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Uncovering Bridges

Episode Summary

Ghazi Faisal Al-Muliafi’s journey began with one statement from his grandfather, who was once a Kuwaiti pearl diving shipmaster: “All the men died at sea”. Now an ethnomusicologist at NYU Abu Dhabi, Ghazi has spent his career researching Kuwaiti pearl diving music and the lives of the pearl divers in order to connect with his ancestral past. In the process, however, he may have uncovered long lost narratives that have larger implications on how we think about cultural appropriation, tradition, and national identity. This episode is a product of the Ignite Change Fellowship: a partnership between the Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality, the NYU Production Lab, and the Wasserman Center for Career Development.

Episode Notes

Ghazi Faisal Al-Muliafi’s journey began with one statement from his grandfather, who was once a Kuwaiti pearl diving shipmaster: “All the men died at sea”. Now an ethnomusicologist at NYU Abu Dhabi, Ghazi has spent his career researching Kuwaiti pearl diving music and the lives of the pearl divers in order to connect with his ancestral past. In the process, his work has uncovered long lost narratives that have larger implications on how we think about cultural appropriation, tradition, and national identity. 

When Kuwait became a nation in 1961, the music of pearl diving became codified as a national signifier for the country. The music was no longer allowed to morph and change as it had for hundreds of years prior when the pearl divers were out at sea, travelling along their trading routes. Ghazi realized that his ancestors were global citizens in their own right and, without the current ideals about fixed heritage and national identity, they experienced a freedom of cultural sharing that we no longer have today. 

From this revelation, Boom.Diwan, Ghazi’s collaborative global jazz ensemble, was created. Inspired by the Kuwaiti pearl diving music of the Indian Ocean trade, with influences all the way from Zanzibar to Calicut, Boom.Diwan emphasizes fluidity and cross-cultural conversations through their music. Today, their work is a fusion of latin, jazz, and middle eastern influence.

As we familiarized ourselves with Ghazi’s work, we realized that his research was in direct opposition to what we had been previously taught about cultural appropriation. We had believed culture and heritage to be fixed, and that sharing, especially in music, often resulted in backlash. When the utilization of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and the improper use of Pan Asian aesthetics by white pop artists negatively affects marginalized groups, is there another model of cultural sharing that doesn’t cause harm?

Told through the music that inspired his research, Ghazi’s story contains reflections on the difference between tradition and heritage, national identity, and practical examples of what cultural sharing can look like. We relate these ideas back to similar narratives around the world and explain what Ghazi’s research means for how we move forward in the conversation about cultural appropriation versus appreciation. Our deep dive into the history of this music and culture is perfect for music and history lovers alike, and anyone interested in exploring the concepts of heritage, tradition, and cultural appropriation. 

Episode Transcription

Uncovering Bridges Transcript

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music.

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: And the music just, you know, it disarmed me. And, and for, you know, reasons I can't explain rationally contained something in it that, you know, made me cry. It was really just a deep response that I was not expecting.

Neeta Thadani: Ghazi Al-Muliafi, an ethnomusicologist at NYU Abu Dhabi, has spent his career researching pearl diving music.  

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: So the point of Boom.Diwan is not just to mix our music, you know, bahri music, Kuwaiti pearl diving music with other music. It's about, you know, Diwans, these places, these spaces, these salons where people try to solve problems and talk about ideas. You know, they are in themselves dialogic spaces. 

Neeta Thadani: Ghazi’s khaleeji-jazz ensemble Boom.Diwan takes elements of traditional pearl diving music and incorporates them with other music styles, including jazz, to create something new. 

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music.

Neeta Thadani: Ghazi also teaches a class on how to engage with this music at NYU Abu Dhabi. Humans like to identify themselves by the things that make them different from one another: origin stories and cultural heritages. I wouldn’t fault you for doing that. I know I’ve done it too. So when I first heard the music Boom.Diwan was creating, I was a bit skeptical. I’m a first generation Indian-American and cultural appropriation is something I think about a lot. We hear about it in pop music all the time.  

Teen Vogue News Clip: Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, and Katy Perry all have one thing in common: they’ve all profited from the culture of marginalized people. She and other white artists have literally made money twerking, wearing kimonos, and adopting black slang. 

