People & Society

What is gained and what is lost in the mainstreaming of qawwali

Updated Jun 23, 2016 02:09pm

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Abida Parveen performs on Coke Studio
Abida Parveen performs on Coke Studio

On a beautiful spring night in March 2014, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) in Karachi is tastefully decorated and lit for what promises to be a memorable affair. A crowd of approximately 2,500 are waiting in awe for Abida Parveen to sing. As the night progresses and Parveen – dressed in an orange kurta and ajrak – starts to perform what are clearly the crowd’s favourite qawwalis, some in the audience stand up to dance. When a group of boys steps closer and closer to the stage, the security volunteers try to get them to step back; “Mastano ko raqs karne dein” [let the devotees dance], Parveen instructs the security wallahs — and the crowd applauds and hoots in support.

“Perhaps the biggest surprise was the age group of the audience. We thought people attending the event would be relatively older, yet most at the event were between the ages of 20 and 30,” says Shahmir Shahid Khan, one of the students who organised the event to raise funds for an international study trip. When asked why they chose to have a qawwali night as opposed to a rock music concert, he says people wanted to listen to Parveen. “There hadn’t been an Abida Parveen qawwali at the IVS in a while and the school’s ambience serves as the perfect backdrop for such an event.”

Also read: Qawwal Gali: The street that never sleeps

Not just the IVS but various universities, social clubs and cafes in cities – especially Karachi – have hosted qawwali nights throughout the outgoing year. The Second Floor (T2F) was the venue for many qawwali events; it also hosted weekly qawwali sessions during the month of Ramzan.

“When we get Qawwal Bahauddin Khan’s sons to perform at T2F, we tell them not to sing anything new age. We don’t want it to be fast or anything of that sort,” says Zaheer Kidvai, a qawwali aficionado and a senior member of the T2F team. “[The qawwals] respond by saying there will be youngsters in the audience [so, they may have to offer faster tracks]. I tell them, that is great but youngsters should also listen to pure qawwali.”

Kidvai has been a listener of qawwali for over six decades and knows that even the definition of pure qawwali has changed over time. “Qawwali changes every year from what it was last year. I have been listening to qawwalis since I was four and it has changed an awful lot since then.”

Some qawwals justify these changes as commercial requirements. “Good packaging is required to sell a product,” says Hamza Akram, a young member of the Karachi-based Qawwal Bachchon ka Gharana. He does pure qawwali sessions but is also a proponent of fusion. He is part of an acoustic group named Sufystical which attempts to retain the spiritual content of qawwali but also uses bass guitar, drums and keyboards as part of the sound. “This way young people enjoy themselves while, at the same time, they are being introduced to qawwali,” says Akram.

No conversation about fusion in music is complete these days without mentioning Coke Studio. In 2014, the show obtained a new set of producers — Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia of the pop band Strings. In one of those behind-the-scenes video packages aired during the show’s latest season, Kapadia confessed, “When we got this project, we knew that we had to do one thing which listeners of music in the subcontinent would always remember.” He was talking about a variation of qawwali that brought together Parveen and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan on the Coke Studio stage to present Ameer Khusro’s Chhaap Tilak.

Also read: The lost soul: Qawwali’s journey from ecstasy to entertainment

Billboards went up across Pakistan carrying a photograph of the duo’s collaborative performance. This was certainly one of the biggest advertisments a qawwali performance has so far received in Pakistan. Qawwali, suddenly, looked like any other music form — popular, trendy and mainstream.

Even before Kapadia and Maqsood took over as Coke Studio producers, Rohail Hyatt (the producer of the show for its first six seasons) developed a brand that prided itself on wide-ranging experimentation in fusion and innovation. Qawwali was always a major component of his inventive oeuvre — but it invariably came with strings attached. Due to the commercial requirements of the show’s format, both the duration and the tempo of qawwali had to be altered.

Devotees at the mausoleum of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh, listening to qawwali | Syed Haseeb Amjad
Devotees at the mausoleum of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh, listening to qawwali | Syed Haseeb Amjad

Speaking of his stint at the show during its fourth season, Karachi-based qawwal Abu Muhammad says, “We accepted commercialism.” According to him, shorter duration of tracks and a faster tempo have helped qawwali become a mainstream musical genre which is helping musicians attract a younger audience. He hastens to add that the changes brought about by the Coke Studio format did not mean that the basics of the genre were also changed. “We never let go of the roots of qawwali.”

Whether as a result of what Coke Studio has done or due to something else, there is a discernible change in how audiences view qawwali more as a form of entertainment than as devotional music to be sung in its peculiar format, developed over a millennium. “When we go to an audience and they ask for a certain type of music, we [play that] but tell them that it is for their entertainment [that we have done so]. We tell them it is not qawwali,” says Muhammad. In order to show the same audience how the genre should really be performed, he and his award-winning group, co-led by Fareed Ayaz, always later present qawwali in its original format. This way, he says, qawwali gets introduced to those audiences that have never experienced it in its longer and musically elaborate form.

