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ABC of Qawwali


A small irritant from a dear friend, a westernised desi, who kept calling Qawwali as ‘Qawwali song’ got me to make a polite request to her call it only Qawwali. She probably thought I was an expert in the field and with innocent curiosity started to fire questions at me about Qawwali.

I really felt cornered and actually regretted for having made the silly request to her. And I realised that beyond the ABC of Qawwali I had no idea of what qawwali really was made of.

Her basic questions made me wonder that I was equally ignorant of the indepth details. Probably except for calling it Qawwali instead of qawwali ‘song’ there wasnt much difference between me and her. So I began to dig deeper.
It was indeed a wonderful journey to flip through the e-searches learning about Qawwali details.

All I knew earlier was this bit:

The word Qawwali was derived from the arabic word Qaul which means the utterance ( of Prophet).

Qawwali, a Sufi devotional music is unique to north India. It arrived in the subcontinent in the 14th Century. Amir Khusau, known as the ‘Father of Qawwali’ developed this form by incorporating Farsi and Arabic in the Indian music centered on the classical structure of taal and raag.

The word Sama is used in Central Asia and Turkey to refer to forms very similar to Qawwali, and in the subcontinent, the formal name used for a session of Qawwali is Mehfil-e-Sama.
I had known that the singers are called: Qawwal and those group of singers who sing a qawwali chorus in unison are called Humnawan.
I had heard, long ago in Delhi that Qawwals are also called Qawwal bacche.

I began to hunt for what was the reason why they were called so. What I learned was this:

“There is a renowned tale frequently told by qawwals- that of the ‘Qawwal Bachche’. Hazrat Amir Khusro wished to do something extraordinary for his ‘sheikh’ (spiritual mentor) Nizamuddin. So he discovered twelve gifted young men and educated them to render the ragas he had created. The sheikh was thrilled with their performance and these twelve lads went on to be recognized as the ‘Qawwal Bachche’.This ancestry of qawwali singers, the sons of the initial qawwal or Qawwal Bacche, was begun by a man who, as fable goes, was hearing impaired and mute. Inexplicably healed by a Sufi saint, he converted to become one of the earliest disciples of Amir Khusro. Qawwali has been handed down from father to son over generations, with weight on the children memorizing the poetry and precise elocution of the words because several of the songs are in Persian.”
(Source: http://www.planetradiocity.com/musicopedia/music_decade.php?conid=2362).

During Googling I came across a list of qawwwali vocabulary, on ‘bohotkhoob’ blog, which I thought was a must share:

Alap = Introductory phrases of a raga sung without rhythm to create a background for the raga used in the composition.
Anga = Aspects of singing which bring out the main style followed by the singer.
Baja = Instrument, chiefly harmonium. Strangely though Harmonium was introduced into qawwali only in mid 19th Century. Earlier instruments used were: double-headed drum (dholak) and a bowed lute (sarangi, dilruba) and an earthenware pot(ghara).
Band = A verse of more than two lines — inserted from a longer poem.
Band sama = A closed or an exclusive performance in which a special song-repertoire is rendered without any instrumental accompaniment.
Badhana = To extend, or elaborate the melodic theme.
Bari ka gana = To sing by turns in an assembly of Qawwal-singers.
Bol = Utterance, the repeatable part of the song-text sung by the chorus.
Bol samjhana = To convey the meaning of the text through musical variations, etc.
Chachar = Metric pattern of 14 beats frequently employed in the genre.
Chal = Gait, the specific melodic contour of the song.
Chalat phirat = Melodic improvisation mostly in a faster tempo and intricate in design.
Cheez = A complete, original song without additions etc.
Chaoki = A performing group of qawwal named after the leader or his ancestor.
Dhun = A tune which is satisfyingly complete and yet may not be in a codified raga.
Doha = A couplet making a complete, rhyming poetic statement in common metre employed by the singers at the beginning or as insertions.
Dohrana = To repeat.
Girah = A knot, i.e. inserted verse in a qawwali.
Hamd = Poem in Urdu/Farsi in praise of God.
Hawa = Archaic Sufi song in Farsi said to be composed by Amir Khusro.
Khas tarz = Special tune.
Makhsus tarz = Special tune.
Manqabat = Poem in praise of a great religious personage, especially Sufi saints.
Munajat= means secret conversation, whispering, prayer, longing or yearning. Sung in Farsi and was invented by Rumi.
Masnavi = Extended Farsi poem with rhyming couplets
Matra = Durational unit in music making.
Misra = Verse line.
Misra kholna = ‘to open the verse line’.
Misra ula = First verse line, especially the opening line of a couplet.
Mukhra = The opening refrain line of the song.
Murki = Melodic ‘turn’ — a specific musical embellishment.
Mushtar ka gana = Mixed i.e. communal singing.
Naghma = Melody, tune, played as a prelude to the qawwali, usually based on a tune derived from the Zikr Allahu.
Panchayati gana = communal singing.
Padhna = Recite, read or chant without instrumental accompaniment.
Phailav = Melodic spreading, expansion.
Qata = Four line aphoristic poetic form in Urdu/Farsi used in introductory section of the qawwali.
Qaul = The basic ritual, obligatory song either as opening or closing hymn with the text based on sayings of the Prophet.
Rang = The second principal ritual, obligatory song after Qaul celebrating the saints (Nizamuddin) spiritual guidance (colouring) of his disciple Amir Khusro.
Rubai = Aphoristic four-line poetic form in Farsi/Urdu in qawwali. It refers to the recitative preceding the qawwali often based on a Rubai.
Sany bolan = Saying it as second, singing a verse line to the tune section of the second concluding line of a couplet.
Sargam = Sol-fa passage.
Sher = Couplet, literally the strophic unit of the ghazal poem.
Takrar = Multiple repetition.
Tali = clapping.Clapping by the performers in the second row complements the instruments.
Tarana = A genre of songs with meaningless auspicious words, often derived from Sufi invocations.
Tazmin = A poem incorporating famous verses around Sufi classics in Farsi.
Thap = An accented drum beat.
Tiyya = A triad of a rhythmic/melodic cadence.
wajd = Ecstacy, invoked by any particular shair or couplet of poetical composition, which is common scene in such mahfils,that particular couplet is repeated continuously by the Qawwal until the thirst of the ecstatic ‘subject’ is fully satisfied and he returns to his normal condition
Zatnin = Poetic metre of the song-text.
Zarb = Accent, rhythmic stress.

It has now somewhat made me understand the rendition beyond just the words sung. The ups and downs, the repeats, the style of singing, punctuated by narration, the claps etc in the middle of the rendition, now seem to make a lot more fascination.

I am sure many of the Qawwali lovers would be far above my baseline of knowledge, but anyhow Happy listening!

(Source: Music contexts: A Concise dictionary of Hindustani Music. By Ashok Damodar Ranade
http://meheralisherali.com/history.html).

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