Riyaaz Qawwali’s ‘Kashti’ Sails through Mystical Waters


By Haider Kazim

HOUSTON: Riyaaz Qawwali, a group of young music lovers, has sailed into mystical waters exploring new boundaries with the recent launch of their first album’ Kashti’ or sailboat.

Riyaaz Qawwali, founded by Sonny Mehta in 2006, has practiced hard – as the name suggests – to breathe new life into a genre that is not attracting many dedicated singers in South Asia, the birthplace of qawwali.

Qawwali, a musical tradition dating back to nearly 700 years, was performed mainly at Sufi shrines or Dargahs as an expression of universal love and spiritual ecstasy in the mystical journey for union with the Divine. Sufi saint Amir Khusro is said to have fused the Persian and Indian musical traditions to create the qawwali genre in the late 13th century. In this genre, the lines or words are sung again and again to explore new spiritual dimensions that at times evoke a spiritual trance or ‘haal’ in a listener.

The genre was reintroduced and made popular by singers like Sabri Brothers, Runa Laila, Aziz Mian and others. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, often called ‘Shaheshah of Qawwali’, made it popular among international audiences.

Qawwali, even at its most popular form, has mostly remained as an spiritual expression of universal love as preached by Sufi saints. Similar expressions of the love of Divine in other faiths followed different musical styles such as ‘bhajans’ in the Hindu faith and ‘Shabad-kirtan’ in the Sikh faith.

‘Kashti’ picks up these two musical styles and successfully integrates it into the qawwali genre. A selected audience sat in rapture to hear the rendition of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram” in Qawwali form at the launch of ‘Kashti’ last month at Asia Society’s gleaming headquarters in downtown Houston.

The performance was mesmerizing as the group moved from one Qawwali to another. A few people danced in ecstasy toward the climax.

“Qawwali is a devotional type of music, helping people connect with the Divine. We certainly want to use new poets into this genre and bring a new universal level of spirituality into the qawwali mix,” says Sonny Mehta.

“There is a lot the world can learn from this love that the Sufi saints from the South Asian subcontinent shared through their music. And I can make that claim, because I myself have learned so much,” he said in an interview.

Sonny Mehta belongs to a family of musicians and started singing at the age of six or seven. He has been supported in his love of music by his father and grandfather. His grandfather flew in from India to be there at the launch of ‘Kashti’ CD.

“Qawwali is very special to me. It speaks about spirituality in terms of human love. What sets qawwali apart from other genres, like the repeating phrases, concentration on deep poetry and its upbeat cycles, were instantly things that drew me towards this musical style,” Mehta says. “Since my first recordings of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Wadali Brothers, all I knew was that I loved this type of music.”

He says that the group, composed mainly of engineering students at University of Texas at Austin, was moved by Qawwali and the genre picked them. “We picked it because it moved us. The rhythmic cycles are gripping, the poetry is powerful and the melodies are ever-green.  And at the same time, the genre picked us. From our early days when we started performing Qawwali, the group would be spiritually moved when singing these poems.”

Mehta said the six tracks of ‘Kashti’ tracks try “to use qawwali as a vessel to explore this love and devotion in the many other pockets of spirituality.”

The CD’s two tracks are Shabads from the holy scriptures of Sikhism (“Awwal Allah Noor Upaya” and “Tohi Mohi Mohi Tohi”); two tracks are ‘Bhajans’ “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram” and Vaishnava Jan To”in qawwali style ; and two tracks are traditional Sufi qawwalis “Duma Dum Mast Qalandar” and “Zehal-e-Miskeen.”

The group has had initial success with the fusion of musical styles. Three years ago, they released a video on YouTube for the famous piece Vaishnav Janto. It was picked up by a director in India and was used in a documentary on Gandhi released recently.

“Our group is not changing the genre for the sake of change. We really believe that the oneness and devotion that Qawwali helps people attain is universal and should be shared with others! With bringing the newness (of poetry), we are still quite conservative and respectful of the old traditions, not to forget or disrespect them either,” he said. The group started its “riyaaz” or practice in the winter of 2006 with just three members. Their commitment to the genre attracted more music lovers and the group now has eight members with Sonny Mehta as the lead vocalist.

“Honestly, it was thanks to that God-Almighty. We started our journey in 2006 and each few months He handed us another music lover, who just like all of us was addicted to Qawwali. The challenge we face is more – external – about continuing to respectfully evolve Qawwali and bring it to new audiences,” he said.

“We are lucky as a group because we love to practice. Praciting (riyaaz karna) is hobby and we have the boon of many wonderful Ustads and Gurus behind our success. Our concentration on classical music has probably been integral to the growth and maturity in our sound,” Mehta said.