Americans were first introduced to the ecstatic singing of South Asia known as qawwali in 1975 when the Asia Society organized the first tour of the United States by the famed Sabri Brothers of Pakistan. A subsequent tour in 1978, culminating in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, was greeted with wild enthusiasm by devotees and initiates alike. The tour is commemorated by a recording on the Nonesuch Explorer series that almost exceeded the limit of a long-playing vinyl recording of the time at 52.24 minutes. While the Sabri Brothers and other qawwali ensembles visited the US from time to time, it was not until Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was invited to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1989 and his subsequent residency at the University of Washington in 1992 that qawwali began to be heard again in the US outside the South Asian community. In 1993, a 13-city tour of North America organized by the World Music Institute cemented Nusrat's reputation in the US and helped to build a far wider interest in qawwali.
Qawwali literally means "utterance" in Urdu. The word stems from the Arabic qua'ol, meaning an axiom or dictum relating to religious subjects, the recitation of which helps to purify both thought and deed. Associated in particular with the Sufi Chishti Order, it has its origins in the medieval mystical practice of sama' (Arabic: "listening," "audition"). Sama'—like zikr, the ceremony of remembrance in which the names of God are repetitively invoked—is an essential vehicle for revelation and union with the divine. Both sama' and zikr may also be seen as instrumental in advancing the great classical music traditions of the Muslim world—the Turko-Arabic maqam and the Persian dastgah—which, in turn, influenced the North Indian raga tradition. Thus, while music as a secular pursuit has largely been condemned by orthodox Islam, for most Sufis it has traditionally been a fundamental prerequisite.
By the end of the 11th century, sama' was a spiritual concert that included sung poetry by a soloist or chorus with instrumental interludes. The concert took place under the direction of a sheikh or pir (religious leader). The faithful participated by listening in a state of inner contemplation, which might lead to a state of trance. The main argument among Sufis has centered around the use of music to achieve a state of ecstasy; while some see music as a means to get closer to the Divine, others see musical trance as an end in itself, implying that the state of ecstasy is a manifestation of God.
The art of qawwali, as with most of the great Asian musical and literary traditions, is transmitted orally. The mystical verse associated with qawwali is best appreciated by listening. The vehicle of music is used to bring one closer to the experience of the inner truth. The qawwal will dwell on certain words, often repeating them, taking the audience into the discovery of hitherto obscure meanings. Thus, mundane objects are imbued with deeper meaning—a spinning wheel becomes the wheel of life. Repeating a sentence or phrase until all meaning is exhausted and it becomes meaningless is a means to bring the audience closer to ma'rifat, inner truth. Thus, as with the Buddhist repetition of a mantra, semantic reality is negated and a new truth emerges that transcends linguistic barriers.
Regular participants in qawwali sessions often use the concept of flight or travel to describe their experience. This is a phenomenon well known to shamans and practitioners of religious ceremonies involving trance-like states. This sensation of flight brought about through rhythmic music and chant is known as hal. The manifestation of this ecstatic state can range from a simple swaying of the head or body to violent convulsions. At such times, as when a member of a congregation at a gospel revival meeting is "possessed by the Holy Spirit," friends will shield him from harm until he is eased back into a state of "normalcy." The great masters of qawwali are able to move entire audiences to a hal even if they do not understand a single word of the language.
Qawwali texts are taken mostly from the great medieval Persian mystical poets such as Amir Khusrau, Jalal'uddin Rumi, and Hafez, as well as Indian saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya (14th century) and popular Punjabi poets such as Bulleh Shah (18th century). While most qawwals are in Urdu or Punjabi, there are others in Persian and regional South Asian languages. Rarely is a complete poem recited; rather, the singer will join segments or verses from different poems or add lines from another text to emphasize a point. Each qawwali song has, at its core, a principal poem, often a ghazal. The poem is usually preceded by two introductory parts: an instrumental prelude (naghma) played on the harmonium, and an introductory verse sung solo in a recitative style (ruba'i or doha). This introduction serves to indicate the topic of the main poem and to get the audience's response. If it is favorable, the qawwal continues with the main poem in the same mode; if not, then he will chant another verse introducing a different poem. The poetry is often allegorical and charged with symbolism. Much of it has a seemingly erotic or romantic nature, but is not intended to be taken literally. Yet the profane world is never denied—for what is human is Divine and what is Divine is human. The frequently used term "Beloved" refers to Divine love (for God or his Prophet, Mohammed). Terms such as "face" and "tresses" signify the spiritual qualities of the master; building a "house" signifies the pursuit of material well-being. Much use is made of the terms "wine," which refers to the love of God and intoxicates the initiate, and "tavern," referring to the spiritual master or sheikh whose heart is the repository of God's love.
The analogy of qawwali to African American gospel is valid in more ways than one, for out of both idioms a secular form has evolved. Just as soul music grew out of the music of the African American church, in recent years qawwali-style music, albeit with different lyrics, can be heard in Bollywood movies, as "disco," or as background music for television shows.
—Robert H. Browning