Did qawwali die with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri brothers?

Published: January 25, 2014
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The qawwals – well-trained in the art and associated with the traditional version of the genre – are diminishing by the day. PHOTO: REUTERS

The melodious voice became clearer as I walked towards the shrine. And just as I started up the stairs separating the dust of the polluted world from the spiritual atmosphere of the place, the lyrics became discernible as well,

“Tajdar-e-Haram, O Nigah-e-Karam…”

(King of the Haram, look upon us with mercy…)

As strong as commentary can ever be, this poetry has always inspired reverence in faulted souls.

Not more than a decade ago traditional qawwali was still thriving and the best place to listen to qawwalis was not a privately organised concert but these very publically hosted urs. Photo: Badar Chaudhary

And yet, something was amiss this time.

Although not exactly a connoisseur myself, I was still able to tell that the singers trying to emulate the ‘Princes of Qawwals’ – the Sabri brothers – were amateurs who lacked the necessary schooling. A place that had been frequented by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan while he was alive and then by his nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan for many years since, had to make do with these local makeshift kinds who would most likely be delivering mail or undertaking similar jobs in the morning.

Disappointment engulfed me as it had on multiple occasions before this also, followed by nostalgia setting in for the days not more than a decade ago when this genre was still thriving and the best place to listen to qawwalis was not a privately organised concert but these very publically hosted urs.

Crowd gathers at the shrine of Kalyam Shareef. Photo: Badar Chaudhary

Similar to the educational standards and the economy, the culture of the country has also become hostage to the quickly diffusing society, which espouses all that it can of western norms and Arab prejudices.

That two such distinctive creeds are the cause behind the downfall for the conventional qawwali is surprising but such is the story of Pakistan. The modernists – holding on to the complexes of a colonised nation – have become disillusioned with their own music while the conservatives – deeming everything Arab as ‘Islamic’ – have embraced all that this culture has to offer.

The movement towards a more literal interpretation of Islam and the contrasting globalisation which reeks of western values and principles have simultaneously chipped away at the identity and core values of Pakistan.

Qawwali is also such a casualty.

The transition from a rural to an urbanised society rendered a majority incapable of enjoying the simple pleasures of life. The pace of life quickened. Much like the shift from Test cricket to T20s and the reduction in the length of movies, the qawwalis were shortened to satiate the fluctuating tastes. This was followed by an influx of western rock and pop which slowly started pervading the market. And as it happened, in spite of the aesthetic appeal of the traditional qawwalis, with the exception of a few names, the genre could never achieve commercial success.

And thus the metamorphoses began.

The fusion in itself would not have been detrimental to the interests of the genre but the neglectful attitude that followed was. Thus, the ‘modern’ version of the qawwali was introduced which gelled together flawless voices with guitars and pianos to attract the majority.

Understandably, it was an instant success.

Trained musicians immediately embraced the change and began to produce music which was very different from their own. Slowly, these money-making ventures became the sole aspiration and hence, the descent of traditional qawwali commenced.

Since this ‘modern’ music allowed for imperfections in the voice to be covered, along came untrained singers to take up the genre for monetary gains. Traditionalists who took up the cause had failed to address the fact that although people still listened to Gorakh Dhanda and Sochta Hoon Ke Woh Kitnay Masoom The by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan even decades later, not many are aware of his efforts with Michael Brooks – such as IntoxicatedSweet Pain and Crest.

This should have served as a caveat to the changing times that despite the commercial success of such efforts, this novel music was ephemeral.

But it did not.

And if there were any hope alive owing to the few and far in-between who held onto the traditional qawwali for its association with Sufism and being a potent expression of love for God, it was to be dismissed by the precipitous growth of ‘religious’ scholars propagating the orthodox Arab interpretation of Islam.

Our culture has also become hostage to the quickly diffusing society, which espouses all that it can of western norms and Arab prejudices. Photo: Badar Chaudhary

A majority of hitherto uneducated and gullible souls were convinced beyond reparation that what they had been doing all their lives was strictly forbidden in the very religion that they yearned to serve.

This was the last nail in the coffin.

It is thus, that the qawwals – well-trained in the art and associated with the traditional version of the genre – are diminishing by the day. In a country mired in a multitude of more serious problems, conventional qawwali is silently dying away.

Incidentally there does exist a ministry of heritage. However, there is no commotion in the concerned quarters to make any efforts to salvage this age-old tradition.

I wonder if the incumbent minister, Pervaiz Rasheed, has more important businesses to attend to.

