Qawwali: how euphoric Sufi chanting captured the world

Qawwali – a famous form of Sufi spiritual song – can sound oddly familiar even to those who haven’t heard it before. Indeed, the style’s strident chanting and relentless tabla loops have always been designed to captivate in anyone in attendance, aimed at inspiring shared experiences of the divine, and states of ego-loss and extreme spiritual focus. While most qawwals hail from long, exclusive lineages, their sounds are easy to like, and open to all.

The term qawwal translates as ‘he who sings the utterances of the Prophet’, and scholars consider the tradition to have arisen from a fusion of Islamic doctrine and Hindu beliefs around how musical experience can be a route to liberation. According to legend, the genre was created by Amir Khusrau, a legendary 13th-century scholar, historian, diplomat, and composer, who is said to have conjured new song forms in order to please his own teacher, Sufi master Nizamuddin Auliya.

Even today, qawwali lyrics are mostly drawn from the work of Sufi mystical poets, and are correspondingly rich in symbolism, metaphor, and vivid depiction of sensory experience. Songs are long (often upwards of 20 minutes each), and performed in groups, with a main singer leading the rest through multiple verse-chorus sequences, backed by some combination of harmonium, tabla, dholak, and hand-claps. Vocalists will improvise too, drawing from the Hindustani raga system without being too closely moored to its strictures.

You may in fact be familiar with the sounds of qawwali already, even if you don’t know them by name. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan became the genre’s original superstar in the late 20th century, taking the music out of the shrines of the Subcontinent and introducing it to millions through global tours, TV appearances, and hundreds of albums.

Khan’s voice, which still turns up regularly in films, adverts, and remixes, is often described as being among the world’s most powerful. His countless adherents came to include legends from many traditions – vocal virtuoso Jeff Buckley described him as “my hero…I listen to him every day”, and took to performing Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai in New York’s Sin-é cafe in the early 90s. (He was overjoyed to eventually meet his idol in 1996.)

A warm, exuberant character, Khan’s goal was always clear: “If even just one out of one thousand listeners feels spiritually uplifted, then my job, as one who tries to reduce the distance between the Creator and the created, is done”.

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