Posts Tagged ‘sufi’

Songlines Essential 10: Sufi Albums

Posted on October 26th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

Sufi music, like that of Turkey’s whirling dervishes, occurs all across the Islamic world. Simon Broughton chooses the standout recordings, going for the more traditional and spiritual examples

Al Kindi EnsembleAl Kindi Ensemble
Aleppian Sufi Trance (Le Chant du Monde, 2003)
With singer Sheikh Habboush, the late Julien Weiss and his Al Kindi Ensemble pay a superb tribute to the amazing Sufi lodges of Aleppo. The Syrian city was a centre of Sufism from the 13th century and this two-CD digipack includes pictures and information about the different brotherhoods and lodges. Sadly they’re probably all gone now. Reviewed in #23.



Kudi Erguner EnsembleKudsi Erguner Ensemble
Ferahfeza Mevleví Ayíní (Imaj Muzik, 2001)
There are a lot of recordings of Mevlevi music, but this is one of the more historically informed. It features ney (reed flute) player Kudsi Erguner and his ensemble playing music for the sema ceremony commissioned by Sultan Mahmud II from composer Ismail Dede in 1839. There are excellent instrumentalists in the group.



Faiz Ali FaizFaiz Ali Faiz
L’Amour de Toi me Fait Danser (Accords Croisés, 2004)
Faiz Ali Faiz is probably the leading figure in qawwali music today, the most famous Sufi style in Pakistan and India. The music with solo voices and backing singers driven by tabla drums, breaks over you in waves. This well-produced album, with pictures and texts, takes its title from Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah. Reviewed in #27.



Nusrat Fateh Ali KhanNusrat Fateh Ali Khan
King of Sufi Qawwali (Manteca/Union Square, 2006)
There are countless recordings of Nusrat, who died in 1997, from superb concert performances on Ocora and Navras to fusion successes like Mustt Mustt on Real World. This double CD, compiled by Songlines contributor Jameela Siddiqi, includes his most representative repertoire opening with ‘Allah Hoo’ and concluding with ‘Dam Mast Qalander’ as his concerts often did. Reviewed in #40.



Ali Akbar MoradiAli Akbar Moradi
Mystical Odes and Secular Music (Inédit, 2001)
Unlike qawwali, the sacred tanbur music of Kurdistan is little known. The tanbur is a long-necked lute and is considered sacred among the devotees. Moradi is the living master of the tradition and accompanied on daf and tombak (drums) he plays and sings exquisite mystical songs. A gem of a disc.





Abida ParveenAbida Parveen
Ishq (Accords Croisés, 2005)
Abida Parveen, from Pakistan, is a living superstar of Sufi music and a rare woman performer in the Sufi world. She sings solo kafi songs, rather than qawwali. She’s always best seen live and untamed, but as that is a rare opportunity this well-produced disc with Bijan Chemirani on daf (drum) and Henri Tournier on bansuri (flute) is the next best thing. Reviewed in #31.



Sheikh Yasin Al-TuhamiSheikh Yasin Al-Tuhami
The Magic of the Sufi Inshad (Long Distance, 1998)
Given how widespread Sufi music is in Egypt – particularly at moulid (saints day) festivals – it’s surprising there are so few internationally available recordings. This features Egypt’s most celebrated inshad (Sufi singer) in two incredibly intense performances on two CDs. Sheikh Yasin AlTuhami is accompanied here by fiddle, ney (flute), oud, qanun and percussion.



Gnawa Home SongsVarious Artists
Gnawa Home Songs (Accords Croisés, 2006)
There are many Sufi brotherhoods in Morocco, each with their own music – the Aissawa with long trumpets and drums are the most spectacular. But the most celebrated are the Gnawa, and these recordings of some of the great masters are superb. A high-quality disc with deep gimbri (three-stringed bass) playing and soulful songs. Reviewed in #45.



SufiSongsVarious Artists
Sufi Soul (Network Medien, 1997)
This is the best available compilation of Sufi music from across the Islamic world. In a two-disc digipack, Sufi Soul includes 21 selections from Senegal to Afghanistan covering all the main genres and more. There are standout tracks from Kurdish singer Ostad Elahi as well as Mevlevi music, the Sabri Brothers and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.



Troubadours of AllahVarious Artists
Troubadours of Allah (Wergo, 1999)
This splendidly titled double album, compiled by Peter Pannke, features the incredible diversity of Sufi music in Pakistan. There are a couple of qawwali tracks, but mostly it’s solo singers and groups of fakirs playing the music you hear at shrines across the country. There’s a superb booklet with information and pictures too.

