Pakistani brothers Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan expel an electric Qawwali performance, Oscar Mazzetta reviews.
Qawwali is an ancient form of devotional music rooting in Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. The great Sufi scholar and poet, Hazrat Amir Khusro, established qawwali as an immersive artform in the Asian Subcontinent over 700 years ago. Moinuddin Chisti, a Persian Muslim ascetic, philosopher and poet, radiated gorgeous Islamic poetry and spoken word as a way of spreading Islam amongst a nation of people of varying faiths. Interwoven with the traditional instruments of devotional performance, qawwali was born; the praising of God through poetry and repeated chants, lifted by rhythmic melodies and beats. The music has a strong emphasis on improvisation known as Sargam: as a performer you’re empowered to reach an ecstatic climax through screaming to God, as a listener you’re invited to crawl into a sound-induced trance. The experience is hypnotic.
Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan are nephews and students of the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Popularly known as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, ‘the King of Kings of Qawwali’ (Shahenshah), he is not only the most important figure in contemporary qawwali music, but is also one of the great musical legends to come out of South Asia. He took qawwali music global and welcomed any fusions and remixes of his work on record labels such as Real World Records and Oriental Star Agencies. In the safe hands of the Asian Arts Agency (a Bristol based dynamic arts development agency who promote and support international contemporary and traditional South Asian music and arts), Rizwan and Muazzan follow their uncle’s tradition of singing bhajans in Urdu and Punjabi. As we jostle in our seats before the show begins, I feel ready to be hit by a wave of God-conscious pure emotion.
The brothers start with Allah Hu (meaning, “God is”). Iconic to the germination of any qawwali performance, this chant is a direct plead to God. Rizwan and Muazzam (as seen above) sit cross-legged beside two harmonium players and side vocalists. Behind, are six other brothers: one tabla player and five chorus singers. They serenade the chant, Rizwan leading emphatically, all others following.
Allah Hu is an upbeat piece that immediately riptides you into a spiritual trance. As they perform, they constantly change the feel of the song. Vocalists abruptly slice into the flow of the rhythm by climbing up gorgeous solo scales, then return back down to drive the mantra onwards. I can’t help but close my eyes and shake my head as I’m invited to let go and drift away. The tabla drums, a traditional Indian classical percussion instrument, swirl me into the rapid flow of spiritual bliss, without ever distorting the soul of the vocals nor the rhythm clapping.
They ride onwards, cavorting from ancient Islamic hymns to more contemporary love songs. The emotion Rizwan emits (seen above in purple) progressively pulsates the audience; he claims the crowd in the palm of his hands. Directing his brothers through hand gestures and eye contact, every single song’s structure is improvised, coming straight from the heart, where God resides.
I feel very comfortable, as if I’m wrapped in a blanket of spiritual embrace. But it’s an odd feeling, somewhat out of place, given that the brothers on stage have taken the form of a sacred Islamic tank firing ever more furiously at us. It is because gorgeousness persists. I let go. I experience the soul in every chant and solo scream, even without knowing what any of the words mean.
The group ended with ‘Mustt Mustt’, a transcendent song that praises the Sufi Saints Jhoole Lal and Shahbaaz Qalander, and is a powerful part of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s incredible legacy. I was stunned by the whole show. This is the second qawwali performance I have seen and it is quickly becoming one of the most important musical and spiritual practices in my life. The first was the night before this show, at the Global Carnival in Bristol University’s Student Union.
Formed from UoB’s Pakistan Society, the ‘Virsa Qawwali Group’ took to the stage. Purely made up of young people, their performance was fantastic; it was the warmest possible introduction to live qawwali music I could have asked for. And so, even though Rizwan-Muazzam return to Pakistan after a successful tour of the UK, we are lucky enough to have rising talents of this ancient-spiritual music in the heart of our university.
Check out more Riwan-Muazzam on YouTube
Featured Images: Rizzwan-Muazzam / York Tillyer, Steve Bruce & Mark Simmons.
Many thanks to Adeeb Hussain, the Asian Arts Agency and Real World Records.