Hollywire News Clip: Olivia Rodrigo appears to be using African American Vernacular English. 

HollywoodLife News Clip: Ariana Grande reacts to fans accusing her of cultural appropriation. 

Neeta Thadani: Boom Diwan’s music is a fusion of latin, jazz, and middle eastern influences. I had to wonder if the same logic applied. Meeting Ghazi actually brought up a lot of questions for me. Who can or should be allowed to play this music? Why does Ghazi want to share this music outside of Kuwait and what happens when he does? Do other musicians in Kuwait share Ghazi’s point of view? How does someone deviate from an ancient tradition without consequence? My name is Neeta Thadani and this is Uncovering Bridges, a podcast part of the Ignite Change: Impactful Storytelling Through Audio Fellowship. And today, we’re going to try to answer some of these questions. 

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music.

Neeta Thadani: But before we dive in, you’re gonna need some context. Ghazi’s family has lived in Kuwait for centuries. They were among the last three Kuwaiti families still pearl-diving until it was officially outlawed in 1955. When pearl diving stopped, so did the music that came with it. But now, Ghazi is trying to revive this artform through collaboration. Even the name of his ensemble, Boom.Diwan serves as a metaphor for the musical exploration that it engages in.

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: Whether it's about trying to have these discussions, or, you know, the idea of the Boom which is the one The Pearl diving ships, one of the models, if you will, is called a Boom. 

Neeta Thadani: The music, or Diwan, is a place where pearl diving musicians would pass on traditional Kuwaiti music. Together, the name Boom.Diwan represents a space that can include musicians from diverse backgrounds; regardless of genre, style, or culture. 

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music from Boom.Diwan.

Neeta Thadani: But without cultural context, how do people outside of Kuwait understand this music? What does it mean to showcase this music in predominantly white spaces? The Barzhark Festival is one of the many places Ghazi plays this music with and for non-Kuwaiti folks. It was named after a place where salt and sweet water meet and coexist but don't dilute one another. Bill Bragin has co-ran the festival for the past four years and has welcomed Ghazi into this global jazz environment. He is also aware of the pitfalls of sharing music from around the world in predominantly white spaces. 

Bill Bragin: And I think that there is there is a dynamic within the so-called World Music fields, where people will talk about this idea of butterfly collecting and this idea of “the flavor of the month” and like oh, yeah, we've done Cape Verde, we don't need to, we've been there and there is a sense of. sort of, just kind of collecting artists from a certain part of the world. And so that's, that's a real dynamic that I'm hyper aware of.

Neeta Thadani: Kuwait is located in Western Asia at the tip of the Persian Gulf, bordering Iraq to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south. Kuwait became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1899 and remained under British control for 62 years. 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: Kuwait became a nation in 1961. So very young, very young country, or young nation state. So when the music became an expression of cultural heritage, national heritage, there wasn't a lot of breathing room to discuss its complicated history. It became music of this very small geographic location, I think Kuwait's about the size of New Jersey. You know, there were no discussions about you know, the effects of the slave trade, on the music. The Persian imprint on the music, the Iraqi imprint on the music, the Indian imprint on the music, you know, the Zanzibari, Swahili imprint on the music, all of these engagements, make it what it is, right? And even then, it's not really something you can kind of pin down. When it became a symbol of national heritage, you know, something that was played after a national anthem or something like that, it was kind of reduced and excluded, you know, all the beautiful complexities that made it happen to begin with. And it kind of gives a very surface level narrative. It takes something so complex and beautiful, it just makes it simple and exclusive.

Neeta Thadani: For Ghazi, Pearl Diving is not just a part of his national heritage, but his lineage as well.

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: So, after lunch, I followed my grandfather into his bedroom, and was really eager to ask him about what I had just discovered about him being a ship master and a pearl diver and a captain. So I said, “Baba Aziz. I just heard you were a captain of a ship. Can you tell me about your days at sea?” And he just continued doing what he was doing. And he didn't look at me, he just, he just said, “all the men died at sea”. And I really wanted to know what that meant. So I asked him two more times. And two more times he kind of just said, “all the men died at sea” and I never asked him again about it. You know, the more I found out about pearl diving, and pearl diving life, the more I attribute it to war in some ways. 

