Qawwali is a musical tradition going back to 700 years.  Qaul (Arabic) means a good utterance.  Qawwal is someone who sings a Qaul.  The typical style of Qawwals is to sing very loudly and forcefully – which allows the singers to extend their chest voices to much higher frequencies than used in Western singing.


Initially and traditionally, the purpose of Qawwalis was to praise in song the nature of God – Allah.  The poetry was implicitly provided for Allah and seers of Allah.  The roots of Qawwali can be traced to the 8th century Persia (today’s Iran and Afghanistan).  During cycles of migrations from Persia and other regions – Qawwali blossomed in other parts of the world.  Khusro Dehelvi of the Chisti Order of Sufis was responsible to fuse the Persian and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali.  A lot that is known to us today comes from the style of Khusro.  The other term used for Qawwali is Sama in (Central Asia, Turkey); Pakistan and Bangladesh call a Qawwali’s session by the name of Mehfil-e-Sama.


Qawwali songs employ a batch of singers – usually in the numbers between six and twenty, depending on the standards of production; the basis is always in having male participation.  These traditions have not changed except in modern day movies.  In fact, as per the Islamic guidelines, women were excluded from music.  The performers sit cross-legged on the ground in two rows with the two lead singers in the centre.  The harmonium is a later version to be used by the artists – sarangi was usually used.


Qawwalis have a definite pattern of beginning and ending.  The start is with an instrumental prelude where the main tune is played on the harmonium, accompanied by tabla (drums).  Then, the alap follows – which is a long tonal improvisation.  As the main singer begins to sing verses, the lines of the same verse are repeated by the other singers.  The use of dholak and hand-clapping is a prominent feature in a Qawwali session.  Qawwalis tend to begin gently and gradually build up a racy fervour.


Till day, Qawwali has remained an exclusively male-rendering-performance.  Songs are usually 15 minutes in duration.  However, the longest commercially released Qawwali runs over 115 minutes (Hashr Ke Roz Yeh Poochhunga, by Aziz Mian Qawwal).  The repertoire of Qawwali songs is mostly in Urdu and Punjabi, although several songs are in Persian, Brajbhasha.  Chhote Babu Qawwal’s songs sound closer to Baul music. 


Brimming with the flavour of Sufism – Qawwalis go in the categories of: A Hamd (Arabic) for Praise of Allah.  A Naat (Arabic) for Praise of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).  A Manqabat (Arabic) in Praise of Imam Ali or one of the Sufi Saints.  Interestingly, Manqabats in Praise of Ali are sung at both Sunni and Shia gatherings. 

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