“May GOD bless this tribe of music-makers who make even the day of retribution stand by when they perform”.
Music in many cultures is used as a tool to attain mystic states. Often entire groups of people enter the mystic state together.
My first experience of this group entry into a shared state of consciousness happened in Rajasthan, in India. I had been friends with an old Brahmin and his family for many years. Wasi Guru and I had many adventures together.
This particular night I wandered into a music evening being given by Wasi Guru’s family.
Traditionally, one family will host the entire village to an evening of singing by the Qawwali singers from the Sufi Dargah in the city. Because this is a sacred Hindu village, these Qawwali singers use Hindu words instead of the usual Muslim words.
The party was staged in a room deep under an ancient village temple. The room was dimly lit by candles and lanterns. Some of the villagers were sitting, cross legged on cushions in front of the singers. They were already enraptured. Others milled around in the room, up the steep stairs and spilled out into the temple courtyard above us. Family members served sweet, warm, spiced tea to the audience and the performers. They offered large bundles of fragrant incense which filled the room in a low perfumed cloud of smoke.
There were at least seven qawwals in the party. They played tablas, harmonium and a stringed instrument. They sat together in a semicircle on the floor and sang with grand gestures and meaningful glares at the audience. As their voices soared in unison one voice would emerge, impossibly higher in range than anyone else. It was a young lad who carried the crescendo to its goal.
Slowly the audience settled down and the music took of hold us. Chillums and bhang drink were passed around among the villagers and the singers. As the audience thrilled to the music they would walk up one at a time and shower the lead singer with rupee notes As the sweetness of the songs and the harmony of the singers increased the audience slowly melted into bliss.
At 3 in the morning the qawwals packed up and left, walking back on the long trail through the hills to Ajmer.
At this point one of the village elders stood up and began to sing. At first he appeared to be a buffoon, a poor imitation of the professionals from the city. His old cracked voice took ten minutes to slowly warm up and even then it had that dry, cracked desert quality. He sang and pranced for half an hour, working the audience hard. He seemed to be singing to individuals, shifting his attention constantly. Slowly his song began to weave its great magic. From a drifting inattentive state I was suddenly awake and paying intense attention. I felt the village, the group, were now all alert, joined in an invisible bond of history, genetics, blood, and religion.
Wasi Guru glanced over at me, his eyes shining with a wild joy. “You see?” he said, but he could already see that I did. The music was increasing in energy and tempo. Everyone was clapping or playing an instrument. Women’s voices entered on a high ululating note. “Now!” he said, and I leapt into the song, the singers, their tribe, their past, this moment and their invisible shared world. I remember nothing more until dawn brought us back to this world. With smiles and pats we returned to our homes and separate lives.
The greatest international Qawwali star of all time was Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan. (1948 -1997). Not only was his voice strong and true, but he sang with his heart on fire. He was born into a family of traditional Qawwals in Pakistan. By the time of his far too early death at 48 he had made his particular style of music world famous. He performed with many of the world’s greatest musicians.
A qawwal sings with his party of musicians and singers. These are often relatives by blood or by Sufi brotherhood. Often they have been playing together since childhood. Great qawwali families have produced major singers for generations. The singers accompany themselves on tablas, harmoniums, stringed instruments and clapping. Traditionally the qawwals will play all night as the audience enters waves of bliss, sinks back down into reverie and rises again on the wings of poetry and song.
Qawwali is a Sufi art, although I described Hindu qawwali above. It is often performed, especially on Thursday evenings, in Sufi mosques, which are called Dargah.
Although the words of Qawwali sound like love songs and drinking songs, in fact, they are all about mystical love for the Divine, in which Allah is the Beloved and wine represents the bliss of the mystic vision.
Qawwali began with the incomparable musician, Amir Khusro, born in the 13th. century. Khusro was the brilliant student of the wonderful Sufi Saint, Nizamuddin Auliya 1230 C.E,. His poetry shines like a star in an already brilliant constellation of Sufi poets.
“I am a pagan (worshiper) of love: the creed (of Muslims) I do not need;
Every vein of mine has become taut like a wire; the (Hindu) girdle I do not need.
Leave from my bedside, you ignorant physician!
The only cure for the patient of love is the sight of his beloved –
other than this no medicine does he need.
If there be no pilot on our ship, let there be none:
We have God in our midst: the pilot we do not need.
The people of the world say that Khusrau worships idols.
So I do, so I do; the people I do not need,
the world I do not need.”
translation from Wikipedia
The Sufi saints are a spectacular group of liberation seekers. Nizamuddin in Delhi and Moinuddin Chisti, “Garib Nawaz”, of Ajmer are two of the most famous of these Muslim saints who lived in India. Unlike many sects in the Islamic world, the Sufis sought Unity with the Divine by any means possible. Song and poetry were glorified as a means to reach God. These saints and faqirs were hard to distinguish from their Hindu counterparts. They were open-minded and all embracing in their approach. To this day, the Dargah welcomes all who enter, man woman or child, any religion race, caste or creed.
Begum Abida Parveen is one of the most famous women qawwali singers. She specialises in the Sufi poetry of Bulleh Shah. This is an example of his poetry which is equally adored by the Sikhs as well as the Sufis.
You have learnt so much
And read a thousand books.
Have you ever read your Self?
You have gone to mosque and temple.
Have you ever visited your soul?
You are busy fighting Satan.
Have you ever fought your
You have reached into the skies,
But you have failed to reach
What’s in your heart!
These are two of the internationally famous stars of Qawalli singing. It takes time to fall under the spell of a new kind of music. Once there, you can enjoy the world of Qawwali on www.Youtube.com and CDs.
Watch for The Sabri Brothers, Alan Faqueer, Mian Aziz, and for modern adaptations of these old songs, watch the sufi rock group Junoon.
What does this have to do with the Naths you might ask? We have always adored the mad (maasti) Sufi saints with the same fervour as the Sufis themselves. Lal Shahbaaz Qalandari, for instance, was a saint who transcended any religion. The Qalandaris and the Naths have travelled together for a thousand years. Partition of India and Pakistan has slowed but not stopped the great pilgrimages to his shrine in Sehwan. Hindus and Moslems worship him together. For me, one of the great mysteries of these Sufi shrines is the accessibility of these long dead Saints. It appears that making a wish or asking for help is the worship. When I have done this, I have felt the saint enter my mind and heart. I have felt a strong breeze, waves of grace emanating from Rumi‘s tomb when I was a child. I have felt the protection and love and generosity of Nizamuddin and Moinuddin Chisti as if I was myself a Sufi mystic. Qawwali music expresses the joy and the love that flows from our hearts when we are in the embrace of such exquisite beings. Nobody is rejected…sinner, saint, woman, child, Hindu, atheist, Buddhist…it does not matter to these great true Bodhisattvas.