The Purifying Power of Qawwali

It is not easy to learn a foreign musical tradition that has produced successions of masters striving for ever greater levels of perfection. The Canadian Tahir Faridi Qawwal, born Geoffrey Lyons, dared to do it anyway. During his teenage years, Faridi, whose name is derived from Baba Farid – a 13th century Sufi saint – travelled through India as a meditating wandering ascetic. At the age of seventeen he found a Sufi master, converted to Islam and took the name Tahir. Immersing himself in traditional Qawwali music during numerous stays in Pakistan and India, Faridi gradually penetrated the world of South Asia’s Islamic mystics.

Today, Faridi is the lead singer of Fanna-fi-Allah, the West’s most successful Qawwali ensemble. Its band members first came together in 2001 as a group of hippies and breakaways whose quest for meaning had led them to the Indian subcontinent. What united them was a passion for the music of the great Qawwals – especially the singing of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Over the years that followed, Faridi, together with his band colleagues, studied with the masters of the tradition, including renowned singers such as Nusrat’s nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

A conversation about Fanna-fi-Allah, taking Qawwali to the West and the new documentary series Music of the Mystics.

Credit: Tahir Qawwal

You spent many years studying with renowned Qawwali masters in Pakistan. What drew you there?

I was 19 when I first went to Pakistan. Before that trip I had already listened to Qawwali a lot and studied Indian classical music for a few years. It was my profound appreciation for that genre which first drew me to Pakistan. By that time I was already an initiated Sufi.

How did you become a Sufi?

I was 17 when I took my shahada [Islamic declaration of faith] and received the name Tahir by my sheikh. It was very profound to experience Islam through the doorway of Sufism. What stood out for me was the power of community. Before, I had been living in India as a renunciate, meditating and practicing asceticism. Now I was living with other people, eating together, sharing human stories, offering dhikr and prayers. It was that palpable strength of the communal devotion spirit that brought me to Qawwali. I think the most important lessons I received from my sheikh, who was a Naqshbandi but had a lot of respect for the Chishtiyya path and for Qawwali music, was that of sincerity in religion and spirituality, not trying to show or prove something that you are not. To be sincere in the ways you performed your duties. Then I went into the Chishti world, so now I consider myself “Chishti-Faridi” for the most part. But I don’t feel like that identity is important. It is just a sign of love for Baba Farid and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti [two great saints of the Indian subcontinent]. Their teachings have affected me and live through me.

What touched you about Pakistan’s Sufi culture and how were you received?

Arriving in Pakistan, I was awestruck by the wisdom that I found in the local Sufi culture. The music is incredible. When we first arrived as a group to train with the masters of the tradition, they were very surprised. They saw how we approached them with a humble heart and a strong enthusiasm to learn. All of them were impressed with us having come all that way, not caring about comfortable travel arrangements, but just arriving with a very strong interest in our hearts. So they were intrigued by us, very keen to help and teach us. Studying with those masters also required a lot of devotion and resilience. The deeper we got, the more we had to prove that we could show up to receive more. Therefore we were exponentially taken seriously. Being exposed to Qawwali in its natural state as it has been performed at the dargahs for centuries and sitting with the masters felt like something really important to share with the world. This is how the idea for shooting Music of the Mystics came about.

What challenges did you face during the years of shooting the documentary series?

Air quality was the biggest one, because no one in our group is used to living in cities. Spending months studying with the ustads in cities like Lahore or Faisalabad we would be getting sick frequently. Also the food was an issue, as it was mostly heavy with little fresh stuff availably. By the time we began filming in the dargahs, people already knew us well and were very inviting. Another challenge is the whole “inshallah” concept — if you want to do something in a timely fashion, have a group interview or film a Qawwali ensemble at a shrine, following through the whole thing is very difficult. Either they won’t show up or they will come in the middle of the night in stead of at 4 pm. You just need to be very patient.

Fanna-fi-Allah performing in the traditional dargah setting.

What is it that spending so much time in South Asia has taught you?

We still go to India and Pakistan several months of the year to study. The main thing I have learnt is the communal spirit and kindness that exists in the places we went — it’s not just about looking after one’s self and trying to fulfil one’s own desires and aspirations. You feel that especially in areas where people live in close quarters. They find a lot of joy in giving and sharing. Moved by the music, the poetry and those words of wisdom, we learnt to leave behind our personal ambitions, becoming really able to drop into that beauty and appreciate it. It’s about shifting from the self-centered motivation of “What can I get out of this experience?” to “I just want to be around my friends and do things that feel deeply precious and meaningful.” In that way, time slows. There is real intimacy, an exchange of wisdom and heart-connection.

Unfortunately, there have been incidents of violence towards Qawwals in the past years. How has that impacted your work on this music tradition?

After the bombings of 2013 and 14, security become a great concern. We were sitting at a Qawwali mehfil in Lahore [a gathering of sacred music] when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Suddenly everything had to stop for three days of mourning. We were also very close with Amjad Sabri before he was killed. The shrine of Pakpattan Sharif was bombed when we were there and so was the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore. We just had to make that choice of being brave and resolved in what we were doing. The life we were leading was more important than the fear. I honestly would not read the newspaper or watch the news, just so I was not getting any extra sense of paranoia.

Qawwali has been under attack in both Pakistan and India by fundamentalist Muslims and right-wing Hindus. Having been to both countries, how have you dealt with the animosities?

