An initiative of the Menil Collection with cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in the Greater Houston area.
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On Riyaaz Qawwali

Oct 21
6:38 pm
By Menil

According to Tushar Arun Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi, “all religions and faiths were given equal importance” during his great-grandparents’ daily prayer meetings at their ashram. And the meetings always finished with a stunning proclamation: “although we call you by different names, you are One, give us the wisdom to understand this, O Lord.”

In March, 2005, Tushar A. Gandhi served as leader in the 75th anniversary re-enactment of the Dandi March of 1930, also known as the legendary Salt March or “Salt Satyagraha.” The song his great-grandparents used to close prayer meetings was also what they chanted along their 240-mile march, as many people along the way joined Gandhi in non-violent protest and tax resistance.

What a joy to hear this devotional hymn, Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram (see prior post), as just one of many highlights on a thrilling program Monday night at the Menil by Riyaaz Qawwali. If you did not know the text, the Riyaaz singers were there to help you with “Ishvar Allah Tero Naam” and other phrases. This morning I smile to myself as the melody continues to lilt among my thoughts. If you missed this concert, you can check out that song and others on the Texas-based ensemble’s recent CD, simply titled Kashti, meaning “boat.” It should be said, however, that such inspiring Qawwali music is best experienced with a large group like the one gathered last night in the Menil foyer.

Just as the exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence brings together themes of nonviolence in many different religious traditions, Riyaaz comprises performers from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, and with varying spiritual practices. Among the musicians are Muslims, Hindus, Agnostics, and Atheists. They sing in Urdu, Punjabi, Persian, Gujarati, and Hindi. It is evident that any tradition going back 700 years, such as that of the great Qawwalis, can endure change, development, and new influences. The Riyaaz group has an inclusive, multi-cultural approach well-suited to contemporary American audiences, but without losing its sense of legacy.

Yes, there is great poetry and devotion. The basic appeal, I think, comes from the soaring, dramatic vocalism layered with rich percussion and intricate harmonies. The instrumentation last night included two harmoniums and violin along with percussion, and two lead singers (artistic director Sonny K. Mehta and co-singer Vaibhav), along with back-up vocals from all eight performers. It was so mesmerizing, that two hours went by in a flash.

Contemplating their extraordinary vocal range, I was reminded of something the great American composer Meredith Monk said once during an interview. I had asked her how the men in her ensemble could sing so high, and the women so low. It had seemed to me as if they all had at least four-octave, super-human ranges. “It’s not about vocal parts,” she explained. “All singers should be able to sing in all ranges. It’s a matter of the freedom of the voice.” And this is what came through loud and clear at this special performance from Riyaaz: complete and inspiring freedom.

This was the second musical performance related to the Gandhi exhibition at the Menil, the first being a wonderful sitar and tabla concert from Chandrakantha and David Courtney at the opening reception earlier this month. For more information, I would also recommend Dr. Courtney’s useful essay on Qawwali traditions.