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Faiz Ali Faiz: A Beginner’s Guide

Posted on December 8th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .

faiz ali faiz

The leading voice in Sufi devotional music, known as qawwali, is breaking new ground with his various live collaborations and projects. Simon Broughton reports

Faiz Ali Faiz sings like a force of nature. He launches his powerful vocals heavenwards with a wave of his hands or throwing his arms aloft. Qawwali, the form of Islamic music he sings, has a 700-year history and it’s become the most popular style of Sufi music because of its unstoppable melodic and rhythmic force. Alongside the lead vocal, qawwali groups have two or three more vocalists whose voices thrillingly overlap and intertwine. The ecstatic vocal melodies are backed by harmonium, clapping and drums.

Faiz is one of the masters of the form. He’s a regular singer at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore and at festivals around the world. But he’s also been involved in some of the most interesting qawwali fusions with flamenco and gospel music.

Born in Lahore in 1962, Faiz is the ninth generation of qawwali musicians in his family. He learned first from his father and then Abdul Rahim Faridi became his qawwali teacher and Ghulam Shabir Khan and Ghulam Jafar Khan were his gurus for Indian classical music. He formed his own qawwali group in 1978. Faiz sings in Punjabi, Urdu and Persian, the language of Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), the creator of qawwali. He’s performed at the Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi, where Khusrau is buried and also in Hindu temples in Indian Punjab.

There’s one name that dominates the qawwali music scene, of course, and that is the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). Faiz first saw him in 1983 at a shrine near Nusrat’s home town of Faisalabad, where they were both invited to perform. Although Faiz had his own teachers, it was Nusrat who lit his fire: “My initial influence was from Nusrat,” says Faiz. “His singing empowered me and I sing under his inspiration. I try to follow the traditional Punjabi style of qawwali, which is the Nusrat style.”

Faiz’s first international trip was to South Africa in 1992 where he stayed six months and sang at several of the country’s Sufi shrines. Since teaming up with the French record company Accords Croisés in 1999 he’s made several recordings and toured extensively. He recorded for the Bollywood film Kartoos (Cartridge) in 1999, where his voice was used alongside that of Nusrat. But, unlike Nusrat in this respect, he prefers to stick to the traditional qawwali form.

Though, this hasn’t stopped him taking part in some exhilarating fusions and collaborations, notably the Qawwali Flamenco project, which premiered in Barcelona in 2003. Faiz’s qawwali party joined singers Miguel Poveda and Duquende and guitarist Chicuelo in a spectacular juxtaposition and combination of the two forms. “It was difficult at first,” admits Faiz, “but I like to be challenged. The flamenco singing style sounds similar to Rajasthani music and there are lots of similar rhythmic patterns. And Chicuelo, particularly, got our music.”

A couple of years later he embarked on a different collaboration, Qawwali Gospel, with New Orleans-based Craig Adams with the Voices of New Orleans. Here the musical styles were very different, but the aim of the songs was identical – to praise the Lord. As Derek Beres wrote in The Huffington Post after their Brooklyn performance: “In meaning, they could not be more similar: devotional music in homage to the divine. And in this Allah and Jesus meet and dance.”

In 2009, there came yet another collaboration, this time with the maverick French guitarist and lover of Gypsy music, Titi Robin. They’d first met in 2006 and both been struck by each other’s music and this time it was a meeting of musicians rather than genres. The result was Jaadu: Magic featuring compositions by Robin and arrangements of qawwali pieces. A sublime example showing that while Faiz Ali Faiz, as one of the greatest living qawwali musicians, stays true to the tradition, he can also take the music into new realms.


new-qawwaki-voiceThe New Qawwali Voice

(World Village, 2002)

Faiz’s very impressive debut disc. He doesn’t try to show off a little bit of everything, but sticks to a traditional sequence of four songs, some nearly 20 minutes long that really convey the powerful ebb and flow of qawwali. And he’s not afraid to do the Nusrat staple ‘Allah Hoo’. 


your-love-makes-me-danceYour Love Makes Me Dance

(Accords Croisés, 2004)

The album takes its title from a famous lyric by the Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, which is one of the five songs included in this ‘homage to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.’ He ends with a variant of Nusrat’s favourite closing piece ‘Mast Qalandar’. A live concert recording from Lille.



Qawwali Flamenco

(Accords Croisés, 2006)

This is a pretty impressive package of two CDs plus a DVD of the performance at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music. Alongside Faiz’s group it features Duquende, Miguel Poveda and Chicuelo. They perform several numbers separately, but four are performed together. 


