qawwal

This is not how Elmer Fudd says corral. Well, OK, it may be that too, but he probably doesn’t make the uvular stop at the beginning. No, its object is a singer of a popular form of Sufi (Islamic) devotional music. A qawwal is someone who sings qawwali music. What is qawwali music? What a qawwal sings. Actually, though, you’re not likely to hear just one guy and his lonely harmonium doing this; you’ll see a whole stage full of guys, all sitting, with one lead singer, at least one harmonium, which is a kind of bellows-driven reed organ (a bit like an accordion), and of course a percussionist or two – the beat, which kind of swings, is omnipresent.

The word qawwal, which is Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic for “singer” or “reciter,” doesn’t sound like the percussion, and it doesn’t sound like the harmonium (but it looks like one a bit, with the ww as the bellows), but it sounds well enough like what the singer sings. It’s a word that can be launched into a long melisma, leaping off from that initial stop and singing through open and glide and on to liquid – and that double w is clear licence to hold that glide as long as you want, to express your devotion and yearning for the divine. The very act of saying this word is like a course of life: starting way back at the separation, it passes through clear and open to dark and tense to clear and open again, and finally comes to sustained reunion at the very tip.

It’s quite an ornament to the eyes, too, this word, looking like arabesque geometrics and using a combination of letters that is clearly not simply illegal in English but nearly a capital offence. A double w? Why not add one more and look it up online? And the initial q not followed by a u… archetypally “other.” Of course, if you’re from the Punjab, and perhaps one of the millions of fans of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or one of the other great popular qawwals, there’s nothing “other” about it. But then for you English is the “other.” And is this word an English word? Well, it’s in Oxford. But – and this is the irritating thing – it’s not in the Scrabble dictionary.

One response to “qawwal

  1. Before the last line, I was thinking, “Ah ha! A Scrabble secret weapon.” No such luck.

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