Qawwali music is a Sufi tradition that is completely unique to the Indian subcontinent. But with its heartbeatlike pulse, vocal fireworks and message of universal love and peace, this style has found devoted fans all across the globeand not just among those who profess Sufi or even more broadly Muslim beliefs.
While qawwali is thought to have its roots with the legendary composer and poet Amir Khusrau (12531325), it seems clear that the music also has links to the Hindu tradition of bhajan devotional singing. Even so, qawwali is the vehicle through which the Sufi tradition of mehfil-e-sama, or "assembly for listening," is expressed, where believers create a link to religious ecstasy and to God for the performer and listener alike.
The menand it is always menwho perform qawwali can do so in a group of any size, though there is always a lead singer, one or two secondary vocalists who also play the harmonium instrument, at least one percussionist and a chorus of singers who also clap rhythmically. The tradition is passed down within families, and qawwali lyrics are often sung in Farsi (Persian), Braj Bhasha (a medieval dialect of Hindi), Punjabi or Urdu. Many of the songs are attributed to Khusrau or to other Sufi composer-poets like Baba Bulleh Shah, and the poems the qawwals sing very often resonate on two levels: many of the poems describe longing and love that superficially resemble love between two humans but that Sufis understand to be the yearning a seeker has for the divine.
The artist who did more than any other to bring qawwali to a global audience was the great Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who died in 1997; other performers' recordings to seek out include those of the Sabri Brothers and the duo Mehr and Sher Ali.