The Essence of Qawwali
Sacred Sufi Music has a Worldwide Audience
 More of this Feature
• Part 2: The Life and Work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  Related Resources
• Arabic Music
• Indian Music
• Iran/Persia
 Elsewhere on the Web
• Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (official site)
• Chandra and David's Qawwali Page

Qawwali is the devotional, sacred music of the Sufis, Islamic mystics. When a Qawwal (one who sings a Qawwali) performs a song, he is praising Allah (God). Qawwali comes from the regions of India and Pakistan, and is characterized by vocal chanting accompanied by a harmonium, as well as other Middle Eastern instruments such as the tabla, for percussion and a rebab, a stringed instrument played with a bow.

Traditionally, there is only one singer. The singer is usually seated, as are the musicians on either side of him. As he sings, his face contorts with emotion and he raises his hands in a prayer-like motion. In contemporary performances there can be a group of vocalists supporting the lead singer. The musical arrangement of a modern Qawwali performance will also be more complex. While a classical performance may only feature musical accompaniment with a harmonium and tabla, a modern concert can have a multitiude of instruments, all of them of traditional Middle Eastern origin: kartal, sarangi, santur among others. Hand clapping is also a common accompaniment.

Those who perform Qawwali usually come from a family background of Qawwals, which may span hundreds of years and many generations. The songs are usually in the language of Hindustani. While traditionally a sacred form of music, Qawwali has become increasingly popular around the World amongst non-Islamic and secular audiences. Artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have brought the musical form to a World-wide stage.

For an excellent essay on the history, musical characteristics and spiritual background of Qawwali, this essay by David Courtney, PhD, is a must-read. David and his wife Chandra are a husband and wife duo performing, studying and teaching Indian music.

Next page > The Life and Work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan >