The Islamic Devotional Singing Called Qawali

Qawali is a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing that you will find common in the traditional gatherings of the Indian subcontinent, or more specifically India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. The genre used to be performed in enclosed traditional settings in remote areas with a Sufi subculture until the twentieth century when it started getting mainstream popularity after some of the most popular artists, or Qawals received international exposure. These famous Qawals include Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian, Sabri Brothers, and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

Aside from the fact that the genre of Qawali only serves Persian, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi languages, it is also notable that the musical structure of a Qawali can be very different from what you may be used to. They start with a prelude of instruments where a melody is played on the harmonium and a mood is set. Then slowly comes the Alap, where long and improvised notes are played in the vigor of the actual song.

This is followed by the singing of the Qawwal. The Qawwal starts with verses that are not typically a part of the main song but revolve around the same theme. As a cultural practice, once the Qawal sings a verse, some of the side singers and members of the audience repeat it before he goes on to the next verse. Slowly, the Qawal starts picking up energy, and traditional instruments like the table, dholak, and spontaneous clapping of the audience join in and become part of the song. While a lot can be improvised in the genre of Qawali, one thing that is never improvised is the lyrics. Lyrics are usually passed down from generation to and can therefore be sung by many groups, especially if they come from the same lineage. All in all, the genre of Qawali is completely different from modern music today and if you hold any interest in Sufi or traditional music, it might be the genre to get into.