Badar Chaudhary

Badar Chaudhary

An engineering graduate from Cardiff University, Britain, Badar tweets as @badarchaudhary

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • S M Shah

    Clearly, the Western Face of Qawwali NFAK was a great influence but the rumours of the demise of Qawwali are greatly exagerated. Fact is Qawwali has fallen out of favour with the advent of new music genres, especially without a recognisable face such as NFAK. However, Qawwali is as strong in its core areas and at its roots within the Mazars and Urs, as it has ever been, if not stronger. The Bahudin Qawwals, Feroz, Sher ali and Mehr Ali among those who are the leading lights. However, the number of smaller and much more diverse groups around Pakistan are a testament to the enduring appeal of Qawwali.

    In fact Qawwali, has broken outside its traditional boundaries of the Chisti and Qadris Silslas and is being embraced by the more urbane Naqsbandi Order as well. Something that is unheard of 20 years ago

    Qawwals like Faiz Ali Faiz also perform around the world in great harmony with traditional folk musical traditions such as Flamenco and the Spanish Guitar exponents of Spain.

    Its true that NFAK like characters don’t exist, but then he was fashionable because he was a practioner of a very unfasionable art form such as Qawwali which was looked upon by Pakistanis in particular as the music of the masses and acquired taste for those who didnt get Strings and couldnt understand Junoon or Western Music.

    Fact is every Qawwali practioner and listener are engaged in an active rejection of the imported and toxic practices from our erstwhile brothers in the Mid East. That resistance is founded on the Mazars and expounded by the Qawals.

    Long may it continueRecommend

  • SHS

    The answer is decidedly no ! Qawwali is alive and well….It has mesmerized souls for hundreds of years and will certainly continue to do so for hundreds more. Nusrat and Sabri were good, no doubt, but ask the connoisseurs, and they will hasten to remind you that they were certainly not the best. If you come listen to Rumi or Khusrau sung in a traditional and classical manner by current performers of the so called Qawwal Bachay Delhi Gharana (Fareed Ayaz and Co, Najmuddin Saifuddin, Nizami Brothers, etc), you will know what I mean.Recommend

  • Muhammad Bilal Anjum

    Truth is that whole ambiance is now lost.With the demise of Nusrat Fateh Ali,it seems the art of Qawwali has also gone into deep slumber. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started his career with Qawallis and brought innovativeness in it and even after he got famous he persisted with Qawallis and performed at darbars unlike Rahat Fateh Ali who has completely shifted to the popular style.
    Now we don’t have good Qawalls and also the security situation has got to do a lot with it.Data Darbar and Mizar of Abdullah Shah Gazi have been bombed by TTP fanatics.This is the situation we are talking about where we can’t organise those “Melas” which he had in past.Recommend

  • Muhammad Bilal Anjum

    Truth is that whole ambiance is now lost.With the demise of Nusrat Fateh Ali,it seems the art of Qawwali has also gone into deep slumber. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started his career with Qawallis and brought innovativeness in it and even after he got famous he persisted with Qawallis and performed at darbars unlike Rahat Fateh Ali who has completely shifted to the popular style.
    Now we don’t have good Qawalls and also the security situation has got to do a lot with it.Data Darbar and Mizar of Abdullah Shah Gazi have been bombed by TTP fanatics.This is the situation we are talking about where we can’t organise those “Melas” which he had in past.Recommend

  • Badar Chaudhary

    Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad are undoubtedly very good. I came across the rendition of Kangna in ‘The reluctant fundamentalist’. It does stir some emotions. Do you have links to any other qawalis of theirs?Recommend

  • Badar Chaudhary

    Sher Ali and Mehr Ali have shifted their style to a more modernist version. The standard of their productions has accordingly descended.

    Also, although the listeners still seek the same age old style, there are only fewer people ‘producing’ that kind of music. And those that are, they are not from the famous gharanas which fixated upon Riyaaz and hardwork. The field is flooded by the kinds who sing already produced music, once an year, at an Urs. The crux of article was not that people singing the Qawwali have reduced but that their overall ability has.Recommend

  • SHS

    There is a treasure trove here:
    http://qawwal.blogspot.com/

    Enjoy !Recommend

  • oBSERVER

    What is the history of Qawali?One would be interested to know. It has nothing to do with Muslim culture but yes the subcontinent culture.Recommend

  • chimgaadarr

    Qawwaali thrives … in spite of what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan tried to do to it …Recommend

  • LOL. NFAK produced some amazing innovations which brought qawwali music into the mainstream like never before, but yes, he’s criticized among qawwali purists.Recommend

  • nishantsirohi123

    i thought music was haraamRecommend

  • Gp65

    Thank you for sharing.Recommend

  • Daniel

    I think qawwali will never die there are many other great qawwal who can live qawwali.Recommend

  • http://www.nusratcollection.com/ Nusrat Collection

    After Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sabri brothers Qawwali not died but it stop and looking for another legend…….
    We will remembered you Nusrat FAK,
    you can listen nusrat fateh ali khan qawwalies at:
    http://www.nusratcollection.comRecommend