Monday, October 10, 2011

Afro-Indian Sufi Music: Siddis of Gujarat (Link restored)

Siddi boys

India, being a superpower of the ancient and medieval world, had well developed trade networks all across the globe. The Queen of Sheba it is said adorned herself in silks from Varanasi.  Cambodia and much of Southeast Asia, have cultural and historical roots tangled up in Sanskrit and Hinduism carried to them by traders from the east coast of India. The stories of these traders and the Brahmins and soldiers that accompanied them make hilarious and moving reading and are found in such texts as Brihat Katha Sagar (The Great Ocean of Stories).

It should come as no surprise to learn then that trade and communication links between India and Africa existed as well.  But one of the more unknown stories of this interaction is that of the African Sufis of India. Known in the western state of Gujarat where most of the community lives, as Siddis, these Afro-Indians have a very colourful, even illustrious history. What follows is a collage of writings by others more knowledgeable than I that gives some insight into this fascinating slice of India’s sparkling human mosaic.

The first Siddis are thought to have arrived in the Indian subcontinent in 628 CE at the Bharuch port. Several others followed with the first Arab Islamic invasions of the subcontinent in 712 AD. The latter group are believed to have been soldiers with Muhammad bin Qasim's Arab army, and were called Zanjis.
Most Siddis, however, are believed to be the descendants of slaves, sailors, servants and merchants from East Africa who arrived and became resident in the subcontinent during the 1200-1900 CE period. A large influx of Siddis to the region occurred in the 17th century when Portuguese slave traders sold a number of them to local princes.
In Western India (the modern Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra), the Siddi gained a reputation for physical strength and loyalty, and were sought out as mercenaries by local rulers, and as domestic servants and farm labor. Some Siddis escaped slavery to establish communities in forested areas, and some even established small Siddi principalities on Janjira Island and at Jaffrabad as early as the twelfth century. A former alternative name of Janjira was Habshan (i.e., land of the Habshis). In the Delhi Sultanate period prior to the rise of the Mughals in India, Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut was a prominent Siddi slave-turned-nobleman who was a close confidant of Razia Sultana (1205–1240 CE). Although this is disputed, he may also have been her lover.
Malik Ambar
As a power centre, Siddis were sometimes allied with the Mughal Empire in its power-struggle with the Maratha Confederacy. However, Malik Ambar, a prominent Siddi figure in Indian history at large, is sometimes regarded as the "military guru of the Marathas", and was deeply allied with them. He established the town of Khirki which later became the modern city of Aurangabad, and helped establish the Marathas as a major force in the Deccan. Later, the Marathas adapted Siddi guerrilla warfare tactics to grow their power and ultimately demolish the Mughal empire. Some accounts describe the Mughal emperor Jahangir as obsessed by Ambar due to the Mughal empire's consistent failures in crushing him and his Maratha cavalry, describing him derogatorily as "the black faced" and "the ill-starred" in the royal chronicles and even having a painting commissioned that showed Jahangir killing Ambar, a fantasy which was never realised in reality.
Some Indian Siddis are descended from Tanzanians and Mozambicans brought by the Portuguese. While most African slaves became Muslim and a small minority became Christian, very few became Hindu since they could not find themselves a position in the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy.

Supposedly presented as slaves by the Portuguese to the local Prince, Nawab of Junagadh, the Siddis also live around Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, the last refuge in the world of the almost extinct Asiatic Lions, in Junagadh a district of the state of Gujarat, India.
On the way to Deva-dungar is the quaint village of Sirvan, inhabited entirely by Siddis, a tribe of African people. They were brought 300 years ago from Africa, by the Portuguese for the Nawab of Junagadh. Today, they follow very few of their original customs, with a few exceptions like the traditional Dhamal dance.
Although Gujarati Siddis have adopted the language and many customs of their surrounding populations, some African traditions have been preserved. These include the Goma music and dance form, which is sometimes called Dhamaal . The term is believed to be derived from the Ngoma drumming and dance forms of Bantu East Africa. The Goma also has a spiritual significance and, at the climax of the dance, some dancers are believed to be vehicles for the presence of Siddi saints of the past. (Wikipedia)

Some Siddis are keenly aware of their past, and a few remain in touch with relatives in Africa. But in the western Indian state of Gujarat - where most Siddis live - the community has lost touch with its roots. The village of Jambur, deep in the Gir forest, is one of two exclusively Siddi settlements. It is miserably poor. The headman explains that yes, everyone in Jambur is a Siddi. Their forbears came from Africa. But they have lost any knowledge of African languages, and don't know where exactly their ancestors came from or why they settled in India.

The only remnant they retain of their African lineage is their music and dance. The Siddi community is very poor. This is what Professor Amy Catlin, an American ethno-musicologist, hopes to use to fill in the story of the Siddis. "In Gujarat, affinities with African music include certain musical instruments and their names", she says, "and also the performance of an African-derived musical genre called "goma". In the nearby town of Junagadh, a smaller group of Siddis lives alongside the shrine of Bava Gor, an ancient Sufi Muslim holyman who was himself of African descent. Their hold on their African past is a little more secure. They say they know a few songs in an African language, but not their meaning. And their dance is more obviously African. But again, their music, song and dance are the only links with their African past.

Amy Catlin believes that the Siddis of western India came from coastal and inland villages in east Africa which were raided by slave traders. But that's far from certain. Indeed, one legend has it that the Siddis of inland Gujarat originally came from Kano in northern Nigeria, and ended up in India after undertaking a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Music may be the only key that can unlock their past. (

            Track Listing
            01 Naqqara Drumming
02 Baithi Damal (Aval Nabiyo)
03 Khairi Damal
04 Malunga Musical Bow
05 Khari Damal (alt version)
06 Tambol
07 Jikr
08 Bedi Damal
09 Jikr to Mai Mishra
10 Damal Sobilale
11 Damal Sobilale (Alt version)
12 Azaan
Listen here.


kokolo said...

You do know haw to keep a man occupied, thanks again.

Miguel said...

you are so right, like always, kokolo, this man crazy ajnabi really keeps you busy...


Anonymous said...

oh I see that we have a gathering of good friends here,gentlemen....
ajnabi,this is wonderful and thank you for expanding my horizons
I knew already about black populations in Iran and Pakistan but not in India and for the music is certainly, as in the aforementioned places too, more East African than Western and additionally "goma" obviously comes from the east African ngoma drums.

ajnabi said...

Gentle sirs.
enjoy...some great drumming!

Anonymous said...

Hello and thank you for your wonderful blog and amazing music. I'm wondering if you may please re-upload the link - apparently has deleted this file. I would love to get a copy of this if and when made available for download. Sincerely, thank you.

Nathan Rabe said...

Anonymous, all good now. Enjoy.