Avaes Mohammad

India: SIDI GOMA

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2009 at 12:59 am

Its strange how stuff ‘just happens’ sometimes.  Stuff you might imagine would demand arduous efforts, involving long periods of intensive, gruelling research, testing expeditions even or at least concentrated flickering through towering piles of dusty, light-bleached books. But sometimes?  Sometimes it just happens.  It’s given.  On a plate.  A gift.

To discover my cultural heritage!  That’s why I set out on this wondrous journey.  To discover parts of me I feel are scattered over the face of this globe.  To collect those fragments and see whether they can actually be put together, not unlike a jigsaw.  Hoping the final image, in its completion, will serve as a mirror that truly reflects.  But I’ve also been using this opportunity to steadily explore another very particular and heart-felt passion of mine: Music.  To be specific, Sufi Music:  The music played across the world by a sect, or more simply, a group of Muslims who might sometimes identify themselves as Sufi’s.  Wikipedia, that omniscient lighthouse of all truth, defines Sufism as “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”  I associate it with a type of Muslim that’s quite chilled out in the way he/she lives their life.  Someone with manners, who’s caring towards people they know and people they don’t, someone with a sense of humour, who isn’t afraid to smile and I suppose most importantly someone who’s unashamedly in love with God/The Divine and for whom that relationship of Love is real, tangible, human.  For some Sufis this feeling is so powerful it demands expression.  Some paint, some write poetry and some express their love through music.  Sufi Music.

My family aren’t Sufis.  At least not formally.  No-one whirls uncontrollably as a matter of routine.  No-one goes to a ‘special centre’ to do ‘special things’ but I have been raised in a family who respect and have befriended Sufis and their philosophies.  It was a Sufi Saint who facilitated the marriage between my parents and named me before I was born, thereby predicting my gender.  My father was born in Karachi, he’s Pakistani.  My mother was born in Mombasa, she’s Kenyan.  Nevertheless, one of the things they do have in common is their innate love for this music that elevates them both into mini-states of ecstasy and transcendence that all at once makes you feel you’re standing in the shadow of the Divine.  There’s no mysterious ritual to it.  You just have to turn it on, press play, and I see them both lifted upon winds of bliss.  I know because either by nature or nurture, I’ve inherited this too and understand the significance of the shutting of their eyes, the swaying of their heads, their gentle, syrupy cries.  Simply by pressing play.

Nevertheless, even though the effect might the same, the forms of Sufi music both my parents bring with them are different.  My father, being South Asian, brought Qawwali to our home.  Ecstatic Sufi poetry sung, screamed, sometimes shrieked in uncontrolled moments of passion, over cyclical hypnotic bass-heavy beats that drive through to your inner most core.  And resonate.  The style of Qawwali my father listens to is wild, unhinged.

My mother brought with her the East African tradition of Mawlid.  Choral singing from rows upon rows of voices with piercing melodies so beautiful they converse with stars.  In unison they sing the greatness of God and his Prophet Mohammad, accompanied by simple yet intense rhythms played from the Persian Frame Drum, the Douf.
Qawwali is to be watched as much as heard and some of my earliest memories involve my father bringing home the latest VHS’s of Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian for us all to watch and hear together.  My mother and her East African friends would come together at certain times of the year to transform a terraced back room into a Mawlid Hall and amongst the smoke of Frankincense, emit their songs of praise.  A woman would walk between us all, spraying rose water.  Angels, I was told, like sweet smells and no doubt, angels would have been amongst us, listening.  Using music to feel God was a very normal part of our family’s living.

The point here being that the same tradition of Sufi Music existed for me in two distinct forms from childhood.  Each one coloured by where it had come from.  Deep Pakistani red with dusty brown overtures and luscious, wet Kenyan green.  Yet they both had exactly the same effect.  Their core was the same, they both lifted and fed our hearts while still remaining wonderfully independent: each upholding the peculiarities of it’s own distinct beauty.  How much has Sufi Music been altered and affected by the culture it’s exposed to?  This has remained a constant question for me while on this journey.  And so far privately from this Blog, I have walked through dark labyrinthed alleys and even desolate ‘jungles’ to find my answers.  Slowly I’ll unpeel all my discoveries.  I begin though with the following fortuitous discovery presented to me in Kutch.

