We spent yesterday in Kew Gardens, at the Islamic music festival which was part of the Salaam Music Village festival event. Got there early, had coffee outside among the hanging baskets at a pavement café near the station, where the whole area feels so old-fashionedly civilised, or perhaps I just mean affluent and middle-class. We strolled down to the gardens and went into the Marianne North gallery, and wandered round the Temperate House, and then headed towards the pagoda and followed the music, and came upon the Yemeni group practising: one man playing a double-reeded pipe with circular breathing, and another on a drum, while three practised a dance – reminiscent, I thought at the time, of Eastern European circle dance.
The concert itself started around noon, near the lake, and we found ourselves a tree, for shade, and laid out our rucsacs and cushions in order to save a space for the friends who were joining us. There were chairs set out in rows, but almost no-one on them because of the relentless sun: a few hardy people with parasols, but almost everyone was finding spaces under the trees instead, and most people had brought picnic rugs and provisions.
There were groups from a wide swathe of the Muslim world, including China, India, Indonesia, Yemen, Iraq, Bosnia, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Kenya. The Moroccan Aissawa musicians, Sufis, processed around the site with drums and remarkable, ten-foot-long narrow trumpets and, again, double-reeded pipes. The Bosnians, from Sarajevo, are a young group in all senses: put together in 2004 "in the spirit of remembrance and hope for the future", they seemed mainly teenagers, including a very powerful female vocalist and an astonishing female violinist who looked no older than 12. They perform the poems of Rumi and Hafiz, and use both classic traditional and modern Western forms.
The Yemenis, on stage, with more instrumentalists, four dancers, and in traditional dress rather than the jeans and T-shirts in which we'd seen them practising, were mesmeric. Some of the dances incorporated the ceremonial dagger (one in each hand). Whereas the practice reminded me of circle dance, the real thing suddenly paralleled English Morris-dancing, stick dancing and sword dancing, with the dancers interacting in pairs and weaving between each other, and the daggers (sticks, swords) punctuating and emphasising the movements – as well as demonstrating the degree of skill needed in order to avoid nasty injuries. Common ancestry, parallel evolution, sheer coincidence? The popular explanation that "Morris" derives from "Moorish" had I thought been discredited, but now I wonder.
It was a brilliant people-watching occasion: there were folk of all ages, ancestries, backgrounds and styles of dress. At least, I thought so; David, though, pointed out that the music as mainly from Sufi traditions, and that there were very few of the stricter Muslims there. This seems to me inevitable: my understanding of the event is that it aims to widen its audience's appreciation of the range of Islamic music, and through that an appreciation of the depth of Islamic culture. Slightly tricky ground: this necessarily includes aspects of culture foreign to, or not favoured by, some British Muslims. And I suspect that the non-Muslims Brits who were there were mostly the ones who didn't especially need lessons in not stereotyping. But I can't help feeling that nine hours of sunshine and music and being in a large, friendly, diverse crowd is a Good Thing anyway.