11:07 AM

It's all about love: Riyaaz Qawwali takes UHCL on 'joyous journey'

Faith. Love. Joy. Music. These universal truths cross all cultures and seem to know no boundaries. For Riyaaz Qawwali, an ensemble of musicians representing many South Asian ethnicities, songs of powerful connection to a higher power and to each other is what brings them joy. They're sharing their particular brand of centuries-old spiritual and devotional songs with world music enthusiasts at University of Houston-Clear Lake's Bayou Theater on Friday, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Qawwali is Sufi music from the region that includes India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. For more than 700 years, voices have been the primary instruments used, supplemented by harmonium and tabla, the earthy, traditional instruments from the region, as well as strings, drums and clapping.

"We present the south Asian experience exploring the duality of love," said Sonny, artistic director and lead singer for the seven-person group. "There is romantic love and also spiritual love towards God and spiritual teachers. Our music is ambiguous about what type of love we're singing about, and leaves it open to the interpretation of each listener. It's a joyous journey, and later you may find other meanings to the music."

Combining music and vocal declarations of love and faith are a central part of most world religions, from Jewish cantors to Catholic masses, to Christian gospel, the chanting of Tibetan monks and traditional African religious music. And remarkably, the messages are often quite similar. They sing of devotion, sacrifice, love, and aspiring to higher goals.

"Music can help you understand yourself and humanity," Sonny said. "Moving past the boundaries of a specific religious or ethnic label and focusing on the many interpretations and universal truths helps us all find a way to connect and share the depth of the works."

As Americans strive to embrace diversity, Sonny noted, recognizing how similar our beliefs are helps bridge the gaps of understanding. He said many themes that we take for granted are actually a common spiritual quest: all you need is love, love will find a way, love is love, nearer my God to thee, and others all speak of the same desires.

"The south Asian identity is coming to the forefront of awareness in the United States, and it's important for south Asians to figure their identity and narrate the experience," he said. "Our music is very current and very old at the same time, and provides wonderful way to celebrate cultures and diversity."

Sonny has always loved music, poetry, folk and classical music. He grew up learning from his family and went on to receive classical music training. He has practiced his craft for more than 29 years, and Riyaaz Qawwali has been performing for 15 years.

"I enjoy watching the audience responses," he said. "The reactions vary greatly, depending on their interpretations and their spiritual quests. They may become very emotional and excited at this beautiful experience. I'm so appreciative that this music found me, and it has become my all-consuming interest."

For more information about events at the Bayou Theater, and to reserve tickets, go online.