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At the age of 15, Geoffrey Lyons left his Nova Scotia home with a one-way ticket in hand to find his spiritual home in the mountains of North India. He had heard Indian raga music and it called out to him. What he did not know at that time was that music would be his calling; that the world would know him as Tahir Qawwal.
“I was looking for a guru. I studied the Upanishads, practiced yoga, visited temples, got schooled in classical and spiritual music—bhajans, kirtans, even Baul music from Bengal.
But I could not connect with any of the gurus I met; somehow, something was missing,” reminisces Qawwal. “About when I was 18, I happened to walk into a Qawwali mehfil in Benaras. It was a thoroughly disappointing experience! I could not believe that the music of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whom I idolized, could be so misrepresented. That was when I decided to perform this music. I finished transliterating “Allah Hu” that very night.”
With him that evening, more than a decade ago, were Oregon based tabla player Jessica Ripper and Florida based singer Devanand (“he’s from a spiritual family”), both non Indians, non Asians; non desis, as Qawwal puts it.
Ripper was transformed into Aminah Chishti and Anand, Laali Qalandar. By then, Qawwal had already put in months into studying the various Sufi poems, learning pronunciations and meanings.
This devotion shows in their rendition of “Allah Hu.” They are deliberate in their exploration of the lyrics, specific tones, and the experience. It is a journey in all senses.
Their first “experimental” concert was in Hawaii. “We continue to present Qawwali to unconventional audiences!” says Qawwal. They perform over 100 times a year, in all continents, including Australia and Africa. When asked which audience has been most appreciative, he says, “We play often in San Francisco, which is always great; the audience is part desi and part gora (white) like me. Half our shows are for the Pakistani community—we’re like a local American qawwali group. The other half is comprised of Indian and Sufi/bhakti/ yoga/spiritual events.”
In 2003, Fanna-fi-Allah created history in the Sufi world by being the first all-white group to be invited to perform at the Urs, the annual Qawwali festival in Pakistan. The festival, which was aired worldwide, attracts Sufi practitioners and performers and gained them immense popularity and more importantly, acceptance.
Chishti created a revolutionary milestone and is “indirectly the spearhead of a freedom movement for women in Pakistan” when she became the first woman to be admitted into a Sufi shrine to perform. Chishti’s playing is certainly bold and at the forefront of all their performances, especially so in a rendition of “Ya Mustafa.” This song is evocative of the spirit behind the name—Fanna-fi-Allah means annihilation into the infinite, into Allah.
Also part of the group, which is now based in Grass Valley, California, is son of tabla maestro Ustad Dildar Hussain, Abrar Hussain.
The group has released ten CDs thus far. The record label they created, called Tabaruq Records, recently published an album by the popular Qawwali group Rizwan Muazzam, called Amad. There is also a film expected to be out later this year, called Qawwali–Music of the Mystics. The project can be found on kickstarter.com.
In the last two years, Fanna-fi-Allah has been funded by the United States government to tour Pakistan in order to foster a peaceful relationship between the two peoples, leading to many high-profile and in-the-public-eye philanthropic events.
As Qawwal says, “We are really famous in Pakistan, people love us there.”
Fanna-fi-Allah will be performing in California in October, more details and music at fanna-fi-allah.com
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.