Houston’s Riyaaz Qawwali Is Making Sound Waves for Disney Junior

Audiences from the Bayou City to the Getty Museum and even the White House have enjoyed Riyaaz Qawwali’s modernized interpretation of an ancient musical tradition. But the Houston-based ensemble’s sound is about to go a whole lot farther. 

Their vocals and instrumentation will play for audiences across the world as part of an upcoming episode of Disney Junior TV show Mira, Royal Detective. The segment, which premieres on May 3, centers around Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

“I was the child who watched The Lion King and Aladdin,” Sonny, the group’s lead singer and harmonium player, tells Houstonia. “Now, to have a small opportunity to be part of that big machine, and to have a chance to do it with my authentic, non-traditional music? How cool.”

Since its inception in 2006 at the University of Texas at Austin, the now-Houston-based ensemble has used Quawwali (pronounced ka-va-li) music, a form of Islamic devotional music dating back to the 13th century, to highlight what brings us together, rather than what divides us. It’s why the musicians—who have ties to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh and represent several religious backgrounds—prefer to be identified exclusively by their first names.

To achieve this vision of oneness, the musicians take the classical constructs of the ancient genre, including high-pitched vocals and rhythmic hand clapping, and weave in texts from Sufism, Hinduism, and Sikhism, as well as works poetry from both famous and newer South Asian poets.

“I do think we’re ambassadors for transcending religious boundaries and linguistic hurdles,” Sonny explains. “Too often, we think we’re very different, polar opposites of people, when we actually share a lot.”

That message fit almost perfectly with that of Mira, which became the first show on Disney Junior to feature a South Asian protagonist—Mira, a commoner-turned-royal detective who solves mysteries throughout the fictional, Indian-inspired kingdom of Jalpur—when it debuted in March 2020. Given the care that had gone into reflecting the customs and culture of India within the show’s storylines, Amritha Vaz, the show’s composer, wanted to bring the same attention to the special Eid-themed plot.

“The music should add to that layered nuance, to the complex story that we’re trying to tell,” Vaz explains during an interview from Los Angeles. “And Quawwali is part of our beautiful South Asian culture. It is so unique to the South Asian story and the South Asian Muslim experience.”

Riyaaz certainly brought that authenticity. But more than that, Vaz, whose previous projects include 500 Days of Summer, says including the group presented the composer with an opportunity to highlight up-and-coming South Asian musicians who are breathing new life into their cultural legacy.

Together, Vaz and Riyaaz composed lyrics for a specific moment in the episode. As animation stretches across the screen, audiences will hear Sonny himself sing in Hindi, “Mohabat yeh mohabat hai, mohabat Teri mohabat hai,” and those lyrics speak to the concept that is crucial to both the show and the musical ensemble.

“The lyrics mean ‘love, this is love. Love, this is your love,’” he says.

While the collaboration started with just that one part, it soon expanded, with Riyaaz recording on traditional Qawwali instruments for other parts of the episode. That instrumentation, Vaz notes, has been woven throughout the episode like an ongoing thread, peaking through different parts of the score.

Knowing their words and instrumentation will be heard across the country and even the world feels especially powerful given the recent explosion of Asian hate with the U.S.   

“I find it important that I can share my cultures, my values, with the rest of my American diaspora so that there’s a better understanding built,” says Sonny. “And that, that can be done through the arts.”

 The Eid-themed episode of Mira, Royal Detective airs 4 p.m. CT May 3 on Disney Junior. and Disney+.

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