Sacrifice to Love

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, 1999

Qawwali, an Arabic word meaning "utterance", is the devotional music of the Sufis of Pakistan and India, the mystics of the Islamic religion. The term includes both the medium and its performance, and has been a dominant feature of Islamic culture since the 12th century.

It was the energetic recordings and concerts of the late, great artist, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) which first introduced Qawwali music to Western audiences. His singing effortlessly transcended language and cultural barriers, and his spirit reached and moved people all over the world. Today, Qawwali is seen as one of the world's most passionate and vibrant forms of music.

Pakistan's fresh young ensemble, Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, though still in their teens, are already proving to be masters of this Sufi devotional music. The two young brothers who lead the group, Rizwan Mujahid Ali Khan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan, have an impeccable musical pedigree - their grandfather was an uncle of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and personally taught Nusrat the art of Qawwali singing.

These nephews of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, then, come from a direct family line of Qawwali vocal music that spans over five centuries. Their inventive reinterpretations of spiritual love songs based upon classical Islamic and Sufi texts was first showcased in the UK in July 1998, at the WOMAD Festival in Reading, and received much critical acclaim.

Performers of Qawwali believe that they have a religious mission: to evoke the name of Allah in a quest for total transcendence. They use music as a vehicle to enlightenment or inner knowledge - via rhythmic handclapping, percussion, harmonium and a vast repertoire of sung poetry. By repeatedly chanting salient phrases, they transport audiences to a spiritual nirvana or trance-like state.

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali is made up of two lead singers (Rizwan and Muazzam), five secondary singers leading the choral response and vigorous hand claps, two harmonium players and a tabla player. They perform in traditional Qawwali style - sitting on the ground rather than on seats - which they believe brings them closer to God.

A song will usually begin with a slow instrumental vamp that introduces the melody. The lead singer then meanders in with the first line and establishes a call-and-response pattern. Phrases are repeated over and over again, punctuated by sudden and furious breaks of florid virtuoso singing by the leader. As the piece progresses the tempo and volume are gradually increased, elevating the listeners to higher and higher states of entrancement. Traditionally, women are forbidden to sing Qawwali.

The original Qawwali repertoire of Farsi (Persian), Punjabi, and Braj Bhasha (an old form of Hindi) has given way in recent times to Urdu and Arabic. Romantic love is used as a metaphor for spiritual adoration and mystical enlightenment, drawing upon a rich vein of poetic imagery. It is not surprising, therefore, that Qawwali has become the staple of Bollywood film scores.

'Sacrifice to Love', Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali's debut album on Real World Records, will be available from 28 June 1999. Produced by John Leckie, it features four of their own compositions: a 'hamd' - a song in praise of Allah; a 'manqabat' - a song in praise of a great Sufi saint; a 'naat' - a song in praise of Prophet Mohammed; and a 'ghazal' - a love song with contemporary lyrics. The group's passion for this venerable and transcendent genre is unmistakeable.

The tradition carries on.

Reviews

  • ‘…they are bravely experimental...’ The Guardian (UK)
  • ‘Although their style is – understandably – closely modelled on that of their uncle, it nevertheless carries a distinct identity of its own, most evident through a kind of raw energy that comes with youth. This album is without doubt one of the best performances of qawwali I have heard since Nusrat died.’ Songlines (UK)
  • ‘…clearly they have inherited much of his [Nusrat’s] mastery.’ The Times (UK)
  • ‘…breathtaking a riot of devotional drumming and chanting... ...ascending over ten minutes to a transcendent crescendo.’ Time Out (UK)
  • ‘The two brothers are blessed with robust wide-ranging voices... the kind Nusrat so expertly bent and twisted during his decades of singing.’ Amazon.com
  • ‘This 11-piece group, which performs sitting down, will make your spine tingle as it builds an irresistible momentum.’ The Seattle Times (USA)
  • ‘…the rhythmic pulse of this music, the soaring and trance-inducing vocals and the fire of religious faith carry this one quite far…’ Los Angeles Daily News (USA)