Riyaaz Qawwali to perform tonight

The internationally-known ensemble combines modernity and ancient tradition.

by Lauren Segal | 1/19/18 12:00am

Acclaimed ensemble Riyaaz Qawwali will grace the stage of Spaulding Auditorium tonight for a performance that will weave together ancient Islamic tradition and modern South Asian culture.

Although the group is now internationally known, Riyaaz Qawwali emerged at a college campus. In 2006, a group of classically-trained South Asian-American students at the University of Texas found common ground when they began to explore the confluence of Sufi custom and contemporary thought together. Today, the group has gained popularity with performances at numerous festivals, including the 2015 GlobalFEST.

Qawwali, a devotional music that closely parallels the culture of gospel music in the United States, is an art deeply rooted in the Sufi culture of South Asia. The lively rhythm, animated melodic patterns and addictive beats have caught the attention of international audiences in recent decades, largely due to Riyaaz Qawwali’s passion for merging the traditional and the modern. The ensemble incorporates dynamic lyrical and melodic improvisation with instruments including the cajone, dholak, harmonium, tabia, tambourine and violin to celebrate South Asian culture through the transcendental medium of music.

Music and Asian and Middle Eastern studies professor Theodore Levin said that the spirit of Riyaaz Qawwali will bring the Sufi texts to life and deliver a passion for performing that will translate to the audience.

“The musical style of qawwali is unique both in the whole panorama of world music and certainly in what the Hopkins Center [for the Arts] presents,” he said. “The uniqueness comes from the energy of the music and from the passion conveyed by the performers and the texts.”

The word “qawwali” comes from “qual,” the Arabic word for “utterance,” which is often interpreted to mean the “utterance of god or of truth.” Riyaaz Qawwali, however, takes this traditional definition and recontextualizes it in the present. Artistic director of the ensemble Sonny Mehta believes that the transcendental nature of qawwali is intrinsic.

“Our lyrics are rooted in love, being intoxicated by love and the search of truth,” he said. “The poetry that we sing can be up to a thousand years old to as recent as today. But the themes are consistent. They are love, longing, the separation of love, being intoxicated by love.”

Riyaaz Qawwali performs with the intention of unearthing commonality between the Sufi tradition of qawwali and issues of race, immigration and religion that hold their own connotations in the politics of today. With distinct roots in the Sufi concepts of love and longing, the ensemble seeks to ground the poems of old by performing them in conjunction with modern poetry that reflects contemporary thought.

“We present art that’s not just traditional and unplugged but is in tune with society and the times of today,” Mehta said. “We try to tie together what was said in these texts a thousand years ago to their relevance for an audience member at Dartmouth in 2018.”

Mehta explains that the ensemble celebrates diversity on three different levels: a musical level, a thematic level and a personal level. Musically, Riyaaz Qawwali incorporates musical components that are not singular to qawwali, such as electronic music. On a thematic level, the symbiosis of tradition and modern issues calls attention to South Asian culture. The members themselves are of diverse religious backgrounds — Christian, Hindi, Muslim and Sikh — which only amplifies the group’s ability to destroy the walls that diversity can, at times, engender. 

“Diversity is very much in the tradition of qawwali because the Sufi order from which it emerged was very open to other religions,” Levin said. “What Riyaaz Qawwali is doing is in a spirit and a tradition that goes back 700 years.”

In addition to the focus on diversity, the experience of qawwali is also deeply personal and often inspires self-reflection. 

“The thing about qawwali is that it’s an intensely individual experience of spirituality that is unpredictable,” Levin said. “That’s partly why it’s become so popular ... it has an element of unpredictability, and you don’t know how it’s going to affect you. The point is to keep yourself open to the unpredictability.”

Riyaaz Qawwali has hosted several classes and discussions in order to engage students before the performance and develop a dialogue that extends beyond the stage. Members of the group used these opportunities to discuss the relationship between sound and body, the energy created in performance and how qawwali fits into a modern context.  

Tonight’s performance will offer an exploration of traditional concepts in a modern framework and foster an environment for personal reflection.

“We think it’s important that a student attend not only to experience great music but also to understand aspects of qawwali that are less explored, like the lyrics and the philosophy behind the poetry,” Mehta said.

Riyaaz Qawwali will perform in Spaulding at 8 p.m. tonight.