Jaadu-MagicJaadu: Magic

(Accords Croisés, 2009)

A unique disc on which Titi Robin (on guitar and buzuq) creates new compositions and makes memorable arrangements for a small instrumental group and the qawwali party. A Top of the World review in #65.

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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – a beginner’s guide

Posted on October 13th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .


Jameela Siddiqi introduces Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani Pavarotti, populariser of the qawwali tradition

Everything about Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) was larger than life, not least, his imposing physical stature and his stunning musicality. He was, almost single-handedly, responsible for popularising qawwali – the music of Indian and Pakistani Sufis (Islamic mystics) – which had been going strong since the late 1300s but was virtually unknown outside the Indian sub-continent. The act of performing and listening to qawwali is a specific religious ritual of the Sufis and as such was traditionally only performed at the shrines of Sufi saints and past masters.

It was Nusrat, descended from a long line of distinguished qawwals (performers of qawwali) who had been in the business for over 600 years, who brought it to the concert halls of Europe and the USA with many Western musicians realising its potential for modern collaborations. Nusrat embarked on several of these, from his work with producer Michael Brook (Mustt Mustt), to contributions for film soundtracks, including Dead Man Walking and Bandit Queen, as well as music for a Coca-Cola commercial. Nusrat himself remained adamant that the message of qawwali was the same, whether it was performed in the traditional context or adapted to suit more modern tastes. “If even just one out of a thousand listeners feels spiritually uplifted, then my job, as one who tries to reduce the distance between the Creator and the created, is done,” he said in an interview shortly before his untimely death in 1997. His death coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Partition of India and was mourned both in India and Pakistan.

Qawwali, although categorised as ‘semi-classical North Indian music,’ has a distinct sound of its own based on a chorus of male voices and entrancing rhythms marked by hand-clapping. But percussion is only part of the story. Qawwali’s main spiritual content lies in its classical melodies enhanced by mystical Persian, Hindi and Urdu/Punjabi verses of the great Sufi poets of the past. It is interesting to note that the majority of Nusrat’s fans, although not from within these linguistic traditions, nevertheless admit to being spiritually moved by his songs.

Qawwals are not so much musicians as part of an ancient institution which is strictly a family business, with musical and poetic knowledge handed down from father to son. But Nusrat was probably the first qawwal in the world to stand aside as a musician in his own right, doing everything from classical qawwali to Bollywood soundtracks and works of fusion with Western musicians.

Best Album

nusrat-devotional-songsDevotional Songs

(Real World)

By far the best single disc of Nusrat, featuring most of his classical/traditional qawwali repertoire as well as a more modern ghazal in the Urdu language. Nusrat performs with a kind of care free abandonment that was seldom heard after the late 80s. Not only is he at his energetic best, but this was also, technically speaking, one of Nusrat’s finest studio recordings of the time, and includes what later became Nusrat’s anthem – ‘Allah Hoo Allah Hoo’ as well as ‘Haq Ali, Ali, Haq’. There is also a song in Punjabi – a Nusrat speciality – featuring an important qawwali tradition in its own right based on the poetry of Punjabi Sufi saints like Baba Bullhe Shah (1680-1753).

Best Fusion Album

mustt-musttMustt Mustt


One of the most exciting collaborations of all time, with Michael Brook’s musical vision enhancing Nusrat’s musical prowess in a way that was never to be repeated, using instruments from different continents like the Brazilian surdu drum and the Senegalese djembe, alongside the North Indian tabla and keyboards. The overall sound works very well with the tarana-style of singing – a style that is part of classical qawwali and one in which the words are deliberately uttered in staccato fashion, to obscure their meaning. The ancient Sufis did this to avoid persecution at the hands of the religious establishment.


Sufi music: a beginner’s guide

A to Z of world music

This article originally appeared in Songlines #14. Subscribe to Songlines

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Abida Parveen: A Beginner’s Guide

Posted on August 20th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .

Jameela Sidiqqi tells the story of Pakistan’s only internationally renowned Sufi female singer

They weep, they faint and some go into a trance in jam-packed concert halls, while scores of others sway uncontrollably in the aisles. It may be a nail-biting moment for the health and safety police but these scenes are typical at an Abida Parveen concert. The Pakistani singer really has to be seen to be believed; her numerous recordings rarely do full justice to her electrifying live performances. At a stadium performance in Lahore, Peter Gabriel’s Real World label representatives were hugely impressed: ‘The power was like at a heavy metal concert – but it was only Abida accompanied by a percussionist and a harmonium.’

