Rooted in 8th century Persia, Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia. It is a vibrant musical tradition that utilizes the tabla and poetic vocals in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi.  We caught up with Shuaib Aftab the lead singer of Shuaib Aftab Qawwal Group.

Tell us a little about yourself. When did your musical education start?

I was born in France, where the traditional music of India and Pakistan was then unknown.  But, during my tender years I already had an attraction for singing and music because my father, Dr Mushtaq Ahmad had always listened at home to world renowned artists, like Begum Akhtar, KL Saigal, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Kalan Qawwal to name a few.  He educated me in the mystical poetry of the Sufis and their music.  At the age of 11, I began playing the tabla by myself.  A musician friend of my father, Alam Shafique Jaan, became my first tutor. He was impressed by my ability and my interest in music.  My father then bought me a harmonium. It was quite expensive and cost around 6000 Francs. I began watching videos, listening to recordings and researching articles in the library with Hubaib, my older brother.  We were desperate to learn about classical music. We purchased a lot of cassette tapes, VHS and CDs, to listen and understand the art of Raaga.  It was very difficult. Then in 1995 I discovered on a documentary on French TV, named Pardesi (foreigner), with an interview with the great Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, who passed away in 2015. I was totally in love with the masters singing and shining personality. I contacted the channel with much difficulty and got his address. I decided to go and meet him. He was so happy to see that the music which is not taken seriously in our own country was taken so passionately by me. He asked me to sing. It was difficult – I was nervous but decided to perform the king of Raaga – Raag Darbari. He was impressed and said to my family that he would like me to become his student.  It was a dream come true for me so I started in 1995, after the research of many years (about 9 years).  Ustad and all his family were so impressed by my knowledge especially since I had discovered it all through my own research into Raagas.

I have also discovered an old Qawwal, Ustad Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal who was the teacher of my teacher, Ustad Sher Ali Qawwal and Ustad Mohammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal were the teachers of Ustad Meher Ali Qawwal.  Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal was also the student of Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan’s father, Ustad Bhai Laal Muhammad Sangeet Sagar.

So my musical heritage comes from the classical Gharana of Gwalior by Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan and the Qawwali Gharana of Ustad Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal through my tutelage with Ustad Sher Ali Meher Ali Qawwal.

Khalifa Ustad Ilmas Hussain Khan of Lucknow Gharana son of the legendary teacher Afaaq Hussain Khan. Khalifa Ustad Ilmas Hussain Khan is the Ustad of my brother tabla player Behlole Mushtaq.

Due to my love of music, I have also experienced some colours of Arabic music with Iyad Haimour.  It is an important point because in the old qawwali,  Arabic language have a great place in poetry.

My musical education is a long story of two major steps. The first is myself teaching and the then  the tutelage under two great legends.  Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan for classical music in the heritage of Gwalior Gharana and Ustad Sher Ali Meher Ali Qawwal for Qawwali music in the tradition of Qawwal Bachche and Talwandi Gharana.

Tell us about your group and its members.  How long ago did you start out in Qawwali and what Gharana do you belong to?

I belong to the seventh generation of the Gwalior Gharana and am also the student of Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan and firth generation of  Talwandi Gharana. I am also the student of Ustad Sher Ali Meher Ali Qawwal.

My older brother Hubaib Ahmad Mushtaq, is the second voice and does all the work on Kalaam (poetry) research.

Rahim, Feroz and Youssuf Mushtaq are my nephews they started learning music with me at the age of three.

Behlole Ahmad Mushtaq is the tabla player of the group.  He is the student of Khalifa Ustad Ilmas Hussain Khan of Lucknow Gharana and Ustad Muhammad Iqbal Paale Khan of Punjab Gharana.

What is Raagdari?

If we want to know what Raagdaari is (knowledge of raag) we have to know first what Raag is?  The Raag belongs to a family named Thaat. It is a division done by Pandit Bhatkhande. There are ten Thaats. That is composition of Raag. From each thaat there are Raag and Raagini (Male and female styles)

Each Raag has his own mood. A Raaga is defined by ascending and descending scale. Minimum notes for a raag are five. The Raag has his own composition also by tonic notes. These are known as Vaadi and Samvaadi. The Raaga has to be sung in its proper way called chalan and it has its rasa (mood). We have also the pakad it is the perfect combination of Swar (notes) to present the perfect figure of the Raag.

A Raaga is a feeling. That’s why the Pandits and Ustads have given them the image of a character. To know the feeling of a raag we have to practice it during those hours.

I one day asked my teacher, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, how much time it takes to know a Raag? He said “one lifetime is not enough” at that time he was 74 years old.

Raagdaari is your opportunity to develop your real feeling through the Raaga. That’s why the masters have chosen the name Khayal to express the evolution during presentation of the Raag. The Raagdaari is how you can express with your deep feelings the beauty of the Raag. Raagdaari depends on the quality of knowledge and feelings of the artist. Raagdari can’t be dissociated from Roohadaari (spirit). The more you are Roohdaar more your Raagdaari is pure, the more spiritual you are.

I started learning music at the age of 11 and I am now 38.  During these 27 years, I have practised many Raagas and Taalas and I feel that I have just now the key to open the door of each Raaga.  I am discovering the universe of each Raaga. You can’t say that you know the Raaga.  Each time you discover a new style of its personality. This is how to refresh the Raagdaari.