Neeta Thadani: Aside from the danger of living at sea, it was also a life of debt. But one thing kept the sailors sane and the expedition on track.

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: So the pearl diving itself started with the dawn prayers. After the dawn prayers were completed, the divers would eat some dates, drink some coffee, and begin diving. And they would dive until sunset with very small breaks in between for prayers. And this is repeated from April to September with only breaks for prayers from sunrise to sundown. And they will sail to Zanzibar in India and trade these pearls for mangrove poles, spices, textiles, jewels, gold, sometimes slaves. 

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music.

Neeta Thadani: Much like the pearls, music was traded in the Gulf. So could you give us, like, a brief overview on the origins of pearl diving music? 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: So that's really, that's a really interesting question. And one that I get asked, often, and, honestly, one that I find really curious. That's the whole point of this music and this research, in a way, is about dissolving ideas about origin. So all the sailors that helped sail the ship to, in this case, India would be hanging out at the ports for months, right? And ports are amazing cosmopolitan spaces. And they, the sailors, would jam with other musicians, you know, for lack of any fancy terminology, and maybe find some instruments that they thought looked and sounded nice that they were eager to bring back home. And so in these months, no doubt, there was, like, this exchange where the Kuwaitis would influence just by their very bodies being in these spaces, and be influenced for the same exact reason, right, to be among all these other bodies and other ways of being and all these other people from the local population and other traders because this trade for Kuwait spans Zanzibar to Ceylon, but that trade route goes all the way to, you know, the far east as it were. Certainly to Indonesia. And so when they would return home, that music would change and would evolve. 

Neeta Thadani: Ghazi has dedicated his career to studying the history of pearl diving music and the lives of pearl divers. But, in the process, he may have discovered that tracing down pearl diving’s origins is much more complicated than it seems. 

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music.

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: The whole thing is just kind of like amorphous. Right? I mean, it's just like, it's like an amoeba. You know, it's just, it keeps changing. So its origins, or let's just say it's, what occasion that it is these series of engagements that just kept changing the thing you know, and what we have today, of this music. You know, what we have and what we've been preserving is what it was like at the end, you know, in the 1950s. That's a snapshot we have of it today. But before that, it was completely free. And so, you know, on one end, I'm interested in preserving that snapshot. On the other end, I'm equally invested in putting the music back in this amoebic space and letting it continue to go where it wants to go.

Neeta Thadani: So we have a country trying to establish a national identity and they do so through art and music. This isn’t exclusive to Kuwait, by the way. Many countries, as a reaction to imperialism, used art to certify themselves in national discourse. But what happens to ideas around nation and identity and even tradition when you put boundaries on a boundless thing like music? Where does the distinction lie between tradition and heritage?

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: Yeah, I feel like tradition is, it's a lived practice that has been repeated, but, but that is also not static. Heritage always draws its materials from traditions and creates new narratives with them that may or may not be in line with reality, with history, even ethnographically if you ask the people that the practices are barred from to create these expressions of heritage, they may feel foreign if you will, to the thing itself.

Neeta Thadani: We can see that this is a pattern replicated all over the world with many different cultural traditions. Kathak and other national dances of India embody plenty of cross-cultural influence from all over the Persian Gulf, but acknowledgement of those outside influences were erased when those dances were codified. The same thing happened with pearl diving music. Why, in an attempt to define ourselves, do we erase the work of others? And who gets hurt by that when we do?

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: I mean, I think it's a very common thing that happens with national discourses is they need to be simple. But I think their simplicity can be unethical because I think it erases a lot of alternative narratives. And we're from this one particular place that is now Kuwait. Where nationalism falls short is it ends the story there. Where, where, for me, I can be from Kuwait. But, you know, in my blood, as it were, there's probably Indian blood, African blood, Persian blood, in addition to peninsular blood, if you will. 

Excerpt of Pearl Diving Music.