As foreigners, we have this super power to have a birds-eye perspective that Muslims or Hindus in Pakistan and India can never get — being able to see the beauty of both cultures and religions, belief systems and ways of life. That has made us. We have been going overland between India and Pakistan all the time. We have talked to Indian people about Pakistan and vice versa. This was confronting to our Indian friends. They really wondered how we could be talking great things about Pakistan. Same goes for Pakistanis when we told them about India. You know, people think all kind of random stuff. Coming from the West, we have a neutral perspective and our passports. But when it comes to really understanding what it’s like to be from either of those cultures and growing up with that disdain for the opposite country and opposite religion, with all that history of trauma, there is no way to come even close to emphathizing and understanding that. So from that there is a humility, an awareness that this is a huge story.

We have talked to Indian people about Pakistan and vice versa. This was confronting to our Indian friends. They really wondered how we could be talking great things about Pakistan. Same goes for Pakistanis when we told them about India. You know, people think all kind of random stuff.

Have you ever been accused of cultural appropriation?

Not really. Anyone who knows about Qawwali is aware that this tradition is something that was meant to be shared. It was created by Muslims who originally arrived on the subcontinent from different places. The Islamic element was then fused with the music of India and poetry coming from Iran. I wouldn’t call it a fusion, but a kind of combination made to be shared far and wide, to bring people to the faith of Islam and spread the stories and wisdom of the masters. We have performed at around 1500 concerts through the last twenty years with Fanna-fi-Allah. Some of the venues were festivals in the West. This music speaks to people from all around the world.

Fanna-fi-Allah performing Dam Mast Qalandar at Berkely World Music Festival in the US.

What is it that Qawwali has to give to a Western audience?

Qawwali produces a different kind of wajd [ecstasy]. Its songs are filled with words of transcendence of the self. As humans we do many things to experience that, whether it is through getting drunk or going skiing, skydiving or watching a basketball game. Qawwali and sema feel like very pure, healthy ways of relieving the burden of self-imposed obsession about what we have to be and to become, this constant striving in us. I know that there is a very pure atmosphere which is delivered through the love and depth of the poetry. In the West, we see our audiences easily going into trance and just feeling it. In a lot of festivals people are free enough that they can just go with that inner movement. It’s beautiful to see people appreciate it. In some places, people go quite wild. It is not up to me to judge that. A lot of the times it is just a very beautiful expression of ecstasy and devotion.

Qawwali and sema feel like very pure, healthy ways of relieving the burden of self-imposed obsession about what we have to be and to become, this constant striving in us.

In classical Sufi manuals it is often mentioned that the Qawwal needs to be in a state of spiritual purification and the audience should be composed of intentional seekers. How do you see this?

It sounds a bit cerebral, because as much as you try to arrange all those circumstances for a conducive spiritual experience, in the end it is pretty spontaneous. Sometimes we get invited for special events that turn out to be quite dry occasions. At other times, when you are on the side of the road it feels much more spiritually profound because there is an impulsive natural element to it that makes for sama, that real “listening”, to happen. If it is too staged, planned or carefully thought out, it can loose that spontaneous expression of ishq, divine love. As for us, we try to purify ourselves in different ways. It is not outward as much as it is about remembering our ustads, bringing to awareness that we are doing this for our sheikhs and to guide people into selfless devotional art. It is not for showing off skills, how pure we seem or how nice our kurtas are. So this humility is purifying. Having learnt this music in its traditional setting makes it possible for us to remember our masters and jump into that state together.

How to find the balance between adaptation and preserving the essence of the tradition?

We’re on the side of preserving the essence of the tradition. We just love the old Qawwali. That’s the way we have been taught. There are fusion projects, with electronic or dance music for example. But that is not our focus. I think the traditional arrangement of Qawwali has by far enough magnetism to be attractive to enough people, so I am not worried that I have to modify it to suit anybody’s particular needs.

You also formed the world’s first all-female Qawwali ensemble. Tell me more about it.

Our percussionist Aminah is the first recognized traditional female Qawwali tabla player. She has twenty years experience of performing in shrines. First they wouldn’t let her perform, but then after seeing how much we have devoted to it, they would change their minds. Each dargah is its own journey in terms of receiving permissions. The only one where she hasn’t performed and wasn’t given permission is at the shrine of Nizamuddin Awliya in Delhi. We have done quite some research to find out why women were not allowed to perform in Qawwali ensembles. We found no good reason and nobody had a good reason. So we were like ‘let’s screw that’. It is a good time to honor women as they were honored in the times of the prophet. The Ilahi ensembe is a bunch of students from the Sama School of Music who were keen to learn. So I suggested to just form a group and it has grown into a beautiful project. The enthusiasm and interest to learn is what is important.

The Ilahi Sufi Ensemble – the world’s first all-female Qawwali band.

How do you see the future of Qawwali?

Qawwali is growing and growing. The latest episode of Music of the Mystics is about all the ways in which Qawwali is transforming and changing, in many ways for the better. As much as we consider the Golden era of Qawwali to be in the early twentieth century up until the seventies, it has still grown and there are promising young Qawwals out there. The younger generation of musicians has amazing opportunities with all the information that is available today. But it also takes somebody who can keep focus and devote himself to practicing for many hours a day.


Credit Photos: Fanna-fi-Allah

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