‘There are Africans in India!  They’ve been there for generations!!  When I saw them I was amazed.  They look exactly like they’re from here.  Zanzibari!  I’m sure they were all Zanzibari.  But they speak the language and dress like the Indians there.  Still  though, they’ve kept parts of their African culture.  They have this incredible Goma, this drumming and singing and dancing.  They’re mostly Muslim you see. They perform Goma during anniversaries of their Saints.  It’s not Indian.  You see it and its African.  It’s just African.  The way they move, the music, the drumming.  It’s something they’ve kept.  They’ve come here you know, We’ve seen them.  They came here to Zanzibar to perform Goma, but I would love to see them in India.  I never have!  I don’t now where they are.   I’d love to but I don’t know where they are.’


Farouq my Zanzibari friend told me of this supposedly elusive people of African origin in India.  The Sidis.  But in fact Sidis have been following me around for quite some time now, since before the beginning of my journey.  Around three years ago a musician friend of mine discovered their presence in India from the internet.  He was keen to visit them and study their rhythms at the time in an attempt to gauge the Indian-African hybridity of their art.  When I arrived in Nairobi in April this year, Zarina and Zahir, editors of the magazine ‘Awaaz’ which represents Indian Kenyans, showed me an article highlighting the Sidi community in India.  I’ve been to South Asia before and I remember seeing Sidis in Karachi, where they seemed relatively integrated into Pakistani society.  So I already knew people of African descent lived in South Asia but the Goma Farouq spoke about in Zanzibar intrigued me:  Even if only as an example of a people who have lived in a ‘foreign’ land for generations, having seemingly adopted all the customs and culture of that land but have still maintained aspects of their original culture.  It fascinated me.  And as this journey progressed from Kenya, to Zanzibar and then to India, one day, as I was sat quietly in the front yard of my distant family in Mandvi, Kutch, my uncle Khaliq nonchalantly utters…

‘The Sidis are starting their Goma tonight.  We should go.  You’ll like it!’

BEAT

‘Sorry?’

‘The Sidis.  It’s an Urs (annual festival) celebrating one of their saints.  They’ll be performing their Goma.  Goes on for three nights all through the night.  Fancy it?’

‘er…yeah.  Okay then.’

‘Okay.  Starts late.  We’ll leave tonight.  It’s only down the road.  Charge your camera.’

‘Okay.’



Simple as that.  An encounter that could have taken arduous research and testing expeditions, just happened.  Was just given to me in the style that so much has been on this journey:  A gift.

Khaliq is out.  It’s eleven and I’m agitated.  The English in me can’t actually cope very well with the etheral quality time has in Kutch.  Khaliq comes back.

‘Are we going?’

‘Er, yeah.  We’ll just have tea.’

‘Won’t we miss it?’

‘These things are on till dawn.  Relax!’


A lesson in relaxation later and with bellies warmed by hot tea, I straddle the back of Khaliq’s scooter and we snake our way through blackened alleys that are controlled by a whole different species at night.

There’s an absurd timeshare agreement on these alleys.  By day they’re governed, unarguably, by humans.  All other species are well aware of this.  Cattle move aside while the two legged ones full of purpose stride exuding ownership over these crooked pathways.  Too narrow to fly through, birds even fly safely out of range, the odd crow only perched on the edge of a building roof, humbly peering.  Mounds of litter gather at the alley edges so even insects are well out of the way.  They leave us alone and we leave them alone. Generally.  Except of course for dogs.  Herds of stray dogs.  An infestation of them, mainly of once-upon-a-time good labrador stock.  Very good stock in fact…imperial even.  These packs of now rabid mutts, it is believed, are direct descendents of those personal pets kept by the British when they ruled over and lived in India.  Once India won her independence and the British began to leave, most of them left behind their pets, knowing they wouldn’t have survived the months-long journey over sea.  And so they’ve remained: the last symbol of the Raj:  Golden-haired, rabid and mangy.  Of one-upon-a-time good stock. The English culture of loving dogs doesn’t really exist in India.  The dogs here, chased, spat upon and thrown stones at, even by the smallest children, are mere ghosts of their brazen and well-nourished English cousins.  Abuse and revulsion, their daily bread on these Mandvi streets.  But every dog indeed has it’s day, or in this case, it’s night, because once the day disappears and members of the two legged species scurry back to their stone hovels, the balance of power quickly shifts.  Discovering strength in numbers, now the streets and alleys of Mandvi are undeniably the terrain of dogs.  Ferocious, like an urban street-gang they sprawl themselves brazenly over this town, now able to outstretch limbs, spread with confidence over an entire width of an alley, each cluster guarding its own patch.  Periodically from the safety of your bed, you hear packs racing through the alleys while howling and shrieking to reinforce their claim over darkness.  Walking at night isn’t advised.  Especially alone.  It’s not a mere bite you have to fear, but the rabies that will likely come from it.  And so we travel by scooter, fast.  Upon every turn there’s a new gang of disaffected canines, eager to wreak their vengeance on the two-legged ones.  Khaliq is well versed in how to deal with them:  full throttle!  We swerve, turn and accelerate ourselves through their sharp-toothed threats and eventually cross a bridge to safer pathways.

