The deliberately un-rhythmic overtones, the overdrawn tonal improvisations, and the swift blend of tabla and clapping suggest a studied primitiveness, as though you’re listening to the first band the world inherited.
Part of the pleasure of listening to Qawwali is this form of primitiveness. For sheer transcendental power I can’t think of another musical genre because of how frequently I’ve come across it nearly everywhere, on radio, on film, on television. “I am the Truth!” Mansur Al-Hallaj, one of the many Sufi mystics who inspired Qawwali, once exhorted. He was condemned, cursed, praised, and even murdered ambivalently. Ambivalence is a peculiar quality in the arts, and probably no other musical form has been adorned with it so much.
Most spiritual songs (it would be facile to consider a Qawwali session as a series of songs, but never mind that) celebrate impermanence, the hollow underpinnings of secularism, the clash between life and afterlife. The ghazal, na’at, hamd, and marsiya, the most easily recognisable Qawwalis, are known for their celebration of BOTH the spiritual and the secular, because of which they have retained that quality of ambivalence. It’s not poetry in motion, it’s ecstasy in motion. So when a group of Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Indians, and an American come together to breathe life into the genre in Sri Lanka, it should be regarded as more than an exercise in aesthetics.
One can’t talk about an art form that’s inspired so much censure and at the same time ecstasy without defending it, without listening to or watching it and appreciating how much of an impact it can have and has had on audiences. “Aswatuna” unfolded on Saturday, August 19 at the Russian Cultural Centre and on Sunday, August 20 at the Sooriya Village to rapt audiences. I’m less interested, however, in the event itself, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend, than in the prologue, the what-led-to-it, which compels me to defend the idea behind it. We are so enraptured by musical concerts and shows that we can’t seem to differentiate between them. We are, simply put, perpetually hungry for a new concert, a new show. I found the latter with Aswatuna.
But first, what does Aswatuna mean? Basically, it translates to “Our Voices.” Whose, though? Yours? Mine? The answer, obviously, is “Everybody’s”, because its organisers have sought to bring together such a project in the hopes of building communities, reinvigorate the spirit of camaraderie that’s fast disappearing (because music is no longer considered a language, rather an aesthetic to be discarded, condemned, or listened to at one’s beck and call). To this end it’s worthwhile bringing up the names of those organisers, because in their story one can trace the evolution of their event: Haadiya Galely, André de Quadros, Adeel Mirza, Shahid Shabaz.
It all began with an audition held at Alethea International School which was attended by only three people. This was last May, three months back. The idea was to create a Qawwali band in Sri Lanka, an idea conceived in part by Professor de Quadros (a professor of music who teaches in America, whose website informs us that he’s a conductor, ethnomusicologist, music educator, writer, and human rights activist).
Eventually with those three hopefuls came the premier and most popular Sri Lankan
Sufi Ensemble, Naqshbandi. The only problem, however, was that none of them, even with their musical experience, could pitch properly. The professor was nervous and not a little disconcerted, but the lady who had brought them together, Haadiya Galely, was not put off: “I told him to try them out.” In the end she was vindicated: “It’s amazing what a few weeks and months did. Almost overnight they transformed, though we were left with certain minor issues which didn’t bother us.” And to this group came another major name: Shahid Shabaz, winner of The Voice of UAE.
Not being a connoisseur in music by any stretch of the imagination, I deplore my inability to appreciate the subtle nuances and sincerity which would have gone into an enterprise as ambitious as this. Suffice it to say, then, that I have heard the band, Aswatuna, the way it should be heard: on the floor, reminiscent of the paduru party format which we’ve misconceived. It’s a virtually unassailable blend of vivacity and spirituality, which transcends categorisation and becomes its own standard, its own benchmark, to be emulated everywhere. How many Indian movies have we watched where the songs were obviously transposed ghazals? Closer to home, how many must-sing-along-to songs in the Jothipala-Muttusamy tradition have borrowed from Qawwalis in general? The connections, as always, were hard not to infer, to appreciate. They added more colour to an otherwise banal Colombo evening.
Professor Quadros’ involvement in this whole affair merits more than a passing glance. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s more than a musicologist. His work has primarily been in cross-cultural musical ensembles, or the ability of two worlds coming together through music. In 2010 he brought Israeli and Pakistani choral musicians together, not in some air-conditioned hall in comfortably neutral territory but at the heartland of conflict in the Middle-East, East Jerusalem. Having taught in Bombay and in Boston, having traversed through America, India, Central Asia, and even Latin America, he has, from what I have heard and read, never wavered in his belief in the power of music to bring everyone together, to celebrate commonalities.
And in opting for Qawwali, a genre that’s raised so much flak, so much censure, and that’s traceable in turn to a poetic form whose proponents have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, and killed in the name of divinity (the same divinity which these proponents have, ironically, praised and apotheosised), his choice has been tense, terse, and spot on. After all, reconciliation in a troubled land shouldn’t call for compromise: its tenor must be absolute, its profusion unconditional. From the responses I was able to glean of those who attended both events, on Saturday and Sunday, I can concede this much: the organisers have delivered, and what they’ve delivered goes beyond anything that academic texts can hope to do justice to.
Aswatuna refers to a voice, yours, mine, his, hers, and ours. Perhaps that’s the best way I can conclude, sum up, and in the process pay my respects to the entire project.