Performance Saturday, March 22, 2014 | 8:30 PM

Asif Ali Khan Qawwal

Zankel Hall
Hailed as the reigning prince of the soulful Sufi music known as Qawwali, Asif Ali Khan has become hugely popular both in his native Pakistan and on the international stage. Remaining faithful to the sublime traditions of this devotional music, his songs build from meditative and trance-like to a thrilling and energetic spectacle.


  • Asif Ali Khan, Lead Vocals
  • Raza Hussein, Harmonium and Solo Vocals
  • Sarfraz Hussein, Harmonium and Solo Vocals
  • Ali Khawar, Tabla and Chorus
  • Imtiaz Hussein Shibli, Chorus
  • Waheed Mumtaz Hussein, Chorus
  • Shah Nawaz Hussein, Chorus
  • Manzoor Hussain Shibli, Chorus
  • Umar Draz Hussein, Chorus

Event Duration

The program will last approximately 100 minutes with no intermission.


  • Asif Ali Khan

    Asif Ali Khan was born in 1973, the youngest son of Manzoor Hussain, a well-known singer from a famous Pakistani musical family. He traces his musical ancestry back more than 350 years. His great-grandfather Mian Maula Baksh, who was one of the most famous classical singers of the Indian subcontinent, founded his qawwali (Sufi music) group more than 80 years ago. After partition in 1947, Asif's grandfather Santoo Khan moved the family to Pakistan, settling in Lahore. It was there that the group, known at that time as Santoo Khan Qawwal, became extremely popular both for its wide repertoire of classical, spiritual (Sufi), and popular songs, as well as its superb command of the Urdu, Persian, and Punjabi languages. The group was one of the first to record qawwali music and was regularly heard on Pakistani radio.

    Santoo Khan died in the late 1980s, whereupon his son Manzoor Hussain took over the leadership. By this time, all seven of Manzoor's sons, including Asif Ali, were performing with the group. From his early days as a teenager, Asif was praised for his outstanding vocal qualities. In the early 1990s, his father introduced him to the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was acknowledged as Pakistan's greatest qawwali singer of the 20th century. Asif Ali's impeccable diction, brilliant inventiveness, and sincerity inured him to the master. He became Nusrat's premier student in 1995 and within a short while took over the vocal leadership for the group from his father. In 1999, he was named Best Young Pakistani Qawwali by Lok Virsa (National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage in Islamabad). Over the past decade, he has embarked on numerous concert tours in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East, while continuing to offer his singing at religious shrines throughout Pakistan. His ensemble appeared at the 2012 Olympics in London, and in 2013 performed at WOMAD festivals in London and Moscow.

    Since the death of the world-famous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1997, there have been many contenders to inherit his place as "Emperor of Qawwali." There is no doubt now that Asif Ali Khan has emerged as the one of the genre's reigning princes. While remaining true to the Punjabi tradition that was Nusrat's hallmark, he has developed a style and presence all of his own.

    More Info


"Mere Guru Ne Baat"
Asif Ali Khan Qawwal
Hi-Tech Music Ltd.

The Program

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

Program Notes
Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with Robert Browning Associates LLC.
This performance is part of World Views.