There’s more light here.  The streets are decorated, mosque domes are adourned with fairy lights and there are people hanging out, under trees and in courtyards.  As we ride deeper in, the sounds of drums pulsate through the air, beating with fervour.  We ride deeper still and now the drums are accompanied by loud singing and chanting.  A sudden swerve to the left and we stop.  Hordes of people are gathered around the door of this Shrine, covered with multi-coloured lights.  The sea is just to our right and the sound of drums, singing and choral chanting thicken the air.  It’s a festival atmosphere, people bustling to get inside, some just happy to hang around on the edges outside, smoking, the smoke of different flavours.  We jostle and I push my way through the crowd and somehow, through the shoulder charges, ducking and quick footedness, I make it to the front.

It’s difficult to explain my first impressions: Wonderstruck, as though I’d found treasure from just playing in the sand.  I’d discovered something I had no idea about, that I never knew existed.  Not only had I discovered a face of India and I suppose the world I knew nothing about, but also a form of Sufi devotion, through music, singing and dancing that was completely new to me.

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Men and women of African descent, dancing collectively in a circle, chanting a chorus whilst drummers imposed themselves from the centre of the deceased saints’ courtyard.  Singers singing into microphones, fairy lights colouring-in the night with richly elaborate draping cloths.  A big bang of colour, drums, dance and singing so riotous you’d be forgiven for thinking yourself at a rave.

Singer:        Bolo La – Illah (Say there is no God)
Chorus:    Illal –lah     (But One God!)
Singer:        La – Illah    (There is no God)
Chorus:    Illal –lah    (But One God!)


I can’t help myself become overcome with joy and appreciation to hear and see this, the most basic and defining creed of Islam, being celebrated like this.  Through music, dance and colour.  For it to be deemed worth celebrating like this is still an incredible and actually quite radical concept for me to get my head around, though when you witness it, seems all so natural.   And human.

Singer:        Bava Gor!
Chorus:    Bava Gor, Bava Gor
Singer:        Bava Gor!
Chorus:    Bava Gor, Bava Gor

Collectively they sing and chant the name of a deceased Sidi saint.  Whether this is his shrine we’re all at or that of one of his siblings’, I’m unsure.

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As well as those singing, drumming and dancing, there are many more surrounding us, sat on the floor, hanging from trees, stood in the crowd, watching from walls, everyone dressed well, especially those dancing, women dressed in colourful printed and embroidered Kutchi clothes and jewellery.  Those dancing, drumming and singing seem mainly from African descent, the Sidis, though there are those who are more obviously Indian among them too.  Those taking part by watching are mainly obviously Indian, though there are some Sidis among them too.

This goes on all night.  Some people tire from dancing so drop in and out of the circle, careful to ensure the circle itself never stops.  Some tire of singing so pass the microphone on.  The following night exactly the same happens, though at another Sufi shrine, of a sibling of the first saint, still in Mandvi.  I know that this saint is female.  The celebrations remain here for two nights.  On the fourth day however, people meet in the afternoon at the shrine of this female.  Frankincense clouds the arena and a ritual takes place involving a woman circling a flagpole outside the saint’s shrine.

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The woman circling has her face covered and is being lead.  We’re about to begin a four-mile procession, marching through the streets of Mandvi to the edges and beyond till we reach a shrine of another sibling from this Sufi family, located amidst a ’jungle’.

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The woman with her face covered walks in the centre of this procession, temporarily carrying the spirit of the sister-saint who’s tomb we’ve started from.  Drummers lead, those following chant and the procession literally halts traffic as we make our way, occasionally stopping in shacks for tea.

