East Africans in India in Philadelphia

On Wednesday, Leslie Rogers called.  A mad puppeteer, among other things, also sells her labor-power to Painted Bride.  She was promoting an African-Indian dance troupe the coming weekend.  At that point, it was still uncertain: “we’re having a hell of a time worrying if these guys will get here or not.”  Painted Bride was in communication with senators and congresspeople, because visa officials on both sides had balked at twelve black men leaving their insular displaced community in Gujarat for JFK Airport.  The troupe call themselves Sidi Goma, and are devout Muslims.  Thanks to a supportive network of promoters and ethnomusicologists, they toured several years ago, and were now hoping to share their Sufi traditions with global audiences again.


The literature on Sufism will inform you only generally about the obscure Sidis; theirs is community of just 15,000 that detached from its East African origins eight hundred years ago.  Like the whirling dervishes (also Sufis), their ritual performance is not just for the audience’s sake: its acrobatics and aerobics are intended to elevate the dancers towards the divine.  The program at Painted Bride included a panel discussion in the lobby an hour prior to curtains, with a UPenn ethnomusicologist, the Bride music curator, and – most vocal – the tour manager Katrina Pavlakis, who’s apparently working pro-bono.  She also had the most relevant knowledge: we wouldn’t see fire-dancing that night, she told us, as some elements of the ritual don’t leave their village.  And is the Sidi community self-sufficient (read: isolated)?  She answered, impatient at the idealizing inherent in the question: “well, yeah, if that’s what you call subsistence. Because of discrimination, access to education, and the size of their community, few are employed in the [formal] economy.”  


I didn’t absorb ethnographic specifics, but I left appreciating that we are about to see performed in a theater what’s usually done in a shrine.  Seated, waiting, and reading the program, three pairs of words popped out from its first sentence: JOYFUL & EXUBERANT / (devotional) MUSIC AND DANCE / (from the) HIDDEN & MYSTERIOUS community.”  Lisa Nelson-Haynes, one of the venue’s directors, emerged and amped the crowd with all the warmth and unselfconsciousness of a Baptist church.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a big and beautiful audience tonight…” is how she prefaced her request that we squeeze to fit the sold-out house.  The lights dimmed, and before leaving stage, she added: “We lost one on the way – visa issues – so we’ve got 11 and not 12.”  Leslie’s fear had been confirmed, and, it was a nasty reminder of things as they are and things as they should be.  The show, however, wouldn’t suffer.


In white gown and cap glowing under the stage lights, a sage of a man glided to front and center.  Placed hands on cheeks (or ears?), and let loose a wailing prayer, long syllables drawn out and mournful.  I shivered – I was instantly back in the Arab cities where I spent several weeks, where prayers like this filter down from the minarets like clockwork.  His incantation complete, the other ten strolled out and semi-circled the stage in silence, the same white garb setting off deep chocolate tones of their skin. They seated themselves around two oriental rugs of light blue – massive rugs, I thought, just as Leslie whispered “getting those rugs here was as much an ordeal as their visas.”  Some with drums, some with maracas, some with stringed instruments, they began a slow rhythm.  Earlier, someone had asked what language the Sidi speak.  “A very convoluted mix of Hindi, of Arabic, and bits of Swahili – I mean bits; stray words,” explained Pavlakis.  Now, in the singing, between repeated wails of “oooooh,” I picked up the word “y’allah.” As the beat quickened, the primitive dance impulse began to wake in all my muscles, and, in contrast, I noticed the silhouettes of the audience up front: we are seated, erect and still (even if swaying), and Sidi Goma, framed by the stage and the blackness around it, are performing their active, self-transformative ritual for us.  
One at a time, the musicians danced into the center of the circle, each in his own style, all loose, all improvised.  The first spun low, faintly but unmistakably like a break dancer; again I recalled Pavlakis from the pre-show talk: “there’s a contemporary influence…these guys are watching lots of Bollywood movies; they love hip-hop.”  They swayed or bounced, effortlessly to the beat, and they all smiled warmly.  Seated in the last row, I couldn’t resist – I dashed down to the front and squatted in the aisle.  I wanted to see their facial expressions as they shook their heads in half time, gazing out at us or up to the deity; I wanted the view (if not the understanding) the Sidi tribespeople might get, were they performing in a village in Gujarat.
Intermission, and second half.  They lost the white garb for bare painted chests and skirts of peacock feathers tethered to belts of shells – costumes channeling a vibe more celebratory than religious. (Is it authentic, someone had asked?  Was it devised only for performances outside India?  “It’s their imagined African identity,” said the ethnomusicologist.) The dancing began with a resounding toot on a conch shell that I’d have picked out for a trumpet.  Again, each entered the circle, busted a move, and withdrew.  But this time, it was less groove and more expression – they were trying to convey something – and again, Pavlakis’s words come back to me: the dances are immitative of animals, of natural phenomena. One man sprinted in slow motion across the stage, every movement drawn out in quarter-time to the drumming– a feat of concentration; another spread his legs, bent his knees, and, defying body physics, shimmied up stage center as if an invisible chair was supporting him.  They gesticulated wildly, gathered playfully but intimately, slid under each others legs – conveying, to me, a frolic of forest creatures.  I watched, without cultural meaning but captivated, and thought: it speaks to the spiritual advancement of a society when its adults seek thrill by embodying animals in dance rather than by driving nice cars and flaunting bling.  


