Tahir Qawwal has been performing and teaching traditional vocal music around the world for 12 years. His interest in Indian teachings and Indian classical music was sparked early in his teens while growing up in Canada (Nova Scotia), and a strong will to learn led him on regular pilgrimages to the East. Seven caught up with him about just what inspired a Western boy to take an Eastern Road.
As a performing artist what do you get from teaching? Well, a consistent source of income is good for any performing artist! As well as that it is a real honour to be sharing such a valuable tradition within communities in the world where it is hardly known.
Why did you start to teach traditional vocal music? I first started teaching because I had to train the musicians who were to be my group members – since a Qawwali group traditionally has 8-12 members. Also after performing, there were often people keen to know more… they saw that we were reaching some amazing places and ecstatic states through playing the music and they wanted to know how to access that themselves through singing. So my student base developed quite naturally.
What do you think the attraction is to Indian teachings and classical music around the world? Indian spiritual teachings address many of the deeper questions of the inner human experience. There is a lot of guidance about how to dive further into our internal discovery.
Generally I think people are attracted to Indian music because it expresses so many attractive sentiments that aren’t present in western musical forms. Specifically Pakistani Qawaali is so attractive to western audiences because it is animated, passionate, full of impulsive musical virtuosity, and the rhythm is loud and driving.
What was it about the music of Sufi Qawwali that inspired you? The raw and unbridled intensity of its emotion. Since Qawwali has evolved over about a 1000 years now, it contains a lot to be loved. Sufi Qawwali is a passionate form of devotional music that involves a chorus singing spiritual poetry and verses that centre around themes of divine love, mostly in the languages of Urdu, Persian and Punjabi. From the first time I heard a recording of the famous singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan I was in awe of the heights of musical virtuosity within the traditional style. The melodies were so catchy I haven’t been able to get them out of my head since!
Were you aware from the first (experience) that the music would set you on your life path? My initial experience of the music planted a sacred seed in my heart that hasn’t stopped growing since. I was never one to get too far ahead of myself, though I have always had a strong drive to follow what I deeply believe in.
What was that like – it’s quite a profound calling, and definitely a little off the beaten track for a boy from Canada… did your parents think you’d lost the plot? It certainly started as an unusual passion of mine, and has taken a lot of willful hard work and a lot of travel to accomplish my dream to be a Qawwali singer – but it so quickly became so familiar for me. Qawwali is so real and raw, I made a deep bond with it and this music is now deep in my soul.
Yeah, my parents still don’t really get what I do, but mostly they think I’m strange because my dreadlocks touch the ground.
As a westerner – what do you think you add in your singing to the traditions that you follow? People from Pakistan and India are quite intrigued that I do this, it’s attractive to them that I have such a strong interest and understanding of their culture. My Sufi Qawwali ensemble was the first group of westerners given permission to play at the most important Sufi Qawwali ceremonies of Pakistan and India. In terms of what I add personally, well, Qawwali is full of vocal improvisation, so I offer up a lot of my own spirit within every song. That’s the job of any traditional qawwal.
Are westerners who embrace Sufi culture and music embraced… or do you have to prove yourself worthy? Over the past 10 years of visiting Pakistan I have rarely seen any other westerner, so beyond my group members that have been with me, I can only speak for ourselves and say that we were received with a surprising amount of warmth and generosity. We were welcomed into their sacred sufi ceremonies (Mehfil-e-sama) and through my expression of unbroken sincerity to explore this tradition of music, I’ve been shown deeper and deeper subtleties of this path by the greatest Qawwali masters of Pakistan.
Would it have been easier to just become a rock musician? Too much competition! Rock music seems to me to be a lot about trying to be an innovator, while what attracts me about Qawwali is the consistent respect for our masters and predecessors. I can’t generalise about rock music completely, but Qawwali lyrically speaks about divine union, whereas rock music seems to be more about sensual pleasure and human drama. Qawwali is not selfish – it is fuelled by a different sort of passion: the longing to unite with the Absolute.
What should we expect for your show in the Byron Shire? Definitely the Byron Shire has never seen anything like this. You can expect an energetic, animated and passionate atmosphere in a spirit of devotion that is sure to move people and inspire some dancing! We will have five Indian/Pakistani musicians from Sydney joining us, and one of the finest and most slamming tabla players in Australia (Afghani Yama Sarshar). Singing with me will be my adored student and nightingale Bhairavi (Barbi) Devi.
Tahir Qawwal performing Sufi Qawwali music with his ensemble at the Byron Community Centre on Sunday. Tickets: $20 Pre / $25 Door www.byroncentre.com.au. Doors: 7.30pm / Show 8pm. Tahir will be teaching at an upcoming workshop in Byron Bay on 6 May 2012 at Ananta Yoga Studio, 144 Jonson St, 12.30–3pm. Email [email protected] for details.