Africa to India: Sidi Music in the Indian Ocean Diaspora (United States/ 2003).
Producers: Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy. running
time: 74 minutes. (http://apsara-media.com/).
historians increasingly envision cultures not as
bundles of particular "traits" fixed to specific geographical places,
but rather—to quote a 1997 White Paper by the University of
Chicago's Globalization Project—as the
"precipitates of various kinds of actions, interaction, and motion—trade,
travel, pilgrimage, warfare, proselytization, colonization, exile, and the
like." This approach has been both a consequence and a cause of scholars' use
of the Atlantic and Mediterranean "worlds" as meaningful units of historical
investigation.1 But while teaching resources on
those two zones abound, instructors face a surprising paucity of engaging
materials for the equally consequential "Indian Ocean World." This dearth
makes particularly welcome the documentary From Africa to India: Sidi Music in
the Indian Ocean Diaspora by UCLA's ethnomusicological team of Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy and Nazir Ali
Jairazbhoy. Despite occasionally amateurish
camera work, the
film compellingly conveys the region's complex heritage by braiding together
contemporary music and dance performances in African-descended Sidi communities
from Gujarat to Karnataka with a narrative of both Sidi
history and their current, often difficult, status in present-day India.
predictability and accessibility of the Indian Ocean's monsoon winds bound
together through commerce the coastal regions of East Africa, Arabia, and Asia.
This trade served as a cradle for globalization hundreds of years before
significant routes across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, with their fixed-wind
systems, emerged. The cultural synthesis fostered in the littoral societies
participating in this regional exchange undermines the frequently essentialized
and sometimes racialized notions of hermetically-sealed "African," "Arab," and
"Indian" cultures. Likewise, learning about what has been called the
"Afrasian Sea" can usefully upend students' preconceptions.2 The
documentary's Sidi subjects embody the legacy of the Indian Ocean trade system
as the Sidis trace their descent from two diasporas integral to that nexus. In
the first, starting in the twelfth century, Africans facilitated trade by
working as sailors, merchants and, particularly, military and domestic slaves
throughout the Muslim lands touching the "Afrasian Sea." In the second, a
smaller number of Africans, starting in the sixteenth century, labored as
slaves and soldiers for first the Portuguese and eventually the French and
British residents of India's coastal entrepots such as Kacch and Calcutta. In
the interest of time, teachers may wish to present this history themselves
rather than rely on the film's dense account and then skip to the gripping
dance performances. These feature Sidi musical instruments and rhythmic
patterns that, according to Catlin-Jairazbhoy,
are not only derived from "African models''
but also resemble those found in Afro-Brazil. Particularly striking are the
portions of the documentary that address the ecstatic Sufi rituals at the
shrine of Gori Pir (Baba Gor), an Abysinnian who came to Gujarat in the 14th century to mine and trade agate. One way to underscore for students the cultural synthesis at work in
Sidi, and by extension, Indian Ocean, history might to play in class the readily available song "Dam Mast Qalandar Mast
Mast," made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, after the very similar Qawwali
style piece "I'm in Baba Gor's intoxication," sung in the documentary by a Sidi
Fakr. Likewise, instructors might wish to use the film to ask students to
compare and contrast identity formation in African diaspora communities in the
Indian and Atlantic Oceans using the concept of "'routes' versus 'roots'"
proposed by Paul Gilroy in The Black
John Jay College, City University of New York
Studies, Regional Worlds, white paper produced by the Globalization Project at
the University of Chicago, 1997.
2 Pearson, M. (1998). Port
Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early
Modern Period. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, chapter two.