Although qawwali has today become part of mainstream music, it is traditionally a part of Sufi ritual at the shrine of a saint on a Thursday evening. Large gatherings of qazvwali are held at the death anniversaries of Sufi saints, in which their death is celebrated as marriage with the Eternal (‘urs). Qawwali groups play day and night, the best performing at the end.Drawing and holding the attention of a heterogeneous audience is the skill that the performers of qawwali attain. They claim that qawwali breaks the barriers of language and draws people closer to divinity. They do this by attempting to alter the state of consciousness of the audience in order to make them more receptive to the content, which is of a syncretistic and mystical nature. The form has been perfected over the centuries and is claimed to lift the audience to exaltation even if they do not understand the words. Form and content are inter-linked in qawwali and a complete appreciation is possible only with a knowledge of both. For example, when expressing the pain of separation from a distant beloved, the lead singer changes the music to long drawn out pieces to emphasize the distance, while words expressing union are compressed into a rapid rendition.
Qawwalis are heard by “the friends” (a term denoting members of Sufi orders) and by lay audiences attracted by the occasion. Both the audience and the musicians are all male (with the exception of women hidden from the view or on the roof), the musicians face the holy man (pir), who is flanked by learned and older members. A narrow path is left between the holy man and the performers for members of the audience to offer presents of money to the performers. The audience is seated on the floor, with the outermost circle standing. The musicians are seated in two roughly parallel rows on the floor at the same level as the audience on a circular sheet of white cotton. The back row consists of the chorus, whose members also rhythmically clap their hands, with one tabla-player in the middle. The front row starts with the lead singer to the right, and two accompanying singers with harmoniums to his left.
The dialogue between the audience and the musicians is central to the performance of qawwali, and the performers often repeat and dwell on portions which strike a resonant chord in the audience. The impact of vigorous hand-clapping both repetitive and forceful tends to produce in the audience a trance-like state. Persons experiencing the trance brought on by qawwali often speak of an experience of flying. Flight is also the imagery used in several Sufi texts in their endeavor to achieve divine union.
Qawwali Settings Qawwali Music Instruments of Qawwali