Neeta Thadani: So whenever I spoke with Ghazi, I would leave those conversations feeling pretty emotional. I think I had been holding on tightly to ideas about my own national identity, focusing on presenting as the most Indian version of myself all the time and trying so hard not to make mistakes, that when I heard I actually didn’t have to, that I could grant myself the freedom to just be, was really freeing for me. I was holding myself to standards that I didn’t define and couldn’t possibly live up to. If Ghazi can let his story, his heritage, move past Kuwait, maybe my story could also go past the borders I created in my head because I saw them on a map. That being said, my team and I still had a lot to learn about Ghazi’s mission. Throughout this process, everytime I mentioned the music to people, their initial questions would always be something like “So if these instruments are from all over the world, where does that drum come from? Where does that instrument come from”?  So, eventually, we hopped on the phone with Ghazi again to ask him and he wouldn’t really give us a straight answer. We kept pushing and pushing for him to just explain to us where each element of the songs came from until we realized it was us who was missing the point. 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: There has to be a way to say that part of this story is rejecting the notion of origin. I don’t wanna place a lot of value on an origin story because I reject that notion to begin with. It’s not something I care about. I know it fits into neat categories and it makes people feel comfortable. But I’m not interested in making people feel comfortable. 

Neeta Thadani: Ghazi doesn’t want to put emphasis on an origin story and now, neither do we. So let’s talk about the future of this music.  Pearl diving music didn’t end in 1955 when Pearl Diving did. Boom.Diwan’s creation of khaleeji-jazz is putting the music back into the amorphous space Ghazi referenced earlier. 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: You know, sometimes when you're exploring I mean, that's the whole point you don't know what you're gonna find. Which goes back into line with the tradition, that tradition is to go out and explore and not know what you're going to find and, and to survive. So that's, that's, that's one of the points of, of Boom.Diwan is, it's about, you know, being open, being displaced a little bit, like feeling like I don't know what's going on right now with this conversation or this interaction. 

Neeta Thadani: The phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ is a big buzzword and Ghazi is still, after years of being immersed in this work, trying to figure out where he stands on how to share this music. 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: I try to find other people who feel as passionately about their music, their culture, but are also excited to share it. But also have the same kinds of trepidations about having it, holding it in high reverence because it's not theirs.

Neeta Thadani: Speaking of people who share Ghazi's values, let's get back to Bill Bragin and his work with the Barzhark festival. Bill is a part of the discourse around who gets to play, hear, and even curate this music. 

Bill Bragin: So I want to be sensitive to what it means for me to be the quote, unquote, gatekeeper. And there are all these conversations about, about the role of the curator as a gatekeeper as opposed to a door opener and, and what it means for me to provide a platform for people to, not to give them a voice, but to give them a platform to use their own voices. But I think even more so now, the question is, why is it important to have this artist here in this space? And what do they have to offer? And what are the conversations that it's going to open up? And I think that, particularly because questions of heritage and modernity or postmodernity are really central in the UAE and in the Gulf as a whole.

Neeta Thadani: Ghazi strives to respect aspects of the tradition while still allowing the music to change. 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: And to be part of both so you know, to be part of the space where, where, you know, we're learning this music corporeally, you know, in our bodies, and our bodies become archives for these, for these, for this music. And for example, sometimes I'll write things and before I publish them, I'll, I'll send them to the diwaniya and discuss, and the elders will say, “what you're saying is absolutely right. But we'd never say it that way. We'd never use this language”. I was like “alright, that’s fine. How would you say it?”. They’re like “oh we would say it like this, yeah. Now it sounds like us.” And this is why whenever I'm asked to speak about this music, or this culture, the first thing I say is, I am not an expert on this. I'm trying to learn about this. I'll share what I think I know. But everything that I know is based on discussions with my Diwaniya, and other diwaniyas in Kuwait.

Neeta Thadani: There’s no rule book on how to share and adapt this music. And that’s okay. But Ghazi is working to balance inclusion and preservation. We mentioned earlier that Ghazi teaches a class at NYU Abu Dhabi and allows students from all over the world to engage in this music collaboratively. And you might be wondering now, what does that sound like? Well, we did it with our composers. You’ve been listening to the quote unquote traditional versions of pearl diving music mixed with our composer’s takes, with Ghazi’s permission and guidance of course. 

Andrew Goehring: The story of the music, in so many ways, just defies linear narrative. I mean, it doesn’t just occupy the place of a genre. It’s almost more like an ethos of music. 

Cal Freundlich: That’s like so much of what jazz is, is based off of improvisation and based off the idea that anything can be music and anyone can be involved in it. Again, it's all just on the spectrum of no one origin but yet somehow, these completely different types of music have a lot of similarities. 