When one listens to older Qawwals, the rhythm is much more complex than that of today. What is the reason for this?

Actually Qawwali has changed with the time but unfortunately some old rhythms are completely lost. Now Qawwals use eight or six beats. Of old the Qawwal would play more complicated rhythms like Soolfakhta, Moghlay, Rupak, MattaTaal, Jhaptaal, Ektaal, Firaudast, TeenTaal etc (5-7-7-9-10-12-14-16 beats).

The real Qawwali is no different from     classical music. We have to note that in Qawwali we have a big part of Khayal Gaiki. A Qawwal has first to learn the rules of classical music then you can use the knowledge through Qawwali music and it has his impact on the soul.

Nowadays in each field, the teacher is Google, Youtube or Facebook. Without guidance under a personal teacher to create a Qawwali group is impossible. Knowledge of classical music under a teacher has no substitute.  How can you play the old style rhythms if you haven’t learnt them?

Some qawwals have chosen to give high and fast beats to Qawwali presentation. That’s not the best way to conserve the authenticity of this pure soul art.

Of course Qawwali is sung in Farsi, Panjabi and Urdu how much importance do you attach to expression and pronunciation?

It is more important in Qawwali. The utmost importance has to be placed on expression and pronunciation. Every Ustad in the field of singing starts with the importance of the pronunciation. I am always receiving advice by my Ustad, Ustad Sher Ali Meher Ali Qawwal to improve pronounciation. I have also the honor to be student of the only one Qawwals performing qawwali in pure Saraiki language.

Qawwali is a word coming from the Arabic language. Qaul, it means the message. Qawwali is the message of Devotion, The Love to God Almighty, to His Beloved Prophet Muhammad Peace be upon Him and to Hazrat Ali, companions and the Saints. That’s why your pronunciation has to be perfect.

Have you ever thought of singing in a language that is not Farsi, Panjabi or Urdu, if there are Sufi poets other texts?

To spread a message there are no limits. You just have to learn the culture of this language to be able to write with all the beauty. Music is a feeling and feeling has no limit. If you spread the message of Love you can do it in any language. We are all in search of love and it has the ability to capture. I have written poetry for the Holy Prophet peace be upon Him in French and have also composed a tune on Raaga Bhairavi. I won the award of Salon International du monde Musulman (SIMM) in 2011.

In an age of commercialisation of Qawwali much of its essence is lost what are your thoughts about this?

The real essence and audience of traditional Qawwali is rooted in spirituality and love. Regardless of commercialisation Qawwali and other traditional arts have to remain rooted. In a pure sense it has the power to touch people, both as artists and as audience. Of course we must strive to protect this pure art.

How important is the tradition of Qawwali beginning with Hamd (praise of God), then Naat (praise of the Holy Prophet) and Manqabat (praise to Hazrat Ali and Saints ), finishing off with people standing up whenever the Rang (colours) is recited?

This tradition is always preserved from times of singing at Shrines and therefore should be presented by qawwals. But when it is in theatres sometimes it is absent. But a real Qawwal will always respect this poetic and mystic tradition.

Where have you performed?

I gave my first concert at the age of 13 in Germany, then in France many concerts in private mehfil, Festivals and almost every year for the Grand Mawlid of Paris in France.

We have performed in Turkey near the Mausoleum of Mevlana Rumi, Syria, Holland, UK, Norway, Morocco and Pakistan of course.

What is your opinion on collaboration as an artist?

Collaboration is the path of approaching other   cultures. In collaborating with another artist it is important that the essence of the devotion is maintained. I have first to study the style of the other musician and if they are a singer I have selected poetry style and told to them to choose poetry of a similar theme. I am working on different project including our Sufi musical tradition with Syrian Sufi Musicians, Sufi dancers, Jazz Musicians, contemporary world. I feel myself proud to have respected each tradition for the real aim of the Sufi tradition. Preaching the message of Love.

Do you have a Silsila (tradition) of your own?

We are from the Naqshbandi of Pakistan. We have choosen to present the real old style of Qawwali combining the rhythms, and the Raaga evolution. That’s why people love us. We are preservatives of this authentic art. We play the role of the Guardians of an old tradition under our Ustad’s guidance.

Have you ever sung at shrines? If so which ones?

We performed near the shrine of Hazrat Maulana Rumi. We hope to perform in shrines through Pakistan and India. I am working on a Project this year presenting the message of peace on Shrine in Pakistan and how this message has given place to freedom to every religious community in Pakistan.

What have been your major musical influences?

Firstly the legend Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. My teachers are, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan and Ustad Sher Ali Meher Ali Qawwal. Ustad Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal, Bakhshi Javed Salamat for. Ustad Mubarak Ali Niaz Ali Qawwal and Ustad Ghulam Kibriya Qawwal.

How long do you practice?

When I started out it was about 14 to 16 hours a day. But when you are in love with your art you practice every time everywhere. I am in love with my art.

How important is it to ensure the art of Qawwali lives on?

Qawwali, is definitely the art that has presented the beauty of Pakistan and the light of Islam around the world.  It is important for every Qawwal to be mature, and present this beautiful art as it deserves to be, and never forget that it is a Message to present the beauty of Islam and Sufism not a way open to commercialisation.  Being a Qawwal is prayer, not profession.

Image 1: From left Behlole Ahmad Mushtaq, Hubaib Ahmad Mushtaq and Shuaib Aftab