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Film Review


From 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. (

     World 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. 1
    The 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 Atlantic (1993). 2
Fritz Umbach
John Jay College, City University of New York


1 Area 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.


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