The Guardian – Music
Learning to sing the language of love
Ango-Indian musician Susheela Raman is collaborating with Lahore’s qawwali singers. She explains how they learned to make music together
“Everybody thinks we are all terrorists,” our friend and driver Asif tells us, “that’s why there are no tourists here these days. But look around you, nobody is bothering you, people are happy that you are here.” We are sitting at a street restaurant in the old city of Lahore, near the astonishing Mughal citadel of the Lahore fort and the Badshahi mosque, ordering bowl after bowl of utterly delicious chickpeas stewed in a chicken and coriander stock, served with nan bread fresh baked in their clay oven. Lahore surely has some of the world’s great street food, often served by one-dish restaurants, which its famously epicurean inhabitants will cross the city to sample. The food is not always for the faint-hearted; before we settle on the chickpea joint, we are taken as a treat to a restaurant where we are offered the three bovine options on the menu: brain, hoof or tongue.
Alongside its culinary arts, Lahore’s other cultural treasure is its music, which is why we are here. Qawwali is a form of Muslim mystic – Sufi – devotional music. Its roots go back seven centuries, although it was the great qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who brought it to international exposure. Nusrat, who died in 1997, was based in Lahore, and today the city is full of musicians of all sorts. Sam, my producer and guitarist and I have come from London to connect with this deeply-rooted and hugely popular form of devotional music. We’re part of a British Council/Southbank Centre project called The Language of Love that facilitates collaborations between musicians from India, Pakistan and the west.
Sufism is often celebrated as the softer face of Muslim culture. Celebrating the union of Sufi saints with the divine, qawwali is designed to create an ecstatic trance mood, and is most typically performed atSufi shrines. Sufi saints are thought to be channels of “baraka” – divine blessing – and to have powers of intercession. Qawwali can be pious but also transgressive in its adoration of the saints and its glorification of states of “intoxication” and loss of self. The performers stand or fall on their ability to deliver a sense of rapture to the audience; the most famous qawwals command huge fees and when shrine performances occur banknotes are showered on performers who make a particular lyric or sentiment hit home.
The singers draw on a repertoire of hundreds of songs which are sung mainly in Urdu or Punjabi. A main voice is backed by others singing in unison, sometimes in call and response, and sometimes taking the lead and it’s impossible not to be swept away on the tide of their emotion. There are moments of improvisation, but these are tunes built around killer hooks. Handclaps, tabla and other hand percussion drive the music forward relentlessly.
The magnificent Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan typified how qawwali is performed with such passion that you sense the singer trying to tear away the veil of separation between himself and the “beloved”.
Sufism has many facets and many different styles – it penetrates every level of Pakistani society. Even the qawwals vary. The Mian Mir are a group of working class qawwals who for centuries have performed at an 18th-century shrine in praise of the Sufi saint Mian Mir. Fresh rose petals and green cloths are laid on the tomb around which people sit in states of prayer. Around the shrine however, there is heavy security asSufi gathering places have been bomb targets (popular Sufism is an anathema for some Salafist Muslims who regard the traditional South Asian reverence for saints and even for the Prophet as a kind of polytheism.) And today, because of government fears for public safety, the qawwalis can only sing at the Mian Mir shrine once a year. This is heartbreaking for them. Lead vocalist Mehboob Khan says he learned to sing alongside his father who performed here every Thursday night for 25 years. It was a family tradition has been passed down for generations.
Sam and I are due to perform with the Mian Mir qawwalis at Lahore’s Rafi Peer auditorium. The Rafi Peer has been bombed three times and now has extensive security measures in place, but it is determined to continue supporting traditional music, no matter what. The event is by invitation only and is not publicised in the newspapers.
We start practising together. Because qawwali music has drones, choruses and driving rhythms there is a lot to latch on to. Some previous fusions with qawwali have gone towards the dreamy, but we are aiming to match their energy and their sense of immediacy. Our songs and sounds mix and merge. The Mian Mir qawwals are wonderfully easygoing and relaxed about collaborating. Qawwali is not traditionally sung by women, but they have no hesitation in accepting me as a performer, nor do they have a problem with the fact that I am a western woman of Hindu and Indian origin. When we play one of our songs they try to find one of their own that uses a similar scale and rhythm, and we build from there. We seek ways to play together where they can sing with their full range and feelings. As the hours pass, the boundaries begin to slip away. It is a music of raw and intsense emotion. The crackling electricity and tender openness of qawwali forces its way directly into our heads and hearts – we cannot help but respond to it, and find the musical energy, versatility and sheer invention to match the Lahore group.
Some qawwals are technical maestros but these guys are more about raw feelings. They perform seated, punctuating their performance with hand gestures and head shaking. I stand up and move around and dance as I sing, but, again, this is fine – they are used to members of their audience entering into paroxysms of ecstasy so the sight of my hair flying around is mild by comparision. They drive their voices as high as possible, which reminds me of the Beatles in their early days. But they also have a sense of pacing and of dynamic in orchestrating the flow of the emotions they unleash.
Sam expertly finds chords and guitar riffs to bring the songs into a shared musical space; some of the most touching moments are when he and the Mian Mir’s singer Mehboob Khan duet.
These guys have great stamina. Used to performing for several hours at a time, their singing draws in a column of air from their middle to throw their voices out at maximum pitch and volume. In between songs they chain-smoke and drink tea. We join in.
Our performance is to 700 invited guests. The audience give us a standing ovation, loving the fusion and confirming for me and Sam that we are on a path that makes sense both in Pakistan and back in the west. We will do the exact same show in London.
We have discovered a sound that crossses boundaries both in terms of South Asian culture but that also brings qawwali into relation with a kind of post-rock. For years I have performed songs from Hindu devotional traditions because so much of the best music from south Asia has a spiritual component. The crucial point is not to make the music into a walled garden. So much cultural heritage is shared, and who has the right to dictate where the boundaries should be? Communal divisions are both real and absurd, and almost everyone welcomes a chance to forget them. Qawwali reaches across cultural divides. There is no sense of a separation of sacred and profane or Muslim and non-Muslim: everyone is invited. It simply sweeps you up and blasts you with love, like all real “soul” music does.
If political Islam is about the struggle for an imaginary future, this kind of Sufi Islam is about evoking the feeling of the divine in the present.
• Susheela Raman and Pakistan Qawwalis perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 April as part of Southbank Centre’s Alchemy festival.