Mystic Music for the Soul Sways from the Lips of a Young Texas Group
By Jawahar Malhotra
HOUSTON: “When words lose their meaning, Sufi devotional music takes over,” explained Navjot Birring as she tried to explain to the uninitiated what type of music they were about to hear. She could have added that qawwali music is putting poetry in motion using traditional instruments, including accompanying clapping and an abundance of passing the lyric from one singer to the other. It is a 700 year-old art form that has found its modern day equivalent in the hip-hop of inner cities, except those aren’t devotional.
For the eight-man group dressed similarly in rust colored pajama-kurtas who strode on to the stage at the Asia Society’s Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater last Saturday evening, June15, this music was all they had thought about and practiced when not at their day jobs for the past seven years. They had started as amateurs at undergraduate school at University of Texas in Austin where some in fact are still finishing off their degrees. But inspired by a central singer, Sonny Mehta, they hung together and learnt a musical form that was foreign, not just in rhythm but also in tongue to them, as some do not even speak Hindi or Urdu, having been born and brought up in the US.
But Sonny came over as a child and somehow was imbibed with the specialized traditional music that is not mainstream even in India. He went to many Hindustani music teachers as he grew up, many of them were in the hall that night listening to him perform with the group. “I went to sleep some nights,” he said during an interlude between songs, “with the CD still playing a song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and wanting it not to end” referring to the late artist who brought the music international fame, especially with tracks that were featured in the Hollywood movie Dead Man Walking.
And with Sonny as the lead, the group practiced for countless hours, hence their name Riyaaz (which means practicing hard) Qawwali and over 120 performances have solidified the group’s skills as qawwals and many a listener has left marveling at their artistry and versatility. In the two years ago since I last heard the group, their voices have taken on the slight throaty growl that is associated with the hard singing qawwals of yesteryear, even as their image is well scrubbed, less boisterous and not at all like the more rotund and unkempt singers of Indian yore.
Apart from the traditional qawwalis written and even performed by well-respected older artistes and written by legends like Hazrat Amir Khusro and Baba Bula Shah, Riyaaz Qawwali took on the challenge of bringing a devotional Hindu bhajan into the mold of qawwali: Ragupati Raghav Raja Ram, a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, as interpreted through another musical lens. The results were immediately intriguing, lilting and entrancing and fit in neatly with the name and theme of their debut CD Kashti.
“For Riyaaz Qawwali, Kashti or a boat encompasses the different faiths and devotional music they want to explore,” went on Navjot. The CD itself was funded through the novel crowd funding website kickstarter.com through which the group was able to raise the necessary money – several thousand dollars – to record in a studio, get the graphics and packaging and release the CD. It was available after the concert in the lobby where the group members also signed each copy.
Most of the people in the hall had some connection to the group and all were equally mesmerized by the four songs they sang, some (all men) even moved to rush to the stage and shower the performers with dollar bills, in the time honored tradition of blessing them with money for the much appreciated performance. The singers and musicians had to brush the hundreds of dollars that were scattered at their feet and on their instruments in order to continue.
At the end of the performance, a huge graphic of their debut CD was brought onstage to be unveiled by one of their chief benefactors, Dr. Prashant Kaul who had flown in from Chapel Hill, North Carolina especially for this concert. He was accompanied onstage by three other huge fans of the group, Dr. Raj Bhalla, Music of India radio show hostess Meena Datt and Navjot. “Music that touches your soul is divinely inspired,” read Kaul. “One gets inspired by their passion, rigor and very fine attention to detail. Theirs is not the end of the journey; it is the end of the beginning.”
Meena Datt added that in years to come, people will say, “have you heard that qawwali group from Texas?” and that Kashti is one for everyone’s music collection. Dr. Bhalla, always a humorous one, lamented that the previous speakers had stolen all his ideas.
As the hall emptied, everyone seemed to realize that they had witnessed the rise of a new star in performers. The sounds of the masterful and famous Damadam Mast Kaladar that the group had sung, with a nice dholuk and spoon solo interlude were still very much in their heads.