Music offers a powerful way to connect with world cultures and traditions. When traditional world music comes to our little town, it is indeed a special thing. The Byron Theatre hosts Music of the Mystics, a concert of Qawwali music. This is a passionate and deeply devotional art from the Sufis of India and Pakistan that is rarely experienced outside of the East. A chorus of vocalists sing praises to the divine in poetry and improvisation, accompanied by intricate percussion rhythms. A message of peace and unity is at the heart of Sufi mysticism and music.
Performer and teacher Tahir Qawwal has spent many years immersed in the tradition of Qawwali, in the homes of his esteemed teachers and at mehfils (musical spiritual gatherings) in Pakistan. He is well respected for carrying the tradition of Qawwali music to the West, connecting people to a spiritually rich piece of Pakistan. Tahir is also completing a documentary called Music of the Mystics – a film about the culture of Qawwali. A selection of footage from the movie will be screened at Friday night’s concert and contains deep seeds of wisdom from Sufi masters and beautiful videography of scenes at shrines and sacred music gatherings.
Tell me about your recent tour through India, UK, and the US & Canada. How different is it presenting Sufi music in each of these places?
More and more my international audience is Indian and Pakistani. They have enthusiastically welcomed me into the role of carrying Qawwali music in the West and they can get quite wild at my group’s performances.
In the US and Canada this year we played at very diverse places such as the Aga Khan Museum (Toronto), the Lincoln Memorial in DC and throughout the colourful festival scene.
Of course it is always meaningful to play at the Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan wherein the spiritual culture around the music has developed for hundreds of generations.
Why do you think it is so well received in western countries who may have previously had little contact with Sufi music?
It isn’t – until they hear it. Somehow this music speaks to people’s hearts, giving expression to a longing that is hard to convey in words. Also the passion and rhythm of the style is uniquely attractive to a primal place within all people.
What does Sufi music offer people that is different from what is usually available?
Most music we hear today is very produced and there is progressively less room for improvisation and spontaneity. In Sufi Qawwali there is a really broad range of tonal and microtonal expressions, so it is really interesting to listen to.
I would love to know about your meeting with Deepak Chopra and Chris Martin.
Chris Martin has been an enthusiastic fan since he saw my group’s recent performance in Los Angeles. I didn’t know actually who Chris Martin/Coldplay was until after the show when one of my bandmates asked me: ‘Did you recognise that guy who was dancing wildly for half the show? Well, thats Chris Martin.’ It wasn’t until I was hanging out with him just before his Brisbane show that I realised just how popular he is! Reckon there is a collaboration bound to happen soon.
Deepak and I recently shared a stage at the Science of Non-duality Conference in America, where he read Sufi poetry as I sang.
How has being a sufi musician changed your life? How did you come to find that particular path?
It’s a long story of how I found this path, but… it certainly offers me an important outlet from which to express divine love, longing and awe.
Can you tell me a little about the upcoming documentary on the tradition of Sufi Qawwali?
Over the past 15 years of studying in India and Pakistan with the greatest masters, it was a natural inspiration to share that otherwise unseen world with the West. The film (Qawwali: Music of the Mystics) has been an overwhelming side project to touring, yet when the audience sees the film excerpts (on 6 Jan) the importance of this bridging will be more than apparent.
How do you think this will break the judgments about spirituality in Islam… what are the main negative judgments? What does the non-Islamic world not understand about the true nature of Islamic faith?
Among muslims there is a ‘heresy’ called Sufism, and the Sufis know that there is no separate self to surrender to God, there is only God.
Through the narrations of the mystical musicians in the film, the value of the religion as well as the transcendence of it flows seamlessly for all to appreciate.
I don’t know the judgments people have about Islam (I don’t watch the news, luckily). The best way to honestly understand each other beyond the rumours is to actually open ourselves to experience each other directly.
What kind of experience do you offer for our region, a very white, predominantly non-Muslim place, but at the same time with a very open and spiritual heart?
Sufi Qawwali isn’t sectarian and doesn’t have a moral agenda. For my community, I want to share in a devotional atmosphere and appreciate this wonderfully sophisticated music. People here are very open to spiritual music, yet don’t necessarily get exposed to or seek out cultural music that is rooted in deep tradition. This annual gathering brings together all the best Indian and Pakistani Qawwali artists of Australia as well as Sarangi master Sangeet Mishra of Mumbai for a heartfelt night of music, dance and film.
Friday at the Byron Theatre, 8pm. $25/30, tickets and info on tahirqawwal.com.