Trained by some of India and Pakistan’s most renowned classical and qawwali musicians, Fanna-fi-Allah’s story is beguiling, compelling – the stuff of books and movies. Come and see what the Masters saw when the group performs in London in a few weeks time.
It is perhaps a reflection of the way live qawwali has come to be consumed nowadays – dislocated from its spiritual context, in plush but sanitised concert halls in cosmopolitan cities in the US and Western Europe – that we tend to measure a qawwal and their art by the rocking-out quotient of their Dam Mast Qalandar. Engaging with, understanding, occupying the poetry and the music as a means of spiritual connection is often an experience limited to only a knowledgeable few.
By definition qawwali group Fanna-fi-Allah disrupt that state of affairs. They represent a unique story about how the spiritual pull of qawwali transcends boundaries and borders, and also how given due respect and attention, it can be inclusive of diverse artists and audiences.
As the photo suggests, Fanna-fi-Allah are a group of mostly white North Americans. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper did a piece on them a few years ago, with the headline ‘Gora Qawwals‘. The lead qawwal, Tahir Faridi has dreadlocks. Their singing is accomplished, but there’s an undeniable accent to their Urdu and Punjabi.
For lovers of traditional qawwali, these things can be difficult to get past. At the same time they offer a novelty value that attracts curious audiences. But according to those who have seen the group perform, to only view Fanna-fi-Allah as a cultural experiment is to do them and yourself a disservice.
Tahir Faridi Qawwal was born in Canada. A teenage fascination with the way in which a local Naqshbandi Sufi community used zikr and music to connect with the divine, and an encounter with the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a local library gave way to several years in India learning tabla and classical singing. And then several further years – twenty in all and counting – learning the art of qawwali with some of Pakistan’s greatest Masters – Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan, and Mehr and Sher Ali.
Seventeen years ago, he founded Fanna-fi-Allah alongside American tabla player Aminah Chishti. The group now includes five further members – Laali Qalandar, Jahangir Baba, Salim Chishty, Ali Shan and Abrar Hussain.
In view of their upcoming London concerts, we put some burning questions to Tahir Qawwal.
For starters, we wanted to know how easy it was to break into the qawwali system. He admits that the importance of family lineage in qawwali can mean that outsiders who are moved by the tradition and want to devote themselves to it can struggle to access those families, and their deeper knowledge and wisdom about the tradition.
Their approach was to be persistent. “I think us travelling such a long way, from such different religious and cultural backgrounds, being able to show that we had learned a lot already, and showing up year after year made the Masters think, you have shauq, you have humility – come to our homes, we’ll teach you something.”
We’re also fascinated by Aminah Chishti, who after several years in India and Pakistan learning tabla was given permission to perform at the urs of Baba Farid in 2006 – the first woman to have ever done so. She’s performed at some of the most sacred Sufi dargahs across the subcontinent since. How has she succeeded in making such inroads into centuries old traditions that have been, and mostly remain, closed to women?
“It was actually Ustad Rahat that we have to thank for that,” he says, referring to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew of the great Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and also Bollywood music director and qawwali ustad in his own right. “Many years ago Aminah played for Ustad Dildar Hussain, who she’s been learning from since, and Ustad Rahat said to him “you should take her on. She’ll be a bridge to the west for your music“. In terms of performing at the shrines, there’s been a lot of resistance. But Ustad Dildar’s reputable training, the lineage he’s put behind her, plus her persistence in showing up at dargahs over and over again asking to be allowed to play have all helped.”
Given the ancient and symbiotic connection between qawwali and the dargah, Fanna-fi-Allah perform regularly at Sufi shrines across the subcontinent. And yet they also see their role as expanding appreciation of traditional qawwali – as inherited from its masters – outwards, to Western audiences, and non-traditional spaces.
Helping those audiences to engage with the poetry is a crucial element of what Tahir Qawwal frequently refers to as the group’s ‘bridging role’. “Between each song, I will translate the sher, talk about the story of the saint being praised, explain the metaphors of the lover and beloved, discuss our reverence for Hazrat Ali and the passion with which we sing a qasidah.”
Explaining the poetry requires understanding it themselves, and Tahir Qawwal is clear that despite decades of study, this is an ongoing process. “We return again and again to the iconic kalaam, deepening our own understandings, and thinking about how to deliver to our audiences explanations that are both profound and accessible,” he explains. “I’m not saying we’re masters, but that’s one of the duties we have as Fanna-fi-Allah.”
So, if you like your qawwali with a solid core of inspiration, dedication and gumption even, we recommend you go see the outsiders for yourself. You’ve not one but two chances, and details are below.
Presented by Qalandar Arts.
When: Saturday 29th April 2017, 7.30pm
Where: Harrow Arts Centre,171 Uxbridge Road, Hatch End HA5 4EA
Tickets: £15 – £25 (+ variable booking fee)
More info: Fanna-fi-Allah Qawwali
When: Friday 5th May 2017, 7pm
Where: Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG
Tickets: £15 – £20 (+ variable booking fee)
By Seema Khan.
Posted on 11 April
Photos courtesy of Fanna-fi-Allah