Riyaaz Qawwali Takes the Stage

A piece of South Asia comes to UCSC

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Members of the sufi music group take the stage at UC Santa Cruz’s Music Recital Center

From the moment the recital hall doors opened, a crowd of people flooded in, eager to listen to Qawwali music — a 700-year-old, popular South Asian music genre. 

Riyaaz Qawwali, a South Asian sufi music group based in Austin, Texas, performed at UC Santa Cruz’s Music Recital Hall on Oct. 25, captivating the ears of everyone in the room. 

Excited whispers rose up from the audience and echoed across the hall in anticipation of the group’s entrance. After a few minutes passed, the performers finally took the stage and the room erupted in applause.

“This is a music that I think you will be, if it happens the correct way, literally brought out of your seats into a state of ecstasy,” said music department chair, Dard Neuman. “It’s not meant to be contemplative or to have you seated quietly.”

Neuman’s words rang true once the performance began. 

From behind the curtain, five members wearing coordinated black and white formal attire appeared under the blue stage lights. At center stage, they each took a seat on the multicolored carpet spread on the elevated platform as the spotlight illuminated them.

As performers sang in Urdu, Punjabi, Persian, Gujarati and Hindi, language was no barrier to enjoyment. Before the end of the first song, audience members were dancing in their seats and clapping to the beat of the music. Even the most reserved tapped their feet to the joyous melody.

In that room, all listeners were accepted — no matter the background. Riyaaz Qawwali explained the meaning and history of each song following its performance, welcoming new listeners to the experience. This inclusivity, both within the group and with their audience, is what makes Riyaaz Qawwali special. 

“We consist of people from Indian background and Pakistani background and Bangladesh background. We are Hindus and Muslims and agnostics and atheists, but most importantly we feel that while those hyphenated identities are important, we believe that most importantly, we’re American,” said Sonny K. Mehta, the group’s artistic director. “It’s our responsibility to showcase what happens usually within the confines of parties and South Asian galas and help others digest it outside the community.”

Breaking from western molds, Riyaaz Qawwali used instruments ranging from harmoniums to tablas to chimtas, a jingling brass instrument. These instruments collaborated throughout the night to create melodies not often heard in U.S. popular culture.

It’s also not uncommon to hear Qawwali songs ranging from 20 to 30 minutes. These extended performances are  what Subhash Gubba, one of the Riyaaz Qawwali vocalists, says makes their music different from others. 

Considering America’s political and cultural climate today, Qawwali is much more than just a music genre. 

“America is a beautiful, diverse mixing pot,” Gubba said. “Today, more than ever, we really need people to get a little bit out of their comfort zone and explore it and see how a different culture, a different genre of music, might actually have a lot more in common with them than they think.”