Traditionally, qawwali was not meant for a mass audience. Performing in front of a learned and select audience, the qawwal would make eye contact with the audience, share observations, explanations and anecdotes in between and play off the audiences’ reactions. Arguably, this interactivity is lost when a qawwali is recorded or presented in as short as a nine to 10 minute musical performance in a show like Coke Studio. “How can we say in 15 minutes or 20 minutes what has taken people a lifetime to express?” asks Rauf Saami, the son of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, a prominent member of the Karachi-based Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana.

He explains the difference. “When sung live, a qawwali is always fil baadih (extempore),” he says. When the listener is sitting in front of the qawwal, it is a completely different experience from having a qawwali recorded for a putative listener not physically present in the recording studio.

Kidvai agrees that interaction with the audience, exchange of gestures and instantaneous response are essential ingredients of a qawwali performance (though all these are conspicuous by their absence in recorded qawwalis). He, however, emphasises that recording qawwalis is not necessarily a bad thing. “It is also a very good thing,” he says. It is due to these recordings that one can listen to all the great local qawwals in the United States, or even in Cuba.

Amjad Sabri performing at Pakistan Idol 2014
Amjad Sabri performing at Pakistan Idol 2014

This sounds great, from the point of view of the listener — but how does a performer view the situation? Akram tells the Herald how it can sometimes be quite difficult to adapt to performing in a recording studio. “Finding a studio spacious enough to create the kind of sound qawwali requires is not easy,” he says, as he narrates his travails of recording an album of his own. To overcome some of these problems, his “album has live elements” too.

The changes qawwali is undergoing have become a boon for many a qawwal. Slowly but surely, qawwali is becoming an essential part of social events such as weddings, and some qawwals – who are much sought-after for performing at these occasions – are having it better than their predecessors ever did. Akram, for instance, was booked on every single day during December 2014, mostly for performances at weddings. The day the Herald spoke to Saami, he, too, was scheduled to sing at a wedding.

What does that mean for qawwali itself? It is a triumph for qawwali, says Akram. In Saami’s opinion, it is the qawwal who determines the importance of qawwali at a wedding. If sung in a proper fashion, qawwali will be a source of blessing for newly-weds, the two young qawwals say. By ‘proper fashion’ they mean that the qawwal not just entertains people but, as Saami puts it, also “presents na’at (the praise of the Prophet) and hamd (the praise of God).” The qawwal, he says, must also explain the kalam (poetry) to the audience.

In 2014, an entirely new avenue became available for qawwali singing – and rather unexpectedly. Thanks to some corporate sponsors, the local franchise of a highly popular international reality television music show, Pakistan Idol, made its debut in the outgoing year. As contestants battled it out, trying to win the title of the first Pakistan Idol, the genres and themes they were required to perform was changed every week – qawwali being one of them. Singer Hadiqa Kiani, who was a judge on the show, along with Ali Azmat and Bushra Ansari, surprised the audience with her choice of clothing during the qawwali episode. She was seen wearing a black kurta, printed with Urdu script; the accessories on her hand and around her neck closely resembled that of a pir at a shrine.

While her eccentric outfit could be justified as an attempt to create an onstage ambience conducive for qawwali singing, the very introduction of the genre in the show was curious. “Can just anyone sing qawwali only because they have a good singing voice?” was a question that many asked. “Qawwali is no one’s personal property,” says Muhammad, but adds that there are certain preconditions to being a qawwal. Anyone who learns qawwali at a saint’s mausoleum and truly devotes himself to the art form can become a qawwal, he says. Saami adds to this by saying that he has been singing qawwali for 30 years but it was only very recently that his father – and more importantly his mentor – deemed him ready to perform in public.

If qawwali is a unique genre, such emphasis on long years of training makes it even more so. Uniqueness is also a key reason why qawwali has relatively flourished in recent times more than other forms of music. Due to an uncertain security situation, fewer and fewer concerts are happening in Pakistan and, thanks to piracy and internet-facilitated downloading of music, album sales are negligible. Yet, in relative terms, qawwali appears to be booming.

This is mainly because a qawwali session does not require expensive or elaborate stage and sound arrangements and so far there have been no terror threats issued against the holding of a qawwali event. “The technical and financial requirements for having a qawwali night are rather few. A qawwali session can happen at T2F, at someone’s house. You don’t need a lot of equipment for it,” says Akram. And it also does not require a lot of security — at least not yet.

With such flexibility and adaptability, qawwali’s journey is certainly not going to stop at Coke Studio, Pakistan Idol or weddings.


This was originally published in the Herald's Annual 2015 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a former staffer at the Herald