‘When my soul is happy I am happy’

Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan are heirs to the king of qawwali, a centuries-old form of devotional music, and they’re back in the UK for the first time in years

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“We keep hearing from the political establishment that all Muslims are terrorists. We’re not terrorists – as everyone knows. Our message is one of peace and love,” says Muazzam Ali Khan, speaking to Big Issue North from his home in Faisalabad in Pakistan via translator. “We want to break the social barriers by playing and performing in front of different communities and spread that message.”

Although not quite a household name in the west, there are arguably few people better qualified to stand up to the religious fear, hate and division increasingly preached by far right organisations than Muazzam and his elder cousin Rizwan, who have been making music together since the early 90s in the tradition of qawwali – a centuries-old form of Sufi devotional music brought to international prominence by their uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali.

“Qawwali music is a message of God – a peaceful life for everyone,” explains Muazzam. “If you go back in history, it’s the only style of music that brings all the religions and communities together.”

“Music unites communities. We spread the message of qawwali – peace and love.”

In the 20 years since Nusrat’s death at the age of 48, Rizwan and Muazzam have kept the qawwali flame alive, reinterpreting and reinventing its forms and traditions with the same devotional zest as their late uncle, popularly known throughout South Asia as Shahenshah-e-Qawwali, meaning the “King of Kings of Qawwali”.

“He was a great teacher but above all a great and kind human being,” recalls Rizwan, who remembers an exhausting month-long period when he and Muazzam were young children and Nusrat tutored them in the essence of Sufi music. “There was very little sleep – just practising, practising, practising. It was a very intensive time, but he was very patient and we learned so much from him. He brought qawwali music and its message to a world audience, like Ravi Shankar did with Indian classical music.”

This month Rizwan and Muazzam embark on their first UK tour since 2010, playing a mixture of Nusrat’s own compositions, many of which have not been performed in the UK before, along with traditional and popular qawwali songs. For anyone who has not previously experienced Sufi music, they promise a “spiritual and soul cleansing” awakening that radiates positivity, compassion and wellbeing.

“I believe that Sufi music is linked to your soul, and when my soul is happy I am happy,” says Rizwan. “I try to reach out to new audiences with our message of peace and love. And I hope that by passing on this message through the music, audiences will take this message and spread it further to the people they meet.”

“It’s a very unique, exciting and spiritual style of music,” adds Asian Arts Agency director and tour producer Jaswinder Singh, who spent three years in talks with the duo about bringing them back to the UK. “You get blown away by the vocal qualities and the range and depth of their voices. For anyone who hasn’t witnessed or experienced this music, it’s going to be a very different and unique experience.”

Originally performed at Sufi shrines or dargahs throughout South Asia, qawwali (an Arabic word meaning “utterance”) is traditionally performed seated to bring the participants closer to God and uses repetitive vocal phrasing, thunderous handclaps, droning tabla and an ensemble of harmoniums to try to entice the audience and performers into a state of divine ecstasy. Hypnotic, trance-like, joyful and transcendental are words commonly used to describe its driving rhythms and improvisational energy, with Rizwan and Muazzam’s nine-piece band widely regarded among the leading proponents of qawwali in the world today.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing in 1993 – he brought qawaali to international prominence
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing in 1993 – he brought qawaali to international prominence

“We always want to entertain the audience and take them on a journey with us. We try to respond to their reactions to various elements of the performance. And if we feel the audience are particularly enjoying something we will continue on that journey with them,” explains Rizwan, who first played music with his cousin when he was 11 and Muazzam was nine. They sing in a mixture of Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi. “Over the years, the way we communicate has evolved. We now just know. We can feel it. There’s an incredible synergy between us and an innate musical understanding.”

Evidence of that deep musical connection can be heard not just in the cousins’ live performances, but also in their prodigious recorded output, which includes a succession of acclaimed albums released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, including 2001’s People’s Colony No 1, produced in collaboration with dance duo Temple of Sound, and 2004’s Day of Colours. Their most recent album, Amad, came out in 2014, while the duo have also previously worked with British hip-hop outfit Fun-da-mental, Indian electronic duo MIDIval Punditz and British Indian singer-songwriter Susheela Raman as they continue their uncle’s pioneering efforts to transcend cultural, language and religious barriers and introduce Sufi music to new audiences.

“We want to carry on the family name and somehow do justice to what Nusrat did, but equally we are musicians in our right,” explains Muazzam. “Nusrat took the tradition forward. He made his own name, had his own unique style and, of course, had his own collaborations. Now we’re trying to move forward the whole 750-year-old tradition of the qawwali and link up with contemporary audiences.”

As well as marking 20 years since their uncle’s death, 2017 has added significance for the pair in that it marks the 70th anniversary of the formation and independence of Pakistan. Celebrations began last summer with commemorative events planned throughout the year, although a spate of recent terrorist attacks claimed by Islamist militant groups has, once again, plunged the country into instability. The Pakistan government has promised a strong response to the attacks and Rizwan says he is “hopeful” for the future of his homeland and strongly opposes “the violence and terrorism that plagues our country”.

He would also like to see the eradication of long held divisions and animosity between Pakistan and neighbouring India and notes that the border that separates the two countries is “just a [man-made] boundary line. Otherwise we have the same skin colour. The same language. The land smells the same. Similar musical traditions. I hope that we can unite, understanding that we share the same values, musical traditions and culture.

“Music is universal and unites communities. Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians – they all listen to our music and come to see us perform. We will continue to spread our message and the message of qawwali – peace and love. We want to perform all over the world with no boundaries – and through music break down boundaries and spread our positive and hopeful message.”

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali will be touring the UK on 22-30 March in association with Asian Arts Agency. They play Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds on Sat 25 March (

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