Qawwali (Nastaʿlīq: قوٌالی; Gurmukhī: ਕ਼ੱਵਾਲੀ; Devanāgarī: क़व्वाली; Bengali: কাওয়ালী) is a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia, particularly in the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan, Hyderabad, Delhi, and other parts of northern India. It is a musical tradition that stretches back more than 700 years.
Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines or dargahs throughout South Asia, it has also gained mainstream popularity. Qawwali music received international exposure through the work of the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, largely due to several releases on the Real World label, followed by live appearances at WOMAD festivals. Other famous Qawwali singers include Pakistan’s Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian.
The roots of Qawwali can be traced back to 8th century Persia (today’s Iran and Afghanistan). During the first major migration from Persia, in the 11th century, the musical tradition of Sema migrated to South Asia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Amir Khusro Dehelvi of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali as we know it today in the late 13th century in India. The word Sama is often still used in Central Asia and Turkey to refer to forms very similar to Qawwali, and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is Mehfil-e-Sama.
Qaul (Arabic: قَوْل) is an “utterance (of the prophet)”, Qawwāl is someone who often repeats (sings) a Qaul, Qawwāli is what a Qawwāl sings.
The songs which constitute the qawwali repertoire are mostly in Urdu and Punjabi (almost equally divided between the two), although there are several songs in Persian, Brajbhasha and Siraiki. There is also qawwali in some regional languages (e.g., Chhote Babu Qawwal sings in Bengali), but the regional language tradition is relatively obscure. Also, the sound of the regional language qawwali can be totally different from that of mainstream qawwali. This is certainly true of Chhote Babu Qawwal, whose sound is much closer to Baul music than to the qawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for example.
The poetry is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning, even though the lyrics can sometimes sound wildly secular, or outright hedonistic. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing (of man for the Divine).
Qawwalis are classified by their content into several categories:
- A hamd(حمد), Arabic for praise, is a song in praise of Allah. Traditionally, a qawwali performance starts with a hamd.
- A naat (نعت), Arabic for description, is a song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. The opening hamd is traditionally followed by a naat.
- A manqabat (مناقب), Arabic for characteristics, is a song in praise of either Imam Ali or one of the Sufi saints. Manqabats in praise of Ali are sung at both Sunni and Shi’a gatherings. If one is sung, it will follow right after the naat. There is usually at least one manqabat in a traditional programme.
- A marsiya (مرثية), Arabic for lamentation for a dead person, is a lamentation over the death of much of Imam Husayn’s family in the Battle of Karbala. This would typically be sung only at a Shi’a concert.
- A ghazal (غزل), Arabic for love song, is a song that sounds secular on the face of it. There are two extended metaphors that run through ghazals — the joys of drinking and the agony of separation from the beloved. These songs feature exquisite poetry, and can certainly be taken at face value, and enjoyed at that level. In fact, in Pakistan and India, ghazal is also a separate, distinct musical genre in which many of the same songs are performed in a different musical style, and in a secular context. In the context of that genre, the songs are usually taken at face value, and no deeper meaning is necessarily implied. But in the context of qawwali, these songs of intoxication and yearning use secular metaphors to poignantly express the soul’s longing for union with the Divine, and its joy in loving the Divine. In the songs of intoxication, “wine” represents “knowledge of the Divine”, the “cupbearer” (saaqi) is God or a spiritual guide, the “tavern” is the metaphorical place where the soul may (or may not) be fortunate enough to attain spiritual enlightenment. (The “tavern” is emphatically not a conventional house of worship. Rather, it is taken to be the spiritual context within which the soul exists.) Intoxication is attaining spiritual knowledge, or being filled with the joy of loving the Divine. In the songs of yearning, the soul, having been abandoned in this world by that cruel and cavalier lover, God, sings of the agony of separation, and the depth of its yearning for reunion.
- A kafi is a poem in Punjabi, Seraiki or Sindhi, which is in the unique style of poets such as Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Sachal Sarmast. Two of the more well-known Kafis include Ni Main Jana Jogi De Naal and Mera Piya Ghar Aaya.
- A munadjaat (مناجاة), Arabic for a conversation in the night, is a song where the singer displays his thanks to Allah through a variety of linguistic techniques. It is often sung in Persian, with Mawlan