Monday, April 8, 2013

Qawwali Music Explained: An Interview w/ Tahir Qawwal of Fanna-Fi-Allah

If any of you have ever had the absolute pleasure of sitting in on a late night jam session with Fanna Fi Allah, then you'll know what I'm talking about when I say the air fills with a palpable sense of mysticism, devotion and a serious connection to the groove.  While I am myself a well trained musician, i've often wondered about the under lying structure present that is capable of bringing to life such an amazingly intricate and yet delicately simple form of devotional music.

To learn more, I sent my friend and band leader Tahir Qawwal some questions and was really inspired by the responses... read on for the interview!

You can listen to their latest release here:

And all of their releases here:

Can you briefly talk about the roots of Qawwali singing?
Musically speaking qawwali singing comes principally from the classical raaga tradition of the Indian subcontinent. All qawwalies are composed inside of a raaga framework which span both classical & semi-classical raaga's. Since qawwali singing is done in the high register, the texture of this singing is most closely related to folk & bhajan. Most of the vocal ornamentation in qawwali singing is contained in the Indian classical system, while a few special techniques come more specifically from Persian singing.

What are the general themes you are singing about?  Love?  Spirituality?  Devotion?
Well qawwali covers a very vast subject mater, spanning over a thousand years of culture & sufi poets. Generally speaking the principal subject matter is ' Ishq ' divine love, the passionate & emotional relationship with Allah. The typical subject matter for expressing this sacred devotion within qawwali text is offered to the name of Allah directly, towards the beloved prophet Muhammad ( pbah ) & his family, sufi saints of the Indian subcontinent & simply to the beloved, called by many names like: Sajna, Mehraman, Dholena... The qawwali texts are in languages such as: Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Seraiki & Purbi.

Can you describe how the structure of the music works? (how it's composed and performed)
The musical structure of qawwali is quite unique, yet much of it's arrangement has certainly evolved out of older Indian musical genres. The main body of the song is comprised of a central sufi poetic text which is divided into two melodies, the astai ( lower melody ) & the antra ( upper melody ). In addition to this principal text we have firstly the ' saazina ' ( instrumental intro ), ' alap ' ( wordless vocal intro ) & ' Dora ' ( poetic invocation for the song ). Once the main text begins there can be many improvised solos sung spontaniouslly by the front line vocalists, these improvised bits known as ' amad ' are passionate offerings sung to embellish the raaga even deeper. As well, our qawwali repatoir is completely traditional, the melodies being composed by our maters & their for fathers. Being the group leader, it is also traditional for me to add relevant poetic material to the song as spontaneous solo or call/response sections.

I've seen it performed many times, and it seems like everyone gets a chance to solo but how is the solo order determined, and how does the ensemble know when the solo is over and it's time to sing the chorus?
When it comes to ' amad ' solo parts, it is the duty of the advanced vocalists in the front line. There is certainly no order as impulsive passion is the way. There is though, a communal respect given first to the advanced singers. When it comes to how to start or finish, this is all empathic, as long as a solo is aesthetically within the feel of the track it all lines up naturally.
On behalf of the whole ensemble, how did most of you get involved? Was it different for everyone?

Well, my beginnings in the qawwali field evolved directly out of studies in Indian classical music & my journey into sufism. When Fanna-Fi-Allah was created by Aminah Chishty & I back in 2001 we tried our best to build the group from skilled vocalists who were passionate about this musical genre. Qawwali is an extremely difficult & sophisticated form of music. Because of the perpetual musical training involved in our ensemble, it is treated as a very long term commitment for anyone to join the mob. Yes, it was truly different for each of our beloved members.

It seems like you guys are family and all share a common bond within the music… can you talk about that?

We certainly do ! Sharing devotional music has been a profound way to experience friendship. Keeping the peace within our crew hasn't always been easy, but now that were all well out of our twenties inshallah generosity & maturity will guide our way forward.

Are there particular challenges you face in touring with such a large group?
The most confronting challenge of touring as a large ensemble is simply the cost. After our first decade of touring professionally we all decided that it was time that we would only except gigs that were fairly paid, this has created some limitations for venues & festivals with small performer budgets. On top of this we typically accept one or two benefit concerts each year as well as perform in India & Pakistan without any concern for compensation.

Do you ever perform in smaller numbers? (duo or trio, etc.)
Traditional qawwali as passed down from our maters can only be accomplished with a group. There are specific rolls that must be fulfilled for an offering that is truly qawwali. Singing the sufi texts in a classical ( duo or trio ) is beautiful genre called Kafi. My other musical ensemble named Sufi Soul Sangeet is designed for this more subtle & soft traditional art.

Do you have any tips for people interested in singing Qawaali who might not have access to an ensemble to practice with?
First off, the guidance of a qawwali ustad ( teacher ) is completely necessary since the form is much too advanced to imitate. Most of the practice involved is purely classical training which is done alone. But when your ready for an ensemble give a call !

Is having a female tabla player unusual?
Yes, female tabla players in Pakistan seem to be presently almost non existent. Thanks to her heart felt dedication to the path & her initiation under qawwali great Dildar Hussain Khan, Aminah is proving herself exceptionally well in this field.
Can you talk about how, as a non-indiginous ensemble, you've been received by traditional audiences and/or venues?
Honestly when performing in Pakistan, since the traditional setting of qawwali is completely sufi in nature there is only kindness when we offer our sound. The virtues of hospitality & warmth come much more easily than cultural discrimination. That being said, we are very young in this path when sitting at the feet of our teachers & their many generations of qawwali history. Qawwali music is much more of a spiritual experience than a cultural display. As I've explained above there are many languages in qawwali, therefor even local Pakistani qawwal's have to study hard if they are to thrive.

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