for Songlines Magazine
The rain fell on the open-air North Beach Bandshell in Miami, but Houston-based Riyaaz Qawwali ensemble braved the weather. The carpet they sat on, cross-legged, became drenched, as crew struggled to keep the sound and light gear dry. They showcased 700 year old devotional music known as ‘Qawwali’, as part of a concert series during the month of March called ‘Axis of Love’ – a play on the ‘Axis of Evil’ phrase former President George W. Bush used to accuse countries of fostering terrorism.
Under the Trump administration, terror attacks have been used to justify the unconstitutional Muslim travel ban, which has hit opposition in the courts and provoked public outrage. Racist and xenophobic attitudes are penetrating ever layer of society. Concert programmers around the country are taking a stand by showcasing music from other cultures, and working to keep the idea of multiculturalism alive.
“We have recommitted ourselves to belief in multicultural, shared experiences and being part of the global conversation,” says concert promoter Rhythm Foundation’s artistic director, Laura Quinlan. “We believe very strongly in the value of international exchange through culture and music – building bridges, not walls. Cultural diplomacy has always been effective in moving the needle forward on political and social issues.”
Riyaaz Qawwali’s band leader, Sonny, laments the racial tension more evident now. “There are Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Bangladeshis in our group, but we’re all American.” He quit his corporate job and dedicated himself to playing and teaching qawwali. “I think the arts are a way to share a perspective, it’s not dogmatic and not down people’s throats. People can interpret different perspectives – arts are inspirational.”
At the end of the show, Sonny dedicated a song to the heartbroken, to the unwelcome, translating part of the lyrics before going into song. “I have taken a much closer look at life, the common faces are looking very different today.” As the group played, in the front row, four people of South Asian descent could be seen crying.
Photo by Niall Macaulay