. It is their recent experiments that are bringing them acclaim.

Riyaaz Qawwali / Facebook

The experiments aren't entirely radical because improvisation has always been part of the genre. A Ghalib sher here, a new tune there, is only expected of qawwals. But nobody expects Vaishnav Jan To, to be sung as a qawwali, or for that matter Aaj Jaaney Ki Zid Na Karo.

"Perhaps Vaishnav Jan To has been our most popular qawwali so far because people have found this to be the essence of what could be a good mix of two faiths – a popular Hindu bhajan sung in what is seen as an Islamic style. But we take it forward, we expand on what maya is. Often we are requested to perform it by Muslims who are steeped in Urdu poetry and qawwali alike." Similarly, they surprised an audience in Philadelphia when they composed a Ganpati song as a qawwali on Ganesh Chaturthi.

Sonny doesn't think he's doing anything new that should be described as fusion music. "Fusion started with Hazrat Amir Khusro, when qaul and qalbana were used to create a new art form in Delhi. I would hate to offend people with my experiments. I am always respectful to my listeners. I am my own critic but you cannot freeze art in time. Classical qawwali lovers want, above all, something respectful created."

The distance from South Asia does affect their work: the musicians who come on board have to often be trained in Hindustani classical first, in the concepts of raga and taal. "But the distance is also an advantage perhaps. We feel freer to experiment without others telling us what we can and can't do. I don't know if we could have done Vaishnav Jan To if we had been living in South Asia, and we are not sure how people would have responded when we sang a Sikh Shabad as a qawwali. There are some listeners who have, for instance, told us we shouldn't have the qawwali clapping of hands in a Sikh shabad, but we have done it respectfully," Sonny says.

The group performs around 20 concerts a year across the United States. Increasingly, there are more non-desis than desis in the audience as Sonny explains the music to them in English in between the performance. "It's the message that resonates even when people don't understand the words," says Sonny.

On 9 November, as Donald Trump became the US president, Sonny quit his corporate job and became a full-time musician. "I go for residencies in colleges where we teach for 3-4 days and then perform. I know Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English so I translate between cultures. It's important to spread this message in Trump's America," he says.

So when are they performing in India? "When god insists," replies Sonny. For now, they are now busy making a TV series about South Asian music in the US.

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