The origins of Qawwali can be traced back to 8th century Persia. And in the later centuries, it gradually traveled to Turkey, Uzbekistan, and the Indian Subcontinent. Qawwali is a Sufi style expression of music, performed to stimulate religious devotion and closeness to the supreme deity. Predominantly, Qawwalis pertain to the religious praises of the Lord, the saints, the Prophet, and religious teachers. But, some Qawwalis are transcribed to spread the message of worldly love also. Traditionally, Qawwali unites phrases and passages from different poems to create a unified message of spiritual love and praise. Qawwalis are prominently practiced in the Indian Subcontinent, which is why most Qawwalis are in either Punjabi, Urdu, or Persian.
Qawwalis are not a solo experience, the lyrics, the setting, the props are designed to transmit a state of euphoria among everyone in the audiences including the performers. The performers include the lead singer, a couple of singers who follow the lead singer, a group of performers responsible for the rhythmic hand clapping, and instrumentalists responsible for traditional beats of tabla, harmonium, dholak, and sorangi.
It is close to impossible for one to think of Qawwali and not immediately associate it with the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born in Faisalabad on October 13, 1948, into the family of generational Sufi qawwals. Khan’s father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was also a famous Sufi qawwal. The mystic aptitude for singing was inherited by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as an heirloom. An heirloom that he then polished and presented for the world to be mesmerized.
Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan devoted himself to qawwali ever since the first time he publicly performed at his father’s funeral in 1964. In a matter of a few years, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had become a world-famous qawwal by touring many parts of Europe and the United States. He introduced people from across the world to the art of Sufi qawwalis and the euphoria attached to it. Until Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started playing internationally, qawwalis were considered a purely religious expression. But, his many performances in secular environments helped transform this powerful, devotional form into an emblem of South Asian culture recognized around the world.