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‘We’ve only moved to Mandvi town quite recently you know.  We were in the jungle before that.

Why?

Well where else do Bwana’s (Africans) live?  Bwana’s (Africans) live in the jungle.’


The guy organising all of this walks with me.

‘How did the Sidis come to Mandvi?  Was it slavery?

No.  No not slavery.’

From what I’ve read and the people I’ve spoke with, the Sidis have had a generally marginalised existence in India.  A society where social status can still generally be ascertained by skin colour, it’s not difficult to guess the position most Sidis would have occupied on the social ladder.  Some Sidis did come to India as slaves, some however, were also migrants and adventurers of the Indian Ocean. There’s a particularly inspiring historical account of Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian born Sidi slave who rose to become a successful military commander in India.  Today, although they largely consider themselves Indian, the Indian government would rather have them viewed as exotic foreigners that can serve as a valuable tourism commodity.  When I speak to Ali the organiser though, I can’t quite get over an African-looking-man speaking Kutchi more naturally than I.

After quite a trek that saw tarmaced roads turn into dust tracks and pastille coloured buildings into earth-toned trees and bushes, we arrive into the ‘jungle’.  It’s a forest really, if you’re gonna be picky about nomenclature, but for us, it’s a jungle.  It’s certainly wild enough, an untouched sea of thorny bushes and enclosing trees.  It’s late afternoon and the sun has dropped.  We’re backlit by mystic orange as streams of amber pour at us from across the horizon.  I’m beckoned to come quickly by Amma Ma, my elderly relative who made it here before we did and suddenly the bushes step back and allow space.  Another courtyard appears at the feet of a pastille blue painted tomb for our final Sufi saint.  It’s already started, the drummers have arranged themselves in the centre whilst men and women collectively dance and chant together in a circle.  Many people watch from the sides and from slightly afar.  This is the culmination of three nights of Goma and the atmosphere takes on wild passion.  The drumming seems harder, the bass heavier, deeper, the circling faster.  An excited, frenzied resonance drives everyone that little bit harder today.  Some are being driven that bit harder still.  For some, the rhythm, the words and the dance ignite a ‘paranormal’ experience.  A Haal.  Literally translates as A State.  For those who connect with the Goma enough, it becomes possible to temporarily be possessed by the spirit of the Saint we’re visiting.  These people, mainly women, dance uncontrollably, unhindered, separate from the circle with their faces covered.  Usually people are by their side to shake them back to their former selves or pour water in the event of severe physical convulsions.  It happens a few times.  People just carry on dancing.  It’s normal, the paranormal.

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I’m beckoned by people eager to know what I’ve been doing with my camera and to have their pictures taken.  I join in on the local banter, still laughing to myself at my excitement to find people who look African, but are speaking Kutchi far better than me and even my parents.  It’s getting dark so we wrap it up.  A respectful row forms facing the shrine to offer final salutations to the saint.  A one legged man jumps so his chest falls onto hot coals.  I stop taking pictures.

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We all walk back together, young, old, male, female, ‘Indian-looking’, ‘African-looking’, with an electric-tiredness in the air you’d expect if you were returning from Glastonbury.  A glorious full moon appears.  I stop with Amma Ma, my 14 year old cousin and a random old woman for street snacks and tea.

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  1. India is commiting a serious and profound crime to the human race by oppressing and keeping darkness over the existence of these beautiful people. While the rest of the world is becoming a global village, India which is known to be a nation of great civilisation is turning its back to the truth and living in darkness!! It is time its leaders came to the world stage to acknowledge that India is land to Black people who were indeed its first inhabitants, and express pride about their African Heritage. All these Black tribes MUST be respected and allowed to move freely and grow in the modern society, and the light-skinned Indians must STOP brainwashing themselves purposefully to project a whiter image to the world. This is a sad shame, and the world together, must cast India out. As an African myself, my country experienced Apartheid regime for nearly a Century, and it brought us nothing but division. United, India can stand and become a power. All they need is to stop walking like blinds in the world of the dead!

  2. har baar kuch naya janney ko ,aur karib se dekhney ko milta hai tumharey blog ke zariye…..

  3. I like very much sidi goma video, i from bhuj i m sidi.
    r u publishing our culture dance online so i happy

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