Riyaaz Qawwali: An American music ensemble bringing the world together in the time of pandemic

Riyaaz Qawwali is producing music videos in association with IAA, Houston. The aim is to bring together people across the world through music and explore Sufi music in modern context

Photo courtesy: Riyaaz Qawwali
Photo courtesy: Riyaaz Qawwali
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Pragati Saxena

The year 2020 has come with more shocks and tragedies than ever before. In an era when we were talking about being a global village and connected with each other almost all the time, suddenly came a jolt in the form of physical (social) distancing in the wake of the COVID-19 spread.

Many around the world feel isolated and anxious. A sadness has started engulfing the many all over the world. But human zeal and will is far stronger than this helplessness. People have been constantly trying to survive, innovate and take forward life as usual. The efforts on the cultural and social front have been tougher, and therefore more praiseworthy. One such effort is transitioning cultural, artistic and entertainment activities to the digital space so that people around the globe can come together digitally.

Riyaaz Qawwali is one such group, which is producing a series of music videos for the YouTube channel of Indo-American Association (IAA), Houston. IAA is a premiere USA arts organisation with a 27 year presenting history. They have showcased many of the greats, including Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ustd. Zakir Hussain, Ustd. Vilayat Khan, Kavitra Krishnamurthy, and Gulzar. Purposefully, they also present new faces of the desi classical and semi-classical arts. IAA has now partnered with Riyaaz Qawwali to produce a series of music videos, to inaugurate its “Artist-in-Residence” programme.

Riyaaz Qawwali is not just performing for the immigrant communities in the USA. Rather, they are performing on American platforms. For example, they have performed for the US Military Academy (West Point), The Getty Museum, and had their music at the White House too.

In the first installment published at the beginning of June, the Riyaaz Qawwali, a group which was founded in Texas, performs a Bollywood mashup of four different sufi songs, including “Man ki Lagan” and “Jag Ghoomea” by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, “Tera Sajda” by Shankar Mahadevan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and “Ishq Sufiana” by Kamal Khan. In this recording and all of their performances, the group maintains their own artistic space as a representative of the qawwali genre, a mystical tradition that dates back to 13th-century Sufism and often speaks of spiritual and worldly love.

To the uninitiated, qawwali is a Sufi form of music mostly devotional music. But it has expanded to physical and metaphysical love. In fact over the years, Qawwali has imbibed many local, folk and even classical forms of singing. But its quintessential traits- high-pitched voice and rhythmic clapping binds all kinds of music together. And that’s what Riyaaz Qawwali does. It moulds new poetry into the genre’s basic style to convey the divine message of oneness.

Sonny, the founder of Riyaaz Qawwali
Sonny, the founder of Riyaaz Qawwali

The story of Riyaaz Qawwali in itself is quite inspiring. It was founded by Sonny, its artistic director and lead singer in 2006 at the University of Texas, Austin when he was still a student. Since then, they have been performing successfully representing the cultural, ethnic diversity and the message of oneness of divine love which is ingrained in the genre of qawwali.It is the first qawwali ensemble from within the United States. Riyaaz Qawwali is the true representative of South Asian cultural diversity and the thread of divine oneness that binds them together. They sing in Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Persian and Hindi and the musicians too come from various cultural and religious backgrounds. The musical ensemble has toured extensively, released two albums, and continue to post new music on YouTube.

The founder of the group, Sonny said in an interview that all of the group members are Americans. “We consider this to be our homeland, and so in a weird but true way, we also consider qawwali to be now American, and we want to share that.”

That Qawwali has found a new dimension and is being explored by the younger generation is not only amusing but also an achievement in the field of music. It proves that music knows no boundaries and can reach and transform the human mind without depending on any language.

Photo courtesy: Riyaaz Qawwali
Photo courtesy: Riyaaz Qawwali

Sheetal Bedi, executive director of IAA also emphasizes on the organisation being a multicultural, multi faith one. That is where IAA gets drawn to Riyaaz Qawwali since the foundational thought of both the organisations is the same.

It is a beautiful feeling to be able to connect people of different faiths through music. Riyaaz Qawwali and IAA are thinking of expanding their association keeping that in mind the present times of xenophobia. The crisis of pandemic has made people across the world all the more insecure and fearful.

In such a time, a music form of South Asia based in America, promoting divine love and peace through virtual media brings a bright ray of hope.

You can watch the Riyaaz Qawwali video released by IAA here:

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Published: 06 Aug 2020, 8:30 PM