Said two teenagers: "They was kissin' " / "They was NOT kissin' "
Said two teenagers: “They was kissin’ ” / “They was NOT kissin’ “

For their final number, the Sidi Goma did the inevitable: they gestured for the audience to join them. After the first brave few came forth from the front, it was barely sixty seconds before the stage filled.  My appreciation for the evening only grew when I discovered how hard it was to move my body to their exotic, syncopated timing.  (Afterwards, others concurred.)

The flood of strangers onto stage made me consider that the Painted Bride must be a special place.  I didn’t know its history; I had only categorized it as establishment by its generous space in Old City, and the major acts it hosts.  I also met no fewer than four people there involved either in philanthropy or publicity.  Strange when I read the info sheet: it was founded in 1969 by six PAFA grads “hungry to present non-mainstream visual art” where there was none.  It’s certainly joined the establishment, but Lisa Nelson-Haynes, when she introduced the show, stressed that the Bride “marks itself by promoting access to the artists” – through meet-the-artist receptions and pre-show talks (in philanthropy parlance, they call it a “member engagement”).  This, after all, is precisely why I love Philadelphia over tier-one art market cities: artists are more accessible; fewer pretensions come between the art and the community of appreciators.  

Just minutes following their bow, Sidi Goma joined us in the lobby for grilled vegetables and brownies; several of us gathered around the dancer with the best English.  Someone asked what, in their villages, were their livelihoods?  He pointed to his compatriots – M____ has juice stand; O____ has small area for farming; D___ does, how do you say, BUSI – goes around to the houses, giving blessings, playing malinga.”  As we’d learned earlier, they are a subsistence people.  The troupe, I imagine, are among the few Sidis that have traveled outside their country.  



So come to the Painted Bride next season, their 40th.  Artists on the fringe tend to dismiss big-bill cultural performances at theaters that sell subscriptions and draw their share of bourgeois empty nesters.  But we must remember: we are so so lucky to be able to see performers from far-off places.  (Next season, e.g.: a 6-member tabla ensemble.)   Western culture wrecks much as it spreads, but not decisively.  The positive potential in global information flows, jet travel, and consciousness is that, from the comfort of our city, we get to experience [ok, watch] religious ritual of a subsistence people as if we were in their village – a privilege recently unimaginable.

That most outgoing Sidi dancer – I asked for his take, briefly, generally, on this dialectic of cultural globalization.  Here is what he said:  “It’s good when people have tradition in their community – when they keep this thing – this instrument, or this song – going.  But when they say – ‘my family HAD this thing, and we don’t know it now’ – that’s not good.”


Music and video (ugh, video) of Sidi Goma here

The audience flooded the dancefloor.
The audience flooded the dancefloor.