The strains of Sufi Qawwali music hold a special fascination for me – there is something about the soaring notes, the seeker’s voice and the universal need to reach the ultimate – all captured into one marvelous tide of music. Fanna-fi-Allah – the group comprised of Tahir Hussain Faridi Qawwal, Aminah Chishti Qawwal, Laali Qalandar, Salim Chishty, Ali Shan, Jahangir Baba, Abrar Hussai and Aziz Abbatiello are a phenomenal amalgam of musical talent, adherence to a centuries-old tradition and virtuoso teamwork on stage that left me spellbound last year. They have traveled to India and Paksitan over the past twenty years to learn and imbibe the pure tradition of Qawwal from legendary masters. This intense dedication to the tradition shows in every syllable that is uttered on stage and every melody that soars to the rafters.
In conversation with Tahir Hussain Faridi Qawwal, the lead singer I heard a fascinating story of cultural assimilation. Speaking Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi today fluently started with listening to classic rock as a teenager. He says, “I listened to classic rock – Beatles and the Incredibles these bands included Indian classical instrumentation and collaborated with those musicians. I heard the tanpura, sitar and sarangi – and I was instantly drawn to those sounds. I followed that and soon started listening to records of Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar. I was drawn to the music and I was also drawn to Eastern mysticism. My first guru in Nova Scotia was a Sikh guru who taught me classical Indian music. Then, from the library I listened to an album by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and was blown away. There started my journey.”
When asked about his favorite qawwalis, he says, “I love the classic qawwali like man kunto allah – I listen in the car and cry sometimes from the pure beauty expressed in it. I love Bulleh Shah’s poetry and also enjoy the Persian poetry of Khusro and Rumi. We have out own connections to Islam. There is a flavor in each of these themes beyond the life story of an iconic figure – we are singing in praise to this quality – that is truly beyond us.”
Tahir confesses that the sacred principles that he holds dear while upholding this tradition is the feeling of community best expressed in the Sufi gatherings called sama – there is a sentimental, emotional expression that we are devoted to inspiring when we perform.It is very different from the self-centered ambition in the West. Talking of their upcoming concerts this weekend, Tahir says, “We do not know what to expect – we aspire to create something that is always fresh and always new. You can’t make Indian food and put it in the fridge and serve it. It’s got to be fresh – just like that we don’t know the music that will come forth. But it’s always ecstatic, trying to move you to a higher plane. The audiences are always mixed – there is a cultural bridge that happens at our concerts – there is the hippie yoga community that gets into it and the South asian community that comes together too. The whirling dervish artist also adds the element of expressive movement.”
Authentic qawwali, mystical poetry, clapping and enthusiastic dancing – the music of Fannafi Allah will move you in more ways than you can imagine!
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.