The music of the Siddis: African folk rhythms in India

Indian ‘traditional’ music, spanning classical, folk, and plenty in between, comes in many flavours. Its influences and stylistic forebears are notoriously eclectic, mixing Vedic temple chants and Hindu metaphysics with Islamic devotional poetry and the sounds of nature. Among countless oddities, Irish and Scottish folk tunes were being used as the basis for South Indian classical compositions more than 200 years ago (Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Nottuswara).

But one aspect of India’s incredible sonic diversity often goes unreported. The Siddi people migrated to the Subcontinent from East Africa centuries ago, and today many of their creative traditions strongly reflect their ancient Bantu roots. Siddi music, which has always held a special place in community life, still bursts with distinctly African textures and grooves: the clip below, showcasing spiritual chants, strident rhythms, and booming layers of hand drums, has unmistakeable flavours of Central African ensemble drumming:

Musicians often prefer to play in holy shrines, building long, hypnotic loops to accompany ecstatic dancing and firewalking ceremonies known as ngoma (or damal), described by the Smithsonian as times of ‘wild and tumultuous merriment…a feverish pitch of devotional excitement’. Singers typically lead the way, reciting spiritually-themed lyrics. Many songs preach the glory of the prophet Muhammed, or celebrate the lives of past visionaries such as Gori Pir, a black Sufi merchant-saint credited with “bringing the joy from the waves” in the form of music.

Melodic accompaniment is provided by the the malunga, a single-string bow which, along with its distant Brazilian cousin the berimbau, may have origins in the ancient hunting weapons of Southern Africa. Inevitably, Indian influences have found their way into performance too, including the use of decorative peacock feathers and shehnai-like reed instruments, showcased in the clip above. But overall, the music reflects more of its African roots than its new Indian habitat – few would guess by sight that the following video was recorded in Karnataka:

Numbering somewhere in the tens of thousands, modern-day Siddis are largely spread across Gujarat, Hyderabad, and Karnataka, as well as the Karachi region of Pakistan. Most trace their ancestry to black Bantu settlers from Eastern-Central Africa, who arrived in successive waves throughout the last millennium. 

The first Siddis to settle in India did so by 628 AD (and possibly much earlier), but much larger numbers arrived over the middle few centuries of the last millennium, coming as merchants, soldiers, and ‘elite slaves’ who specialised in serving the ruling classes. Renowned for military skill, many became mercenaries and bodyguards for the Mughal Emperors. Some were even rewarded by their overlords with direct positions of power – history records several Siddi admirals, noblemen, and scholars.

Other Siddis, including groups of newly-escaped slaves, sought to preserve their heritage through isolating themselves, retreating to remote areas and living in the forests of Gujarat. As showcased in a short UN documentary, modern forest Siddis describe how they still live in close proximity to the last few remaining Asiatic lions, speaking of the creatures as “family”.

Today, Siddi communities tend to suffer high levels of poverty and deprivation, facing few economic opportunities within their own group and language barriers outside it. Many migrate to nearby megacities to find jobs, while others seek subsistence work, or sing and dance for tourists. Siddi music has been of interest to ethnomusicologists and keen musical travellers for decades, but it is increasingly challenging for those who play it to eke out a living in the process. Academic attention doesn’t, in of itself, do very much to help.

However, some of that may be changing. Jazz – another style with African rhythmic origins – has naturally trended towards an ever-more-global outlook over time, and artists have taken advantage of today’s cheap, portable recording equipment to collaborate with distant cultures face-to-face. London-based jazz percussionist Sarathy Korwar worked closely with Siddi musicians on Day to Day, his acclaimed 2016 debut album. Born in America and raised in India and the UK, Sarathy described his connection with Siddi music in an interview with me for Música Macondo:

“The Siddis have these polyrhythmic drum patterns, and different parts to the rhythms that speak to me of their East and Southern African connection…I recorded them performing their songs in a very informal and live context, trying to make them feel as comfortable as possible and as immersed in the music as they normally would be.

I had also warned them from the outset that the resulting music on my album would sound very different to their own renditions. They were very open about it though and were happy to share their music, which was great…thankfully, they like it and have been posting about it on Facebook!”.

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