By Sara Schonhardt
Sara Schonhardt reports on an effort to spark cultural understanding through the pairing of qawwali and gospel music
The Harvey Theatre at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music has seen its share of transformation. The post–war era building faced conversion, abandonment and renovation before it finally reopened in 1987 for Peter Brook's production of The Mahabharata.
The venue's walls are deliberately sparse — bare concrete with scraps of painted murals — giving it an aura of confinement and oppression. This not necessarily the place one comes to lighten one's spirit.
Yet it was here that artists gathered on June 13 to provoke a spiritual awakening, one of togetherness and cultural understanding. The evening paired qawwali great Faiz Ali Faiz with gospel singer Craig Adams for a fusion performance titled the Qawwali Gospel Creation, part of “Muslim Voices,” a festival celebrating the art and culture of Islamic societies.
For the first hour of the performance, each vocalist introduced his craft separately, before coming together at the end for a thirty minute collaboration in which “Hallelujah” and “Amen” were intermingled with Urdu lyrics.
The performance aimed to show that communication can be found among artists of different faiths, said Joe Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The metaphor of mending the rift between Islam and Christianity did not go unnoticed. “It showed what can happen when there's a will to bridge the divide,” said Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
This was not the first time Adams and Ali Faiz performed together — the two singers first collaborated at the Sacred World Music Festival in Fez, Morocco, in June 2008, and have fused their styles three times since. Still, they struggled to achieve a true merging, perhaps because of the differing origins of their musical styles, or the religious philosophies that inform them.
Qawwali is a seven–hundred–year–old musical tradition belonging to the Sufi strain of Islam. Considered a more mystical form of devotion, Sufism brought music and song into worship itself, thus creating qawwali. According to music scholars, the goal of this music is to lead the listener and performer into a trance that moves them to a state of spiritual enlightenment. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing.
Gospel is also sung out of devotion, in the way of praise or thanks to God, and like qawwali, it invokes repetition. The forms of expression, however, are starkly different; qawwali builds on vocals that sound strained and forceful, with the pace gradually quickening until it reaches a crescendo. Gospel is more rhythmic, following patterns and beats common in Western singing.
“With qawwali you warm up with each number,” explained Shazia Iqbal, a documentary filmmaker who attended the performance. The building momentum is said to represent an unearthing of the subconscious; the vocals are both tragic and awesome.
Another difference was evident in the performers' appearance and stage arrangement. Ali Faiz was resplendent in a red shalwar qameez with gold sequins. His eight–piece ensemble wore saffron, and he sat among them cross–legged upon a raised platform. Adams wore a gold–trimmed black suit and red–rimmed glasses. Instruments dominated his side of the stage, leaving his five–person choir in the background.
As Ali Faiz sang, his words resonated through the theatre, captivating an audience awed by his ability to hold a note and make it undulate, washing the theatre in waves of inner suffering. The singer's spasmodic body movements and handclaps compounded his pain–infused singing. The performance was too short to electrify the air, as it often does when audience members forget their physical connections and focus only on the spiritual. Yet the sense of release was evident and stood out against Adams' performance, which did not evoke the same deep feeling of transcendence. Both gospel and qawwali carry an energy, but what the former offers in volume and theatrics — with drumbeats, piano and backup singers — the latter exhibits in a passion and ecstasy that verges toward hypnosis.
At times, the result was an overpowering gospel that drowned rather than melded with the more humanistic rhythm of the qawwali.
In an interview with National Geographic Music, Ali Faiz said the collaboration “has potential,” but the merging remains a challenge because the flavour of the two kinds of music is so different. “It often felt like it was either gospel with tablas or qawwali with piano,” he said.
Robina Niaz, a member of the Muslim Voices' advisory committee, felt similarly, noting that when the two ensembles came together the gospel seemed to dominate. Iqbal, who also saw the Qawwali Gospel Creation in Morocco, said the New York performance lacked the spirituality of the Fez festival; she attributed much of that absence to an attempt to capture the essence of Islam in an “artificial environment.”
Compared to an outdoor venue, the BAM Harvey Theatre is not the most conducive place for devotional music. It lacks the immediate connection to nature, the bazaar–like bustle and mosque domes that decorate the horizon in most Islamic cities. Rather than narrow alleyways leading to the building, New York's grid system transports one to the theatre. Inside, high ceilings prevent the music from rising to the heavens.
“But what is beautiful about music is that it is universal … and hopefully the message that goes out after an event like this is one of building bridges and mending fences,” Niaz added.
The faces in the audience reflected the diversity the organizers hoped to achieve. Old and young, black, white and brown, those in the audience came from the neighbourhood, but many had cultural connections to another world. Some wore headscarves, others suit jackets and jeans. Despite the criticisms, most people seemed intrigued, because the sound produced by the Qawwali Gospel Creation was so new and unique, if nothing else.
From the moment Ali Faiz took the stage, people began clapping, and rows of seats started to shake with the movement of bobbing heads and tapping feet. As the lyrics reached a climax, Ali Faiz's hands moved freely, like birds' wings. When Adams came on, he asked the audience to stand and dance. Many stayed on their feet even after the gospel group finished its set and Ali Faiz returned to the stage.The first few songs struggled to cohere, but the rhythm eventually came together; Dennis Antrobus and Noah Baumwoll, members of the audience, took to the aisle and danced, hugging when the music finished.
“This was spiritual music that reached across an ocean,” said Antrobus, a native New Yorker. “It showed the different ways God can be praised, and it proved the strength of collaboration.” Antrobus heard about the performance from a link on Baumwoll's Facebook page. The two men, who attend kirtans together, said the hug showed their feeling of solidarity. “This oneness is incredible,” Baumwoll said.
Yet that oneness was not achieved without a great deal of effort. After the performance, BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins explained the lengths Ali Faiz and his ensemble had to go to in order to obtain visas. “It literally took a village to get eight Pakistani singers here,” she said, referring to the number of high–level diplomats who assisted with travel arrangements.
The Qawwali Gospel Creation closed the Muslim Voices festival, and many heaped praise on the organizers for hosting the event at such a critical moment. Eight years after the events of 9/11, many Muslims in New York say there is still a great need to clarify what their religion represents.
“Islam has been so demonized,” said local physician Asma Jamil Sadiq, who spoke of a need for rebalancing. “The focus on jihad and terrorism is a deviation from its essence, and feels like a hijacking of the religion.”
Melillo drove that point home when reflecting on Muslim Voices' ultimate goal — understanding. “I've seen a lot of joy, peace and beauty through the arts and music,” said Katie McHugh, who attended the festival to learn more about her boyfriend Shaan Akbar's Pakistani roots.
Senior project advisor Zeyba Rahman also lauded the arts for their ability to highlight the positive influences of Islam, using as an example the Chaikhana or teahouse, replete with poems and stories on mysticism, love and political commentary.
Given the diversity among Islamic societies, it would have been hard to please everyone; some of the young attendees, for example, wished for more of an American–Muslim presence. But many said they hoped the event would become annual, or at least trigger a greater interest in the arts of Islamic societies.
“It demystifies in many minds what Muslim culture is,” said Niaz, who defined it as “enjoying yourself and letting your hair down.” It is also people saying there is an alternative to fighting … “so I'm sure some people walked away with that shift in their mind.”
Organized by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), The Asia Society, and New York University's Center for Dialogues, Muslim Voices brought together more than 300 artists and speakers from the United States, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for a series of events ranging from traditional storytelling to modern video installations. The festival took place in New York City, June, 2009 .
Sara Schonhardt lives in New York. This article is an exclusive contribution for TFT