Admittedly, part of the reason for this post is the fun in the title, itself. Can you think of a word describing a kind of music or performance that would go better with the title word “Quarantine” than “Qawwali”? (Of course, I was not the first one to come up with this word combination – which will become evident shortly – but I am surprised that more people didn’t think of it.)
I also love all kinds of music that could loosely be called “qawwali.” And I will use the term loosely here, as did most of the performers in these videos. By “qawwali,” I mean a performance that includes qawwali style in some way, that fits with North Indian/Pakistani traditions (generally with Sufi origins, too), and, usually, that involves poetry which has been used in qawwali before.
Actually, the qawwal who first gave me the idea to do a post about “Quarantine Qawwalis” was Tahir Qawwal, whom I have known about as the lead singer and co-founder of the great Fanna-Fi-Allah. In this clip that he labeled “Qawwali in Quarantine” (a slightly more exact label than the title I’m using), he does a long-distance instrumental duet with Yama Sarshar. On YouTube, under the video, it says, “Yama Sarshar is an Afghani tabla nawaz living in Holland & Tahir Qawwal is a Canadian Qawwal living in Indonesia, playing together while in quarantine.” Above that line, it says, “Qawwali sazina across boarders!” I am not sure if the use of the word “boarders” here is a misspelling or if it’s a deliberate pun (because they are both staying in places away from their homes?). I am also not sure, sometimes, when I hear Tahir get this lively on the harmonium, whether it is really qawwali or just rock’n’roll. But it rocks in any event.
For the next selection, here’s a Khusro-penned Sufi Kalam from Pooja Gaitonde. If I might say so, quarantine must be doing her well at this stage, because she looks and sounds wonderful! I have watched clips of Pooja Gaitonde with full bands, orchestras, etc., but I most appreciate seeing and hearing her doing a simple performance, singing while playing an instrument, especially if it’s the harmonium. I also really like the simple, homey-looking visual setup of this video clip – with her sitting on that rug in the middle of the floor; the color coordination of her surroundings is really nice, too!
And because I like these solo performances by Pooja Gaitonde so much, I am actually going to include another one! This clip is a little more flashy and a little less homey. It is more clearly a small studio set up somewhere – possibly in her home (though I am not certain). But her performance here also consists, simply, of Pooja and her harmonium (though with visible big mike this time). One reason that I wanted include this clip (in addition to the fact that one Pooja Gaitonde video is never enough) is that it is a performance of the song “Rang” – the famous Kalam about color. . . and welcoming the loved one home, getting into all that multiple-meaning Sufi stuff about the “beloved.”
The next video, from Abi Sampa, is also a performance of “Rang,” but it is an entirely different sort of production, making for a nice contrast. This is the other kind of quarantine video, in which multiple performers are put together through technology, and it is pretty technically polished, too. But in case we might have any doubts that this is a true quarantine video, we are actually informed about that at the beginning with a caption that reads, “Filmed in isolation/During the coronavirus pandemic”! So, I am not going to have any doubts about whether this one should qualify, especially since I like it a lot, too.
Apparently, Abi Sampa is somewhat well known, also (though I did not know about her before I saw this video). She initially made her performance breakthrough on the UK version of the TV show known as The Voice, which led her to leave her profession as a dentist(!) to pursue her music full-time. From a brief search that I did, I can see that she used to do covers of western pop songs before moving on to qawwali (among other things). But she does do her qawwalis in a westernized kind of way (as do most of the people I have found for this post), and here, she even includes a guitar and cello. (Below the video, the cello is credited to Lydia Alonso. It doesn’t say who the guitarist is (though it credits (other) “vocals” to Amrit Dhuffer and Rushil Ranjan), but I am pretty sure it’s Puru Kaushik, whom I glimpsed playing guitar with her in other videos.)
This video also contains a very nice dance by Vidya Patel, so even though this is a non-dance post, it gives me the opportunity to sneak in a dance anyway. Considering that in addition to everything else, how could I resist posting this?
One more bonus that I should mention is that in the description below the video on YouTube, we are even treated to spelled out lyrics, with an English translation. I have seen a few translated versions of this poem, and I think that the lyrics in Pooja Gaitonde’s version might include more of the original Kalam. So, I am not going to single out the lyrics of Abi Sampa’s version to post here, but I do recommend having a look at them on YouTube.
Now, going to the completely opposite side of the production spectrum, I appreciated this minimal video by Vijayan Almeida. As far as “quarantine” videos go, you can’t get more locked-down looking than this! (I especially appreciated the cramped and dilapidated appearance of the room that he is in, which adds a certain kind of authenticity.) I don’t know much about Vijayan Almeida (and I doubt that many other people do, either), except that he lives in Goa and he is the singer and guitarist for a rock band called Kixmet. But I think he definitely has some talents; I was charmed by his unique presentation of this song. In fact, I’d like to count this among my favorite contemporary versions of “Hum Dekhenge,” adding to the list that I posted in February.
Moving back to the more polished kind of video, I’ll close here with this performance of “Sanson Ki Mala” by the Leo Twins (that is, Haroon and Sharoon Leo). One reason I’m glad to add this one is that I haven’t included any other videos yet that show the artists visibly using a loop station. (Abi Sampa displays her loop station skills in another video, but it isn’t related to qawwali. I have also greatly appreciated the detailed “live looping” videos by the pop singer Vasuda Sharma. I have posted a couple of her covers of old Hindi film songs in this blog, but nothing that exhibits her looping skills. I won’t link to any here – since they are also pretty off-topic for this post – but I strongly recommend a search for those, and I might post some of them in the future.)
As indicated here by the video title, though, the Leo Twins wanted to highlight the use of the violin. With this combination of guitar and violin (and tablas playing throughout also because – as they showed us at the beginning – they have looped them), the instrumentation is a bit like what we saw in Abi Sampa’s cover. But this is strictly an instrumental, and I can’t help feeling that with these particular instruments but without emotive vocals, it seems a little too much like “New Age” music or something in the realm of easy listening (even though the violin does get a bit lively at some point). When I think of this song, not only do I think of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan‘s version, but also – or maybe especially – the film version sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy for Madhuri Dixit. Can I get used to this mellower-seeming version that doesn’t even have any vocals in it? I am not sure, but, on the other hand, judging by comments to this one (as well as the view count), it is clear that other people have greatly appreciated it. So… Maybe it will grow on me. (I should add, by the way, that the Leo Twins have earned a very good reputation, too, mostly via their appearances on the Pakistani show known as Nescafe Basement.)
I suppose this post is more limited than I would have liked it to be. (There are six videos just as with the lockdown dances post, but this time I have included two by the same person.) I would have liked to find more, but the other selections that I looked at either seemed a bit too far from genuine qawwali (even by my loose standards here) or didn’t at all seem to fit within the guidelines of social distancing to combat the coronavirus (which we would certainly want in “Quarantine Qawwali”). For instance, a bunch of guys sitting together in close, cramped-looking fashion just won’t do! (Maybe it’s acceptable if they all are literally brothers or siblings who are stuck under one big roof and not interacting with anyone outside, but I doubt that was the case in any videos that I glimpsed.) On the other hand, it does seem that the qawwali, especially in its traditional form, usually should consist of people in a group cramped together, with one or several among them belting out vocals in a loud and passionate way that is bound send droplets of spit onto other group members’ faces. So, a socially distanced qawwali must automatically seem unnatural. But, then, so do other things that are being affected by social distancing. And I hope as much as anyone that soon we will be able to look at all such unnatural-seeming disruptions as an unfortunate but relatively brief moment in history.