How Boom.Diwan summon the spirituality of old Middle Eastern sea shanties in their music

The Kuwaiti ensemble will perform as part of Abu Dhabi's Barzakh Festival this Saturday alongside South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini

Boom.Diwan's evocative and swaying sounds are linked to the nearly century-old tradition of sea shanties sung by Kuwaiti pearl divers on voyages to north Africa and parts of Asia.

On sturdy boats these seamen thumped the tabl bahri (an Indian sea barrel drum) and sung songs of Iraqi, Indian and Swahili roots centring on faith, devotion and sorrow.

Such an open-minded sound allows Boom.Diwan, a Kuwaiti ensemble, to be both a singular talent, as well as natural collaborators. Those qualities are set to come together in their Barzakh Festival performance, which is being streamed online on Saturday, February 6.

The ensemble's previous concert for the event was in 2018, when they teamed up with Grammy Award-winning Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Orchestra for a night of Gulf melodies and tropical grooves.

This time, they're tapping South Africa by collaborating with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, the first from his homeland to sign with revered US jazz label Blue Note Records.

New possibilities

With the pandemic temporarily suspending concert performances in Abu Dhabi and South Africa, both artists had to dig deep creatively and logistically to create a cohesive performance.

“It was certainly challenging, but the creative constraints actually provided us with possibilities for a new kind of creative expression,” says Boom.Diwan’s Kuwaiti band leader and guitarist Ghazi Al Mulaifi, who is also a professor of Applied Ethnomusicology at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Ahead of Saturday's pre-recorded set, which will feature both acts performing from separate locations in Abu Dhabi and Johannesburg, Al Mulaifi told The National how coming up with the material was exciting and intense.

“It began with me having some recordings of traditional Kuwaiti pearl diving percussion and I recorded some guitar sketches and impressions which I sent over to Nduduzo.

“He would then listen to it and add his own colours on the piano. So we could keep doing that and then, because of the Covid-19 regulations here and South Africa, we worked hard to get the material down and get approval in time to record our set live from our locations. It was slightly terrifying, but we were able to get it done in time.”

A spiritual evening

Where Boom.Diwan’s last Barzakh Festival appearance was a rhythmic affair, Al Mulaifi says this weekend's concert will carry a more spiritual vibe.

For Boom.Diwan, their ethereal quality comes from pearl diving music’s Islamic roots, while Makhathini's soulful works are informed by his career playing in South African churches.

“Pearl diving music is often driven by Sufi chanting," Al Mulaifi says. "The lyrics praise God and they are essentially songs of gratitude.

"Makhathini’s spiritual background is also at the forefront, so there are parallels in what we do. I think we created something special."

Boom.Diwan and Nduduzo Makhathini will perform on Saturday, February 6 at 8pm. The show will be streamed on the NYU – Abu Dhabi Arts Centre Facebook, YouTube and website.

More information is at www.nyuad-artscenter.org