Devin Pride: For me, understanding the landscape of which this music came from was essential. So the culmination of culture, seascape, and collaboration, helped me see pearl diving in a new light. 

Neeta Thadani: That was our composers, Andrew, Cal, and Devin. If you had asked me a year ago if I thought it would be okay for NYU students to play Kuwaiti pearl diving music, I probably would have said no, but Ghazi has shown me that it is possible and can result in beautiful work. I used to not like sharing aspects of my own culture with others because I thought it meant that it would no longer be mine. Now I know that isn’t true. The point of this work is not that we should be able to borrow from any culture we please without reason, but that it takes a lot of dialogue and intentional conversations to make sharing this music possible. I just hadn’t seen that model before. Ghazi and Bill also talk a lot about the conversations being started at these festivals, and actually these conversations may have already taken place before. 

Bill Bragin: Like that was that story that came out of one of the community dinners where one of the members of Arturo’s band, basically said “I don't feel like we're building a bridge. I feel like we're sort of uncovering this path that we had forgotten about”.

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: They didn't have a common language. My guys don't speak English. And Arturo's guys speak decent English. They started just jamming for a second. And my guys were looking over at me and being like, “oh, man, they're playing khaleeji rumba. This is unbelievable. They know, they know our rhythm”. And they were telling Arturo, “Oh, man, these guys are playing like, you know, bomba. It sounds like a bomba”. So there are these moments of recognition between our percussionists that weren't even part of what Arturo and I were thinking about, but they recognized each other in the music. And Arturo says “we're uncovering bridges”. 

Neeta Thadani: If music really does have the power to unite us, how does that change perceptions about cultural identity and ownership? For all the discussion we just had about sharing and being respectful, what if the audience is still not in the right occasion to listen to this music and feel its impact? What if they don’t get it? 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: I feel like, for me, as long as I'm in that space, where I'm feeling that thing deeply. And the members of the ensemble are all in that space together, all of us. And we're all just kind of like feeling it. I feel that we're transmitting that feeling. And that if you're in that room, and you're just paying a little bit of attention, you're going to feel that too. So I don't worry about them not feeling it, I worry about me not feeling. If I feel it, they're gonna feel it. 

Neeta Thadani: We’ve all had that feeling before. The moment before the lights go down at a concert. When the sound erupts into a symphony of cheers and the music begins, that feeling of community is unmatched. Some call music the great equalizer, but after speaking with Ghazi over the last few months, I would even go as far as to say that music is the great communicator. It builds a bridge over boundaries, borders, and language barriers. And while feelings about those established boundaries and identity defining borders are valid and real, the work Ghazi is doing now transcends even that. If you’re open to it. When these pearl divers were out on the sea and trading pearls in markets, they weren’t thinking about codifying a tradition. They were worried about preserving themselves, their bodies, and their stories to share them with others. Wouldn’t it only be right to continue on that tradition? So that we can all be in the room when the lights go down and the show begins? What do you think would happen if we focused more on the music and art that connects us, rather than the borders that divide us? 

Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi: Yeah. You know, that's a...I mean, that's one of the big missions of this project, right? Of these, censoring these reductive ideas of self. Yeah, I mean, I'll just answer very simply, I think the world would be a much more peaceful place. I feel like there's an alternative narrative that we just have to uncover that connectedness between each other. It's not something that needs to be discovered, it needs to be uncovered. And I would hope that uncovering these things would make people just look at each other more compassionately. That's my hope. I don't know what would happen. But that's, that's my hope.

Neeta Thadani: Uncovering Bridges is a product of the Ignite Change: Impactful Storytelling Through Audio Fellowship, a collaboration between the NYU Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality, NYU Production Lab, and the Wasserman Center for Career Development, sponsored by the Offices of the President and Provost at NYU. Uncovering Bridges is hosted by me, Neeta Thadani. Our editor is Susan Pinchiaroli. Our producer is Cate Hynes. Our Sound Engineer is Mateo Cruz. The music is composed by Andrew Goehring, Cal Freundlich, and Devin Pride. A special thank you to Bill Bragin, Ghazi Al-Mulaifi, and Boom.Diwan for sharing their stories and music with us.