December 2, 2008

The Black Sidis of Gujarat

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The Black Sidis of Gujarat are a tribal Sufi community of East African origin which came to India eight centuries ago and made Gujarat their home. They carried with them their exceptionally rich musical tradition and kept it alive and flourishing through the generations, unknown to the rest of the world. Their history is rooted in the slave trade of the 13th century and beyond, when Arab and later European slave traders systematically captured thousands of African men, women and children and took them across the seas for sale to the highest bidders. Many Sidi arrived in India as slaves to the Maharajas and Nawabs of the day, whilst others came as merchants, navigators, sailors and slave kings, settling in Gujarat. Their Nubian features attracted the Arab slave traders because of their huge demand in many Indian households as trusted servants and status symbols. That remains true in the Parsi community and several Sidi royal family lineages also continue to thrive to this day in India.

A traditional occupation of African-Indian Sufis in Gujarat has been to perform sacred music and dance as wandering faqirs, singing songs to their black Sufi saint, Bava Gor. Sidi men and women perform sacred music and dance during rituals in the shrines to Bava Gor, and have lived on accepting alms for touring these devotional genres from villages to shrines for centuries. The Sidis are the most musically inclined, who recognise music as a tool for becoming closer to God. Many Sidis also perform as muezzins as they feel closely related to Hazrat Bilal, a black African man who was the first person chosen by Prophet Mohammed to recite adhan (call to prayer). Over time, the Sidis' native African music styles, melodic and rhythmic structures, lyrics and musical instruments mingled with local influences in Gujarat to form this unique and symbolic representation of African-Indian ness.

Sidi Goma perform in a group of twelve: four lead musicians (drummers/singers) and eight dancers. The program presents an overview of Sidi ritual performance, from the traditional muezzin call to prayer to a staged ritual performance. It centres around a danced zikr (remembrance), consisting of joyful, satirical praise dances to their Saint, who is attributed with giving them the joy they express in their dances. Intoxicating drum patterns that "speak" the zikr prayers in rhythm support the dancers who perform virtuosic feats of agility and strength, gradually reaching an ecstatic climax. While the music gradually gets more rapid and excited, the dances unfold with constantly evolving individual and small-group acts of animal imitations, climaxing in a coconut-breaking feat. The programme features solos on the malunga, an instrument resembling the Brazilian berimbau, as well as prayer calls and seated ritual songs (baithi, dhamal andqawwali). Included in the show is a certain type of circle dance, with people coming into the centre to perform more exhibitionistic dancing, indicative of the slave dances of Zanzibar.

The Sidi speak word perfect Hindi and Gujarati, but have remained an oppressed class in India. Because they are black, from Africa, and Muslim, this has kept them at a lower socio-economic and educational level, but recently their situation is finally beginning to change for the better. Yunus Babu Sidi, one of the group's leaders speaking in a recent interview with ethnomusicology professor Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy in UK's fROOTS magazine, says:
Dancer for Sidi Ngoma

"The general population in India think of us as Africans, although we are Indians, pure and proper and Swahili is the language of our forefathers and we should not forget it. I am the only one learning Swahili in the group, so I can teach my fellow brothers and sisters in the future. We use the Swahili language in some of the songs during our performances, but we don't know the true meanings behind these words. If someone asks me what have you sung, I don't have an answer for them and that becomes a problem for me, because this issue is not just about the performance but it lies in the roots of our culture… All I know is I come from Africa, and I would like nothing better than to sit around with my Sidi brothers and sisters one day and have a conversation with them in Kiswahili....

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