[Editor’s note: I (Patwari) interviewed Sonny from Riyaaz Qawwali group on Skype in May 2015. The following transcript was edited by me, and revised by Sonny.]
Patwari: Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of your journey into qawwali performance?
Sonny: I met Dr. Akbar Hyder when I was a student at the University of Texas. Discussions with him about qawwali were instrumental in my turning towards qawwali, and, woh kehte hai na ke lagan lag jati hai, so it became sort of an obsession of mine. In a way it opened for me different realms of thinking. Then, stars aligned in such a way that we ended up doing a couple of very interesting performances that were attended by some academic luminaries and big-name sponsors of the Austin Pakistani community. The appreciation and encouragement they showed, for us, sort of started our journey as a group.
But, I’ve been interested in qawwali for a long time. It’s my misfortune to have discovered qawwali late, in 1998. I distinctly remember discovering qawwali in August of that year because it was like rediscovering my love for music. By the end of the month I was listening to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and realizing that he had passed away only a year ago. So it was my misfortune to have never seen him perform live. He was an important influence in my initiation into qawwali. What Khan sahib did for qawwali is of immense importance, bringing a lot of people, non-South-Asians and South Asians, into the world of qawwali. For me, it was a great introduction to the qawwali tradition and I was then able to explore the vast landscape of qawwali and the works of qawwals such as Sher Ali, Mehr Ali, or Waddali brothers, Aziz Mian, Sabri Brothers, Abida Parveen.
Patwari: So, the initial performances that you mentioned, can you talk more about them?
Sonny: The first one actually happened through the Pakistani Students Association in 2006. They knew that while I sang a bit of qawwali, I usually perform either classical or ghazal singing. So they approached me for this qawwali event, and I said, ok, let me figure out how to do it. Then, within a couple of weeks I found someone who was my age and was a tabla player, and two side-singers and we performed. It was a sort of Eid banquet, a formal gathering where the guests were seated on tables. Within a half hour, it transformed into very much like a dargah setting with people sitting by the stage crossed-legs, Indian-style, and some even started dancing. Right then and there we knew that it was more than just us; there was a samaa that was created and how it was created we did not know– to this day, I don’t know. I would have brushed it off as a one off thing, but it happened again two months later in our next performance where, after warming up with a couple of ghazals, when we moved into qawwalis the mehfil came alive. I was not trained to create such a samaa. So, I credit that to the authenticity of how we sing, in that we are serious and humble in our renditions. And more importantly, I think there is a lot of power to this music, a power that transcends religion, and cultural and linguistic boundaries. So, it was after those couple of performances that we knew that there was something there in our performance, and though we did not know exactly how it got there in our performances, we knew that we had to continue seeking it. And that was the beginning of our journey.
Patwari: Great. Thank you for that. I almost feel like I’m there at that event listening to you guys perform. So, you have been into qawwali for a while, since 1998?
Sonny: Yeah. I mean, I started classical training when I was 7 years old. My grandfather used to take us to the rooftop with a bag of oranges. These oranges were our reward for practicing for an hour, one slice every five minutes or so. My grandfather has been key to my artistic growth for two reasons. One, he instilled in me the patience that is required for classical music, which is the base of qawwali. Second, poetry has been running in my family through the generations. My grandfather used to frequently sing Heer Waris Shah, and then explain it to us. He did the same with Baba Bulleh Shah and Kabir.
Where we lived, the influence of Sikh religion was as strong as that of Hinduism and Islam. My family didn’t think that the particularity of ritual was more important than the dedication or the connection with the oneness and god. One of the first thing my grandfather taught me was:
parrh parrh alam fazal hoya, kadi apne aap nu paRhya nai/jaa jaa waRda mandar maseete, kadi nafs apne vich waRya nai
That kind of stuff was very much discussed in our house. So, for me, qawwali brought together the two things I was raised with: classical music and this eclectic body of literature. Also, Qawwali gives room to the artist to have an intellectual engagement with the audience and to feed off the energy of the audience to take it to the next level. And, it gives the artist the opportunity not only to focus on the musical aspect but also to draw on the vast South Asian literatures of various kinds. South Asian music is known for improvisation, both rhythmic and melodic. But, qawwali adds a third kind: lyrical improvisation. If the audience is more Urdu-speaking, I will quote more Ahmed Faraz or Ghalib; if I’m singing to a Punjabi group, I might pick something from Baba Bulleh Shah or Baba Farid or Guru Nanak—that sort of lyrical improvisation doesn’t exist in other genres such as ghazal or classical. (More on that later.)
