thu 02/02/2023

Soulful Islamic passion: the Najmuddin Saifuddin group | reviews, news & interviews

Soulful Islamic passion: the Najmuddin Saifuddin group

Soulful Islamic passion: the Najmuddin Saifuddin group

It can be dangerous to sing Qawwali - the greatest group of recent times is on a rare tour

Passionate and dangerousPeter Culshaw

Qawwali music is amongst the most soulful, passionate music in the world. Many people have discovered it through the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was one the greatest singers of the last half century. Seeing him perform at an early WOMAD was a revelation - he was scheduled to perform for 90 minutes and kept singing for hours. No-one seemed to leave the tent to catch the headliners.

In fact, they say for Qawwali to have its real impact, the performances should last at least a couple of hours, as opposed to the shortened schedules of modern western concert halls and festivals. I saw Nusrat doing a concert which lasted seven hours in Southall and attended marathon sessions at a Qawwali Festival in Islamabad.

One group, Mehr and Sher Ali, explained to me in Islamabad that the group actually like to have light on the audience so that they can warm up “cold spots” of energy for the first hour or so. They repeat the same phrase that seems to resonate with the less responsive parts of the audience. Eventually everyone is on the same wavelength - at which point the whole concert takes off, the real journey begins. Where that journey ends can be quite extreme; trance-healing, people rolling around in ecstasy and seeing visions of saints, among them.

One psychiatrist I met in Pakistan used "Qawwali therapy" with, he said, remarkable success. Often people give large sums of money to the performers as they perform onstage - showering them with banknotes. Some of the lyrics talk of "intoxication" and the beloved, which Qawwaals will tell you refers to divine intoxication and the pain of separation from the divine. The image of flight is often used: "some fly up in the garden/others go beyond the stars."

They are as heartfelt and spirited as any music you are likely to hear

Primarily, though, it can be fabulous music that we don’t often get to hear. Qawwali musicians have a bad deal - it’s difficult for them to get visas from Pakistan (the centre of the genre is in the Punjab) and in Pakistan itself, their music is offensive to hardline Islamists. While any music is considered heretical by the extremists, the fact that the Qawwali songs are devotional, and as Sufis they are tolerant (“there are many ways up the mountain,” one said to me once) means they are often literally targets in Pakistan.The latest tragedy was the death of Amjad Sabri this June, who was shot in Karachi, the killing claimed by the Taliban. Sabri was a member of one of the top Qawwali dynasties.

The Najmuddin Saifuddin group are also part of a family dynasty and they are touring the UK this summer (after the usual visa problems). As the renowned expert on the music of the subcontinent Zeyba Rahman has said, “They are about the best now”. I caught them at the Tileyard Studios near St Pancras and they entranced the audience for a couple of hours. They are performing there on Bank Holiday Monday in aid of free eye-care in Pakistan, as well playng at the Dominion Centre, Southall.

Like all Qawwali groups I have seen they have a front line of singers and harmoniums. The harmonium was introduced to Pakistan from Europe in the 19th century and for some purists is still thought of as an unacceptable import. The back line of percussion of tabla and dholak keep the intense rhythm going. Some of the repertoire can be traced back to the inventor of the genre, Amir Khusrow, in the 13th century (Khusrow is also said to have invented the tabla and sitar).

The group played one of his most famous and sacred songs “Man Kunto Maula” at the start of their enthralling set. Whereas other groups have a more definite star singer (like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), the lead singer Muhammad Najmuddid shared vocal duties with Saifuddin Mehmood and Zafeeruddin Ahmeed to give a more equal feeling to the group, perhaps reinforced by the fact they are brothers. The group sing in numerous languages - so even a Punjabi audience may not understand all the lyrics.

The history of Qawwali groups transcending language is a long one: Qawwals were at the vanguard of converting Indonesia to Islam, for example. This group, after the recent death of their father, Ustad Bahuddin, have established themselves at the forefront of the Qawwali tradition and will ensure it continues. They are as heartfelt and spirited as any music you are likely to hear. 

The latest tragedy was the death of Amjad Sabri, who was shot in Karachi, the killing claimed by the Taliban

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