The qawwali is a uniquely south Asian form of devotional music commonly associated with the Sufi sect of Islam. Sufis have a form of worship called dhikr, or remembrance, which often consists of repetitive content, for example, repeating certain sentences or enumerating the names of God, sometimes counting along on a string of beads like Catholics do. Different orders of Sufis follow different styles of dhikr, including the “whirling dervishes” who express dhikr in dance, and the qawwali singers of south Asia who express it in music.
Qawwalis are typically performed at the tombs (dargah) of Sufi saints, mostly in India and Pakistan, and to some extent in Bangladesh as well. Qawwalis typically have a specific type of content, and are sung in a specific order. These types include:
- Hamd: a song in praise of Allah
- Na’at: a song in praise of Mohammad
- Manqabat: a song in praise of Imam Ali, or sometimes in praise of some Sufi saint.
Shia gatherings may also include a Marsiya, which is a lament over a death, usually referring to the death of Imam Hussain’s family at the Battle of Karbala.
These qawwalis are sung in traditional order, starting with the hamd, moving on to one or more na’ats, and progressing down the list.
If you’re not used to qawwalis, here are a couple things you might notice when you hear them:
- The people singing qawwalis are knowns as qawwals.
- Qawwalis can be very long. 15 minutes or half an hour are not unusual, and there are some that are over an hour long. A single person would get tired, so qawwals usually sing as a group, with two or more alternating lead singers and several support vocals.
- There is a lot of repetition in a qawwali. The same line may be repeated 3-4 times by the same person or by different people. Remember, a qawwali isn’t just a piece of music, it has a religious purpose. Repetition is a feature of many religious chants, where it can induce a trance-like state where you may feel more spiritual. The Urdu phrase for this is “haal aana“, which means to lose oneself in the music and lose awareness of distractions.
- Qawwalis often involve a lot of audience participation. It’s not unusual for the audience to clap along to the rhythm of the song. Or to express enthusiasm (words equivalent to “bravo!” or something like that). Sometimes people may get carried away and start dancing. This is more common at a dargah than in a theater performance.
As you can imagine, the full experience of a qawwali session consists of much more than just the words and music. There’s a tense, electric atmosphere among the crowd. Almost all qawwalis start slowly, with a few lines of slow recitation. Then they start to build up, move faster and faster as they go along. The audience builds momentum at the same pace. Clapping along attunes them to the rhythm and tempo. Eventually more and more people lose themselves in the music and poetry, and it becomes quite an experience.
It’s hard to describe, but it can be quite visceral. If you want to experience it for yourself, you’ll need to make your way to the tombs of some of the better known Sufi saints – Moinuddin Chishti, Nizamuddin Auliya, Jhooley Lalan. Every year on the anniversary of their deaths, there are huge celebrations with elaborate qawwali programs which are open to the public.