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Last Updated: Friday, 4 July, 2003, 03:54 GMT 04:54 UK
Gujarat troupe returns to roots
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC correspondent in Zanzibar

A freshly plucked coconut disappears into the night sky, thrown high above the crowd at the opening ceremony of the 6th Zanzibar International Film Festival (Ziff).

Gujarat's Sidi Goma troupe performs at the Zanzibar International Film Festival
The group's music retains a strong link with Swahili culture
It crashes down a second later on the head of a performer, breaking in two and spilling its milk across the stage.

This is not something that should be tried at home, but it is central to the performance of a remarkable group with an extraordinary history from India's north-western state of Gujarat.

This is Sidi Goma, a group of musicians and dancers who trace their roots back to the Swahili coast of East Africa.

It is their first trip to Africa and is something of a homecoming, according to drummer Muhamed Yunus.

"We are very emotional about performing in Africa. It feels as though we are at home," Muhamed says.

"We look the same as the people who live here in Zanzibar and many of our customs are similar."

Sufi background

The members of Sidi Goma are from the Indian Sidi people.

We had no idea there were people outside Africa who had the same culture as us
Kwame Mchauru, Zanzibar student

No one knows quite when or how the people first left Africa for South Asia, whether they were traders, slaves or sailors.

But what is clear is the strong musical link they retain with Africa.

The group's music is largely based around drums and is similar to the "ngoma" style played widely in Zanzibar.

It involves plenty of chanting and is wholly acoustic.

It often starts gently and rises to a crescendo, is highly sacred and pays homage to a Sufi saint called Bava Gor.

Followers believe Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam, but it also attracts non-Muslims.

The group's lyrics praise the prophet Mohammed and recount Islamic history, fusing Sidi Goma's African Muslim and Indian Sufi background.

The coconut-smashing moment is part of the religious aspect to the music, demonstrating the devotion the performer feels towards his saint.

Jamming sessions

Sidi Goma was brought to Ziff by Busara Promotions, whose director, Yusuf Mahmoud, says the group is an important part of Swahili culture.

"Sidis have been living for hundreds of years in Gujarat and Sidi Goma have been keeping the African aspect of their music alive through performance," he says.

A jamming session in Zanzibar
All inhibitions were soon lost at the jamming sessions

"This visit to Zanzibar is an excellent opportunity to discover their roots and experience Swahili culture at first hand."

Away from the spotlight of the opening ceremony, the group's 12 members have been getting down to what can be best described as jamming sessions with local musicians, the sort of meetings some might call moments of cultural exchange.

The meetings take place at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, overlooking the Indian Ocean on the edge of Zanzibar's historic Stonetown.

There is a small amount of formality, but soon all inhibitions are dropped and the room erupts into a ferment of drumming, chanting and dance.

Kwame Mchauru, a Zanzibari music student, is clearly impressed.

"We had no idea there were people outside Africa who had the same culture as us. I am really surprised and feel like these musicians are my spiritual brothers."

Ziff's executive director, Yvonne Owour, says the festival is different from similar gatherings in Western countries.

"Artists like Sidi Goma can travel there and people in those countries can learn about a new type of music. But Ziff offers artists from developing countries the chance to meet artists and people who are also from developing countries.

"This is the sort of cultural exchange that has been ignored for too long."

Sidi Goma's members continued that cultural exchange with workshops and concerts in Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya.

Their hope is that groups from the Swahili coast will some day pay them a return visit to Gujarat.

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19 Dec 00  |  South Asia

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