For the past four years, the Samaa Sufi festival has been bringing Sufi music and religious chanting in different colours and tongues to Cairo’s cultural scene. Held at the appealing Qubbet El-Ghouri (the Ghouri Dome), the festival does not fail to impress. The scene overflows with Sufi chanters and musicians from around the globe and an ever-elated audience.
This year’s Sufi music and chanting festival features performances by the Indian Qawwali group. Many music fans and cultural enthusiasts have been making their way towards the Dome to unravel the mysteries of the many different cultural interpretations of Sufi music.
Particularly popular this Ramadan was the eight-member Indian Qawwali group led by Sufi singer Chanchal Bharti. The group’s opening performances impressed audiences with their blend of spiritual and powerful music. The Qawwali group will perform once more at the closing ceremony of the festival, held on 25 August.
Under the direction of the talented Egyptian conductor and director of the annual Sufi music festival, Intesar Abdel Fatah, the Indian troupe performs Sufiana Kalams and Qawwali.
Associated with Islamic Sufi traditions, the Qawwali is a musical form developed by Sufis in an effort to reach a higher level of spirituality and to enhance their relationship with God. ‘Qawwali’ is derived from the Arabic word “qawl”, which translates into “saying”. Qawwal is the name given to the person who sings qawwalis, which usually invoke the sayings of Prophet Muhammed or other religious chants.
Qawwali traditions emerged in India around 700 years ago, led by eminent Sufi saints Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Hazrat Amir Khusro. Qawwali performances typically consist of groups of musicians rather than solo singers, where there is a lead Qawwal accompanied by secondary voices. In keeping with customs, audiences are encouraged to take part in the performances.
The Qawwali group’s leader, Chanchal Bharti, has been a Sufi singer for over two decades, performing Sufiana Qawwali and Bhajans in many festivals across India and beyond. The woman chanter (quite rare nowadays) calls her experience at the Samaa’ Festival in Cairo “memorable.”
Bharti felt that language did not act as a barrier hindering the audience’s enjoyment of the performed songs (Qawwalis are usually rendered in Indian languages, Punjabi and Urdu). “Though the people could not understand the language of the Qawwali numbers, they appreciated the rhythm and melody of the songs.”
Bharti deeply enjoyed the “fantastic” atmosphere of the festival. “The minute I lifted my hands to set the beat, there was a roar of applause from the audience,” she says.
Despite their extensive touring in concerts across the globe, the gathering of Sufi singers from 13 different countries at the Ghouri Dome was a unique experience for the Indian Qawwali group. “This is the first time I see groups from 13 different countries sit on the same stage and perform together in harmony,” says Bharti. “It is a truly spiritual experience.”
As groups of Sufi singers take the stage, you are overcome with their sheer diversity. Costumes differ, and many languages infiltrate your ears. But all the troupes praise God through their music, and they all do so artfully. The festival combines culture and music, and for an hour or two the whole world seems to be seamlessly getting along.
The Qawwali group’s visit to Egypt is jointly organised by the International “Samaa” Festival, the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture, the Embassy of India and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. Director of the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture, Suchitra Durai, deems the multi-cultured festival an effective channel for global communication.
“Cultural exchange is the most effective way to promote international peace and understanding,” Durai stated.
Durai argued that “as individuals representing different cultures come together in harmony as they have done in the Samaa Sufi music festival, there is not only a tremendous artistic flowering but also greater understanding of the other.”
Suchitra Durain firmly believes in the power of cross-cultural interaction to empower individuals and their relationships with people from diverse cultures. “As we communicate more and more, our confidence and trust both in ourselves and others increases.”
The Samaa festival, which runs from 15-25 August 2011 (15 – 25 Ramadan), is a chance for cultures to meet and share melodies that can bring them closer together. The closing ceremony, scheduled for Thursday 25 August, is entitled “To the world…a message of peace!” and features the Indian Qawwali troupe alongside the Egyptian Samaa Band for Sufi Chanting, the Coptic Hymns Band, the Church Hymns Bands, Indonesia Band for Islamic Chanting, as well as troupes from Norway, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Sudan and Spain.
The Ghouri Dome is in the Al-Hussein district. Tonight’s finale will begin at 9pm.