Flamenco is like a prayer in solitude, an offering to the eternal in the human soul. It’s an appeal and a cry- a hymn of adoration to the divine. Qawwali is bliss and rapture. It’s a dance of sweet madness. A magical flowing stream of pure passion and devotion. Having evolved in different cultures in different times they are different, yet they have something in common. Flamenco guitarist Juan Gómez (a.k.a. “Chicuelo”) has been exploring the synergy between these two genres with acclaimed Qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and his talented ensemble since 2005.
Flamenco is very much rooted in the Gitano (Roma gypsies) experience in Andalusia. It is an accepted fact today that the Gitano started making their way into Andalusia from the 17th century after traversing through the Middle East and Europe, having left their homeland in northwestern India some 800-1000 years ago. They brought with them their music and dance which evolved to what we know as flamenco today. Qawwali music developed in India as a synthesis of Sufi Islam and Hindu philosophies and evolved from devotional music. It is theorised that Qawwali originated from the group chanting of hymns from the Sama Veda. More recently the great polymath poet, musician, music composer and mystic Amir Khusrau is credited for creating the current structure and format of the Qawwali. Performances are energetic and can be frenzied. The songs mostly composed in ‘braj’ (sometimes in ‘farsi’) is an expression of mystic love for the divine. It is not inconceivable that the flamenco and the Qawwali may have shared a common root ancestor sometime in the distant past. Faiz Ali Faiz and his troupe teamed up with Flamenco guitarist Juan Gómez (a.k.a. “Chicuelo”) and flamenco vocalists to bring their ground-breaking Qawwali-Flamenco project to London audiences. On Sunday evening, 15th October, the audience at Barbican Hall were fortunate to witness their joint production.
The evening opened with the sonorous guitar of Chicuelo. The male flamenco vocalist Tomas de Perrate has that rough gritty texture to his voice which is the hallmark of flamenco vocalists. Melchora Ortega, the female vocalist provided a feisty vocal company to Tomas. The guitar and the opening flamenco vocals soon made way to Faiz and his fellow Qawals who opened the evening with “dil jis se zinda hai” a homage to the prophet Mohammad. The high energy of the Qawwals soon send the audience into raptures. The evening progressed through to the evergreen Bulleh Shah kalam “ piya ghar aya“ before moving onto “ya mustafa nur ul huda” another song praising the prophet. The evening concluded with a high voltage rendition of the kalam “Allah Hoo” a Qawwali which the late maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was famous for. Faiz Ali Faiz is a mystic singer with a voice that soars into higher realms.
Chicuelo’s mastery with the guitar is legendary. He perfectly blends his guitar riffs into Qawwali. He is the man straddling two worlds and connecting them with his soulful strings. Apart from the flamenco riffs he was completely comfortable and almost playful dancing with the rhythm of the great qawwal Faiz.
What can be said about the flamenco vocalists? They inhabit a world of a whole range of passions and emotions which envelop the listener. Even though I didn’t understand the language, I could clearly connect to a sacred thread running through those voices. The tabla player and the flamenco percussionists also had their rhythmic moments which added to the frenzied evening.
It was a high energy evening with the audience often joining in the rhythmic clapping that is so fundamental to a Qawwali performance. The two genres are so different, yet the masterful artists blended them effortlessly. It’s a tribute to their common origins. It’s a beautiful way of two separate cultures looking at each other and finding common ground. Above all the production is a brilliant musical fusion which sends the inner spirit dancing.
Review by Koushik Chatterjee
Read Koushik’s latest reviews
Featured image: courtesy Barbican press
Now on at Barbican Darbar Festival 2023 | Barbican