Unlikely as it may seem, the Islamic devotional music of Pakistan has become a major strand of the world music scene, thanks principally to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As a form of Islamic music espousing peace and tolerance, Sufi music has a cultural importance in the 21st century, countering the forces of extremism.

Qawwali is music with a message – the Sufi message of love and peace – sung to catchy melodies dating back as far as the thirteenth century. Although qawwali is a recognized musical genre in its own right, the bulk of the repertoire consists of religious poetry set to music which shares a great deal with the light classical music of India and Pakistan.

Qawwali Themes

As an occasion, qawwali is a gathering for the purpose of realizing the ideals of Islamic mysticism through the ritual of listening to music (sama). By enhancing the message of mystical poetry, and by providing a powerful rhythm suggesting the ceaseless repetition of God’s name (zikr), the music is designed to arouse mystical love and even divine ecstasy – the central experience of Sufism.

Words like “longing” and “ecstasy” reveal the sensuality of much of the Sufi repertoire. Many texts use earthly images of drunkenness and physical love to express their divine counterparts – something that often generates criticism from more Orthodox Muslims.

The Music

Qawwali, like other north Indian song styles, has three components: the melodic line, sung by one or more singers, the rhythm – which is articulated on the drum – and the pitch outline of the melody, which is constantly reinforced on the harmonium.

Qawwali is sung in many languages, but its original repertoire consists of verses in Persian (Farsi) and an old literary form of Hindi known as Braj Bhasha. There is also an extensive repertoire in Punjabi, and in recent times, there has been a growing tendency to use Urdu and even Arabic.

Shrines

Qawwali is at its most splendid in its traditional setting: at the tomb of a Sufi saint on the occasion of his urs (the commemoration of his death and reunion with God). Each shrine has a particular family group of performers attached to it, quite often direct descendants of the original saint, or at least of members of their spiritual family of followers and devotees.

Qawwali Today

Twentieth-century qawwals, notably Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, were quick to diversify their performances to match the current trends in East-West fusion.

Another qawwali group to have gained a world-wide reputation in the same period was the Sabri Brothers, noted for their highly original style. Today the brothers Mehr Ali and Sher Ali maintain a real spiritual power in their performances, both in Pakistan and on their international tours.

From Nusrat’s lineage, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group are among the best-known younger performers of qawwali. As nephews of Nusrat, Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan have a peerless family heritage, but also an impossible act to follow.

Qawwali Fusion

While the traditional strains of qawwali continue to flourish, there are modern secular forms in Bollywood and Lahore films and, of course, the world music fusions. Two of the most successful were Mustt Mustt and Night Song, the two albums on which Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with the Canadian producer Michael Brook.

The nature of qawwali music, with its basic eight-beat cycles and Western-friendly chord sequences, makes it highly suitable for dance remixes. Real World commissioned several second-generation British Asian outfits to remix the Michael Brook/Nusrat releases for Star Rise, which became something of a tribute album to Nusrat’s pioneering qawwali fusion.

One of the most successful of qawwali fusions has been the Qawwali Flamenco collaboration of Faiz Ali Faiz and flamenco singers Miguel Poveda and Duquende with guitarist Chicuelo.

Israeli musician Shye Ben-Tzur came up with a completely different kind of qawwali fusion when he worked with the qawwals of the Ajmer shrine in India. It’s perhaps a testimony to the all-embracing pluralism of Sufi music that Israeli Jews and Indian Muslims can work together with no problems.

Other Sufi Music

Sufi shrines are an integral part of life in Pakistan and, in addition to qawwali, there are many other styles of Sufi music associated with them. Across the country wandering minstrels still visit shrines to perform. One of the most notable is Sain Zahoor, who regularly performs at the shrine of Bulleh Shah in Kasur.

By far the most popular Sufi singer in South Asia today is Abida Parveen. Born of a musical father in Larkana, Sindh, she has made her way in what is traditionally a male profession to become a performer like no other.

 Baul Music - Paban Das Baul

Another Islamic sprituality which has a rich muscial tradition is that of the Baul. The Baul's are a mystical brotherhood of wayfaring minstrels, at pains to sidestep society's conventions and religious orthodoxy. Their name may dervie from batul, the ancient Sanskrit word for 'wind' or 'mad'. In an unorthodox faith not dissimilar to Sufism, the Bauls describe themselves as 'mad about the soul of God within ourselves' and seek mystical union with the divine through ecstatic singing and dance. Bauls reject the castes and sects and women perform alongside men. 

One prominent Baul singer is Paban Das Baul. His 2010 album, Music Of The Honey Gatherers was released on Riverboat Records. 

After releasing a number of crossover albums, from 1994 to 2004, Paban wanted to return to his folk origins and re-explore Baul culture in light of his experiences. He wanted to produce his own album, to record his songs unplugged and to arrange them himself, using all the knowledge he acquired working with Western musicians. He sought out sound engineers Subhadeep Sengupta in Kolkata, Francis Bonfanti in Paris (who first recorded Paban in 1977 for the album Le Chant Des Fous) and Paul Chivers in London. The aim was to render the authenticity of Paban’s vocals with a minimum of tampering. Paban, deeply interested in the process of sound recording, added overdubs of backing vocals, as well as the dubki and the khamak.

On Music Of The Honey Gatherers, Paban performs songs from the trail of the honey gatherers – the wandering Baul singers from the very eastern end of the Indo-Gangetic plains. It is here that the Baul singers of Bengal circulate, anchored in a unique way of life. The honey they gather is spiritual rather than physical. When the sound of a Baul’s voice penetrates the ear, an inner tree – the kalpa briksha (the tree of time) – awakens to life inside the body and seven flowers bloom, lotus chakras of energy, and honey rises in these blossoms. In exchange for this honey, the villagers give alms of rice, dal and vegetables to the Bauls.

Madhukuri (honey gathering) is a tradition among the mendicant Baul singers of Bengal, a tradition that is anchored in the rites of early Tantric Buddhism. They believe that God resides only within the body and is therefore within every human’s reach. Each morning, the Baul singers wander from village to village singing for alms, playing their one-string ektara and thumping on the duggi (bass drum), with voices raised in ecstasy to celebrate the secrets of the human body.

In his wandering, Paban Das Baul has picked up melodies and rhythms, and improvised new words to describe new situations, using the age-old simple village metaphors: the body is a boat, the river is life itself, and the true mastery over sailing can be achieved if the helmsman knows his own grid. The body is a pot of clay, which needs to be fired by inner knowledge in order to retain the water of love.

Like his brother Bauls, Paban is a wanderer, an ascetic who abandons the village world to lift his voice in heartfelt songs to the world, to heal by awakening new, magical energetic life.

Emotional, varied and intensely spiritual, this beautiful collection of songs demonstrates why Paban Das Baul has succeeded in bringing the traditional oral world of Baul singers of Bengal to an international audience.