“The birds have it so much better. Sometimes they land on the mandir, at others on the masjid.” That was Riyaaz Qawwali, an original – even inspired – choice for a performance celebrating Eid.
More than 200 people gathered at the E Hotel and Conference Center in Edison, July 8, for the traditional post-Eid celebrations where families and friends and members of the community exchange greetings and hugs. And they had ample opportunity to do so that day. Ilyas Qureshi, COO of Desi Talk newspaper, one of the organizers, said the event attracted not just Muslims whose countries of origin were India and Pakistan, but also people of other faiths, including Hindus.
Qawwali has been losing ground in the community and its potential richness is not always appreciated, an issue the organizers, Quraishi, and realtor Munir Kazi, addressed when they put together this event.
“I am trying to keep traditional qawwali alive and am inspired by the Riyaaz Qawwali team of youngsters,” Quraishi said, promising more programs focused on Qawwali and traditional music in the Tristate area in the future.
Among other activities that transpired during the joyful gathering was an Urdu poetry recital by a talented local poet, Jameel Osman. Fashion designer and pageant organizer Juhi Jagiassi, presented winners of the Jewel of India pageants on stage – Pooja Manhas, Miss Teen Jewel of India USA 2017; and Monica Ahuja, Miss International India 2017. She also introduced the qawwali team. Several vendors set up stalls and sold traditional Indian dresses and jewelry. At one point, a local Staten Island singer Liaqat Miya, sang some Golden Oldies from Bollywood. “People came from around the tri-state area,” Quraishi said.
The evening began with the singers, led by Sonny, performing the rousing yet hypnotic “Allah Hoo,” made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but a staple Sufi dhikr (chant) nonetheless.
Despite some glad-handing, impromptu performances, interruptions and the obligatory photographs, the event showcased the depth of the performers, particularly in that first piece. Sonny negotiated it with skill, exhibiting dynamic range, an understanding of the form, and remarkable staying power, the last of which saw the audience break out into prolonged applause at the mastery displayed by him. You could see a few people nod at each other in astonished surprise, mouthing the equivalent of “This is good.”
Riyaaz Qawwali was formed on the University of Texas at Austin and, mentored by Professor Syed Akbar Hyder, a professor of Asian and Islamic studies there.
Hyder told Huffington Post a few years ago that unlike many other students who took his class, members of Riyaaz Qawwali, “already had done their homework so they were asking me questions about poetry, about etiquette, what makes a particular qawwali generate a ‘bravo’ from the audience.”
Perhaps because of its awe for the tradition, its familiarity with academic rigor, and its general humility in the face of these, Riyaaz Qawwali used love, religiosity and mysticism as metaphorical vehicles to provide a richer experience to those willing to appreciate it. Often, the beloved, an earthy stand-in for God, is described in lavish superlatives.
Even though most of the audience was familiar with the form, Sonny explained some of the music for the younger audience, admitting to one young visitor that even he did not appreciate the richness of qawwali before he went to college.
Traditionally, qawwali flies in the face of what is usually deemed Islamic, incorporating Sufi music, dance (whirling dervishes are just one example) and a certain ecstatic abandon into the form. Nominally Islamic, qawwalis can be progressively political as the opening quote suggests, even celebrating other religions, such as Jhulelal in the “Duma Dum Mast Kalandar” most performances wind up with. Sonny used it as an example of interfaith discussions that predated the modern kind, one arguing for an Islam quite different from that promoted on Fox News.
– Special to Desi Talk