Vaishnava jana toh is known as Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan. It is commonly sung, instrumentally rendered, and danced to at various devotional or cross-cultural Indian gatherings. Sonny Mehta, founder of the Austin, Texas-based band Riyaaz Qawwali (Riyaaz) presented it in the Qawwali style and hasn’t looked back. The Huffington Post recently included it in its “Daily Meditations” column and featured the group, as did NPR.
Qawwali is characterized by an intense Sufi undertone of attempting a communion with the Divine. This underpinning is what keeps Mehta inspired. “The music is unlike any other, due to the melodies and upbeat rhythmic cycles commonly used. Everything one hears in Qawwali can be addressed to a lover and to the Beloved. There are so many parts of this art … can be a life-long catalyst for inspiration.”
Riyaaz’s most recent album called Ishq, was released in March and is a ghazal album highlighting evergreen poets Mirza Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Amir Khussrau, and a living poet, Tahir Faraz. The first album, Kashti, is available on iTunes.
Listening to the group’s tracks through the years, it becomes apparent that they have continuously worked on perfecting their sound, with innovations of their own. Right off the bat, one notices the violin in the ensemble, uncommon in this genre. Riyaaz’s originality shines through in the selection of the songs themselves and in the creation of their Qawwali avatars. Inadequacies in tonal quality in a few of the early works are more than made up for in the sentiment, which arguably is the truer test of a qawwali. Vaishanava jana toh, for example, has notational improvisations that Sufiana lovers have come to expect, as does the bhajan, “Pyaare kanha bajaye bansuri.” The second volume of Ishq includes “Maye ni Maye,” a tribute to motherhood. Its folksy language is weaved through the fabric of chorus deliberation, intertwined with the tenacious rhythm and cycles of the qawwali style. The meditative quality that Riyaaz has been able to capture with every beat and syllable makes it remarkable. “Rone se aur ishq mein” brings home the Divine drama of Riyaaz’s qawwali starting with surrender, petulance, and despair: through Mehta’s crescendo, the poet speculates, “Tumhari berukhi par bhi lootadi zindagi humne; agar tum meherbaan hote, hamara haal kya hota?” (I spent a lifetime embracing your rejection; should you have reciprocated, I wonder what my condition would be?)
The ethos and pathos of this music makes it challenging for practitioners and organizers alike. About the first, Mehta says, “Being able to reach our own goals and standards, practicing enough, learning enough about the music and the poetry—these are struggles for any artist … Two weekends every month, we take our individual practice and build a combined sound. [Qawwali] requires knowledge of lyrics that is deeper than just mere translations. Practices are spent on musical and linguistic growth.” Many in the ensemble have been trained classically, Western and Indian. Mehta himself was initiated into classical music by his grandfather, who would insist that he hold a note for long periods. After that, he pursued his training for 16 more years, with various teachers. He continues to cultivate his interest in Urdu and Punjabi poetry under the guidance of experts in the field.
Mehta asserts: “Bringing Qawwali on to a professional performing stage is harder than you would think. The stage is heavily biased towards Bollywood, who consider us classical but classical music stages consider us semi-classical. Quoting from a poem … dyar-e-ishq mein, apna makaam paida kar (Through the frontiers of love; stake your own claim).”
His claim paid off, when in 2013, Riyaaz was chosen by prominent music composer Philip Glass for the presentation of “In The Spirit: Music from the World’s Great Traditions” at the Garrison Institute in New York City. Mehta proudly reminisces, “He picked four musicians from around the world. It was an exhilarating experience, with fantastic audience response. The best part was that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saheb had performed his first U.S. concert at that venue!” Interestingly, Glass is very familiar with the Mahatma, having produced his own musical “Satyagraha” which premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 2008. Khan needs no introduction; his performances are what made Sufi Qawwali popular in niche circles in the last two decades.
Mehta is committed to expanding the borders of both, his musical medium of choice and geographical listenership. He is in talks with a television network regarding “The Riyaaz Experience.” It is planned as an 8-episode series that looks at Qawwali in the new homeland, collaborations with other art forms; including expert opinions from University of Texas and Harvard Universities. Of non-South Asian audiences, Mehta says, “We have fared well, because we try to break the art down into universal truths: love for the Beloved, inner search for the truth, harmony among one another. These audiences have given us the love that boosted us early on. A quote again: “Jab tak bika na tha, koi puuchta na tha, tune mujhe khareed kar anmol kar diya.” (When I was in the market, nobody valued me; you made a bid for me, and I became invaluable.)”
Riyaaz’s second album, Ishq, will be available on iTunes in May.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.