Patwari: Yeah, so, in my preparation for this interview, I thought that I’d ask you this very question of live performance and the selection of poetry. I mean, I understand that in live performance the kind of improv you have just discussed can burst forth based on the audience participation and composition, but when you are recording an album like Ishq, what is the process? Do you take notes after your performances about what worked and what didn’t, and then compose a studio-version in light of those notes?
Sonny: Well, our process is a bit different from other qawwals. They have an advantage and also a disadvantage. Because of their qawwal-lineages, they have 100s of books and qawwalis, and they are always ready to go. We don’t have that, and that’s the disadvantage we have. But it is also an advantage in that it allows us to rediscover authors, and it allows us to think about how art and poetry is relevant today and how to make it so.
When we sit down to compose, we think about this medium or qawwali as a vessel to explore different aspects of life. This idea of a vessel being able to carry you into different religious streams is why we called our first album kashti. That was a quest to go into different religious histories. We had two Sufi pieces, two Hindu pieces, and two Sikh pieces, all in one album. And, I’m not saying that this is unusual for the qawwali genre, because it is not. For example, take the famous qawwali by Aziz Mian, Mein kya janooN Ram tera gorakh dhanda—Ram is clearly not an Islamic idea. Even Nizami brothers in Delhi have used that particular qawwali. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan did a whole CD on Shabds from the Sikh tradition. So, we are not talking about changing the genre or un-purifying it in some way. What I think we are doing is highlighting and in a sense forcing the dialog that qawwali is not exclusively Islamic. It is important for this devotional conversation to start within your respective religious community, or an interfaith dialog about how South Asia has this one way of practicing and doing simran whether you are Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, or Buddhist.
So, when we though about the next phase for our group, I was amazed by the richness of the South Asian literature we can draw from, literature that could be considered both religious and not. So, in ghazals, Ghalib is one example, and Badurshah Zafar another. In Punjabi, I was taken in by Shiv Kumar Batalvi. So the goal was to bring such literature that may have not been sung in qawwali format, or at least not as much.
To me the idea of qawwali is to 1) present good music—but it shouldn’t be a surface understanding of ‘good music’ like, oh, it’s good music to dance to; and 2) to have a deeper conversation, one that art can and should create. For me, art is successful when it can create that conversation. I think forcing a conversation by authoritarian ways is neither advisable nor sustainable. The conversation art can create happens freely, and between people who may think differently. And that is what I hope our qawwalis can make happen.
Patwari: Alright, so, let’s talk a bit about the composition of your group, who’s who, and how you guys came together, and all that.
Sonny: Well, in college, after class I would hang out with a few friends and we would have practice session. So, one day a classmates asked me what we do, and I said, I do riyaaz. So, that’s how the group’s name came about. It started with a tabla player, two side singers and me. The group has now expanded to nine guys with backgrounds from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—some born here, some not, some are Hindu, some Muslim, some agnostic, and some atheist. We do not, however want to be boxed in in any of these categories. We see ourselves as simply a Desi group of friends. Anything more than that is probably more important for the 1st generation of Desis than it is for later ones. I mean our group brings our individual ideas together from various traditions of South Asia, that’s why we have albums like Kashti without a strict adherence to any one tradition. And our musical trainings and specialties are varied as well. For example, one of us is a violinist trained in the Western tradition. We have a few other instruments that aren’t associated with traditional qawwali. And we bring in elements from across the world, for example, Cajone, which is a South American sound, we’ve brought that in to sort of modernize some of the pieces. We have brought in Chimta, popularized by Arif Lohar, Wadali brothers, Gurdas Mann and others, we’ve brought that in to add sort of a bhakti element. So, yes, there is a sort of brownness or a Desi identity that we hold, but we don’t like to get into who’s from what background.
So, the advantage and disadvantage that I mentioned earlier that others have is that when they perform, they have multiple generations of the qawwal families sitting there and the younger ones being groomed and trained. We have created a different model where I am probably the only sustained presence in the group over the past 9 years. The composition of the group keeps changing with the result that our sound keeps getting better by ideas that our new members bring. So while we started out with a core group of friends, in the latter stages of the life of our group, things continually changed. And we have maintained an aggressive schedule of performances which helps the group going. As I see it, if at first we were performing to please friends or organizers of events, the next stage was to practice to bring a smile to our teachers’ faces. The next stage after that was that our riyaaz and practice sessions became spiritual experiences. Like the sher goes: As I look each of these faces become representations of God. So, riyaaz has become a spiritual practice for us, and, in order to maintain that it has become really important for us to grow musically and lyrically. So these things are at the crux of the group and what we maintain as strictly as possible.
And we’ve been focused, over the last few years, on developing our sound, and authenticating ourselves. Like that sher goes, Dayar-i-ishq mein apna muqaam paida kar. So, we needed to find our own identity and carve out a place for us. We are finally starting to get to that goal.
[To Be Continued]