Two Texas bands team up to promote South Asian music online

Riyaaz Qawwali performing at the University of Chicago

Photo: Courtesy of Riyaaz Qawwali

As social distancing measures strengthen, another local organization has moved to the digital realm to provide moments of solace while continuing its 27-year quest to share the cultural arts of the Indian subcontinent in the American context.

Celebrating the launch of its YouTube channel, the Indo-American Association of Houston (IAA) has teamed up with Riyaaz Qawwali to produce a series of music videos as part of their inaugural “Artist-in-Residence” program.

In the debut album released in early June, the Texas-born and raised group perform a Bollywood mashup of four different songs, including “Man ki Lagan” and “Jag Ghoomea” by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, “Tera Sajda” by Shankar Mahadevan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and “Ishq Sufiana” by Kamal Khan. The ensemble does this while remaining true to its own artistic space as a representative of the qawwali genre, a mystical tradition that dates back to 13th century Sufism and which often speaks of spiritual and worldly love.

“This is another form of devotional music like gospel music where there is an underlying theme of connection with the Divine,” said Riyaaz Qawwali’s artistic director and singer Sonny, who, like his fellow musicians, prefers to be identified only by first name. to maintain ethnic and religious ambiguity and, in turn, to accentuate the overall emphasis on unity. “Rather than a word-for-word translation, the lyrics all have to do with love. The songs are about surrendering to your loved one, which could be interpreted as another human or God.

Riyaaz Qawwali, who first collaborated with the IAA in 2012, represents the diversity and plurality of South Asia in all aspects of his being. Hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the musicians represent multiple religious and spiritual backgrounds and sing in a variety of languages, including Urdu, Punjabi, Persian, Gujarati and Hindi. With a mission to overcome cultural, religious and linguistic barriers, the ensemble has extended its reach and that of the Qawwali genre to people of all faiths and traditions in the United States and around the world.

“We’re all Americans,” said Sonny, who founded the group in 2006 while a student at the University of Texas at Austin. “We consider this to be our homeland, and so in a strange but true way, we also consider qawwali to be American now, and we want to share that.”

Modernizing the sound, Riyaaz Qawwali combines new poetry with the authentic aesthetic of the genre – high-pitched vocal passages, rhythmic hand-claps and what Sonny describes as a “soft melodic groovness that elevates the listener to be part of the music. performance itself “- to evoke a universal message of unity.

“It’s really totally interfaith,” said Sheetal Bedi, executive director of the IAA. “We are truly a multi-faith organization, and all of the work we do represents that. This is why we are so drawn to Riyaaz Qawwali because that’s what they tend to do.

IAA plans to release the ensemble’s second clip in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the association offers other content on its social media platforms, such as its first live performance with singer and flutist Rasika Shekar which debuted on June 20. A recording of this program now joins a virtual marathon series called “Music for Hope” and home concert videos featuring artists like internationally renowned sitarist and singer Ustad Shujaat Khan on the IAA’s YouTube channel.

In light of current social issues, the ongoing discussion between the IAA and Riyaaz Qawwali has broadened to include opportunities for collaboration with other communities and organizations to give voice to the oppressed and further illuminate the unity in the community. diversity.

“Riyaaz Qawwali is in this wonderful space to be able to be cultural ambassadors of genres and maybe even religions that seem distant and are actually very close,” Sonny said. “In the last few years there has been a xenophobia and an Islamophobia which is unfortunately part of our world, and I think that is one of the things the arts can deal with.”

“Music needs to heal us,” he continued, “because it can continue when words are at their limit.”

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.

Lyle L. Maltby

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