By Andrea Pflaumer
(Check out some video from their website. They look like they're on “Pakistani Idol.” Amina is the blonde with the white head-wrap sitting behind Tahir.)
If you happened to catch Pakistani television last year (and hey, who didn’t?) you might have seen camera crews following a group of young American kids sporting some serious dreadlocks. That group, Fanna Fi Allah, make up what is called a Qawwali party, musicians who perform devotional music to the words of Sufi saints like Rumi, Baba Farid and Mouinniden Chisti. Typically, a Qawwali group includes 6-8 musicians: a lead singer, two harmoniums, some pretty bombastic tabla playing and an accompanying hand-clapping chorus. On May 17, Fanna Fi Allah performs at Yoga of Sausalito at 7:30 pm.
Fanna Fi Allah’s leader, 28-year-old Tahir Qawwali, (born Geoffrey Lyons in Nova Scotia), began exploring Eastern music as a teenager, influenced by the Beatles’ use of Indian instruments. “A lot of (young) people look to alternatives,” he explains. “I really got into the Upanishads and studied Sanskrit and traditional classical Hindustani music.” At the age of 16 after studying tabla for two years, Tahir took himself off to India to apprentice as a student of voice and theory with his first musical guru, Pundit Pashupati Nath Mishra. While there, he also taught himself Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. Eventually he moved to Pakistan to become a student of Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan [nephew of the world’s most famous Qawwali singer, the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan] and Muazzam Ali Khan.
Amina Chisti, the female tabla player for Fanna Fi Allah, received formal initiation and training in Pakistan from the legendary Ustad Dildar Hussein Khan, who for 28 years was the tabla player for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As the first woman in this genre of music her tabla playing is creating history in the Islamic world. “They don’t take every student - she got accepted and became very close to the [Rahat] Khan family,” Tahir says “Since then, for three months every year she’s been taken into their home where she lives and studies every day. They built a room for her in their house.”
Two years ago Fanna Fi Allah achieved an unprecedented breakthrough when Amina received permission to participate in one of the largest annual Pakistani music festivals, commemorating the death of Sufi saint Data Hajveri. “It was the first time in 670 years that a woman was permitted to perform,” Tahir explains.
The group has been warmly welcomed every time they return to Pakistan, and, as is the tradition, showered with Pakistani currency when the crowd is particularly moved by their performance. While in the US, both Tahir and Amena have a full complement of classical Indian vocal and tabla students in their home near Grass Valley, touring only on a very limited schedule throughout California, Oregon and New York.
Fanna Fi Allah Qawwali Party, May 17, 7:30 pm, Yoga of Sausalito, 110 Caledonia Street, Sausalito. www.yogaofsausalito.com (415) 332-YOGA. $20/advance $25 day of concert.