She is, undoubtedly, one of the world’s greatest singers and Pakistan’s only internationally renowned female singer of Sufi music. A woman in what has always been a man’s world, Parveen is truly one of a kind. Born in Larkana in the Pakistani province of Sindh in 1954, she was drawn to mysticism at a young age and was initially trained by her father, Ghulam Haidar – an established classical vocalist of his time. In a radical departure from the norm, Haidar not only nurtured his daughter’s immense talent but also, bypassing his sons, named her his musical successor when she was just five years old.

Parveen’s repertoire consists largely of Sufi poetry in the Sindhi and Punjabi languages and Saraiki dialect, although she also sings a number of ghazals (rhyming couplets) in Urdu or Farsi. A great deal of her Punjabi repertoire overlaps with the texts sung in qawwali (Sufi devotional music), notably those performed by her near contemporary, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, causing some to dub her a ‘female qawwal’ – a label that made her uncomfortable despite the fact that her performances can be just as spiritually uplifting as that of Khan. Her forte, however, is kafi, a song form invented by the mystic poet-musician Shah Abdul Latif (1690-1752) from her native province Sindh in Pakistan, dotted with Sufi tombs. Kafi differs markedly from ghazal and qawwali. Ghazal is a literary genre that can also be read, and qawwali relies heavily on a chorus of male voices and rhythmic clapping. But kafi is primarily a solo genre designed only to be sung. Many author-composers clearly specify the raga, or melodic framework, the singer should use. Also, unlike qawwali’s carefree abandon, which aims to heighten spiritual awareness in listeners through frenzied rhythms and syncopated clapping, kafi is a somewhat softer, more reflective genre. Blending sadness with joy, it’s akin to a heart-wrenching symphony that nevertheless ends on an optimistic note.

Parveen’s best-loved and most popular numbers include verses not only from Shah Abdul Latif but from all the prominent mystic poets of the region, often inserting the verses of several poets into the same song. Her huge international success is perhaps not as surprising as her complete – and unconditional – acceptance in her native Pakistan, where Sufi music either belongs to hereditary male qawwals, or to the many solo male artists who specialise in singing Sufi verse. Women are even frequently relegated to the back rows as listeners. But the male/female divide rapidly melts into insignificance the minute Abida Parveen strikes the first note with her exceptionally deep and powerfully controlled voice. Anyone who has attended her concerts will testify that she appears wholly ecstatic, as though on some spiritual sojourn of her own, and totally oblivious to the impact she’s having on her audiences. For her, the performance of this music is, in itself, an act of devotion: “There is a message in this music, the Sufi message of love,” she said in an interview for the Channel 4 documentary Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam, adding, “when somebody listens to this music, it is their heart, their soul that is listening…”

Parveen has been going from strength to strength since the late 80s, with a sparkling international career that has seen her appearing on reality TV shows and judging talent contests and in India. The latest of these was the controversial Sur Kshetra, which was a (supposedly) peaceful battle of musical notes with India pitted against Pakistan. She is by no means the first Pakistani artist to have achieved this god-like status on Indian TV. But she is definitely the first talent-show judge to flatly refuse to mark down a not-so-good contestant on the grounds that he was singing her sacred and beloved Sufi poetry, albeit a little out of tune.

Best Albums

abida parveen mysticsSongs of the Mystics

(Navras, 2000)

This album was recorded at a time when Parveen was beginning to get noticed outside of Pakistan but had yet to be embraced by India and its gigantic Bollywood music machine. It features all her famous numbers including kafis, a couple of Urdu ghazals and a thumri (light classical song) in Hindi.

ishq abida parveen‘Ishq: Supreme Love

(Accords Croisés, 2005)

One of her finest albums, this features her usual repertoire but with the most amazing sound quality. French bansuri flute player Henri Tournier contributes a lovely breathy texture, improvising around her every vocal nuance. The flute is no stranger to this genre – there are numerous songs which feature mystical folk heroes that play the instrument. This is a terrific studio recording.




abida visalVisal: Mystic Poets from the Hindi and the Sind

(World Village, 2002)

Another outstanding album featuring some rarely-heard numbers and, again, beautifully enhanced by Henri Tournier’s bansuri.






very best of abidaThe Very Best of Abida

(Times Music, 2005)

There are numerous compilations – in fact the majority of her albums are compilations – of which The Very Best of Abida stands out with its well-balanced mix of her traditional and modern repertoire.


This article originally appeared in Songlines #92 (June 2013). Subscribe to Songlines

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