Their hypnotic repertoire may be more than 700 years old, but every time the members of Riyaaz Qawwali take the stage, they introduce a new audience to the rhythms and melodies of qawwali. For the last twelve years, from their home in Austin, Texas, the band has toured to bring alive the joyous sounds of this South Asian music, played on harmonium, violin, tabla and handclaps, and sung in Urdu, Punjabi, Persian and Brajbhasha.
Qawaali - qaul refers to an "utterance (of the prophet)" - emerged in what is now India and Pakistan in the 13th century, in close association with the Sufi and their Islamic mysticism. To keep the spirit modern, Riyaaz Qawwali mixes contemporary songs by Hindu and Sufi poets with the semi-classical qawwali repertoire of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose musical lineage serves as one of their primary influences.
The members of Riyaaz Qawwali are Americans of Indian, Pakistani, Afghani and Bangladeshi background. Onstage, they use just their first names, to shift the focus away from the sometimes-divisive topic of religion, and keep it firmly on their ecstatic music and poetry of oneness.
John Floridis caught up with the group at the Montana Folk Festival in July, 2018. Listen to John’s conversation with these purveyors of South Asian devotional music, who live and perform near the buckle of the American Bible Belt.