On January 18th, ten musicians from the the ensemble South Asian Riyaaz Qawwali joined Living Learning Community students for a lively and inspiring evening of music and conversation. Qawwali is a music tradition that emerged in the 14th century when Sufi Poet Amir Khusrow wrote a series of musical compositions dedicated to his teacher, the saint Nizamuddin. In 2006, these ten South Asian-Americans, then college students at the University of Texas at Austin, joined together as a group and began to reinterpret Khusrow’s tradition in a modern context.
The founder and lead vocalist of the group is Sonny, a 31-year old who hails from Houston, Texas. The other ten musicians are also native Texans and play a combination of instruments, including harmonium, dholak, qawwali tabla, violin, tambourine, pianikia, and cajon, in addition to singing.
Their performance in Occom Commons was mesmerizing, and over thirty students enjoyed the unique and eclectic sounds of the group. “Qawwali tradition is supposed to be a practice of ecstasy,” Sonny once explained in an interview for The Huffington Post, and the student audience at Occoms Commons sat on the carpet with rapt expressions which made it clear that the group’s music had achieved its intended affect.
What is unique about Riyaaz Qawwali, as we discussed in our conversation after the performance, was that the group’s members hail from from numerous religious backgrounds. Musicians in the group practice Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, and some are atheists and agnostics. The group is a testament to the power and importance of working across divides and differences of opinion.
After the performance and conversation, Living Learning Community students sat at six tables with each of the Riyaaz Qawwali artists interspersed throughout the tables. The evening was a joyous celebration of the power of music to bring diverse groups and cultures together.