Intangible Cultural Heritage Project

Intangible Cultural Heritage Project

Intangible Heritage documents the shift in style of traditional Muslim song in Peterborough through the woman's line. The project follows the adaptation of the musical scale used in Muslim song as different cultures and social needs influence the shared spiritual music of three generations. Working with the Muslim community, Iqra Academy and Mini Munshids Choir, Arts Facilitator Anita Nayyar has collected information from local sources to give an insight into the heritage of song. The project culminated in a performance by the Iqra Academy and Mini Munshids Choir titled The Quivering Scale- Tradition and Fusion Over 3 Generations of Muslim Women's Song and a temporary exhibition of musical artefacts located at Peterborough Museum.

Exploring Intangible Cultural Heritage in Museum Contexts is a partnership project between ICOMOS-UK and Peterborough Museum and City Gallery and funded by the Arts Council England. For more information on ICOMOS-UK click here.

South Asian Origins of Muslim Song Tradition in Peterborough (1960’s to present)

Peterborough’s most established Muslim community largely hail from Pakistan & Kashmir. At around the time of their emigration to Peterborough in the 1960’s and 70’s also came East-African Indian refugees from Idi Ameen’s Uganda. Two sub-continental singing traditions arrived in Peterborough with these women. Only one looks as though it will survive in its original form:

The Gheet

Gheets are folk songs, they were traditionally sung on any occasion possible. They served as a way of female bonding whether that was over day to day tasks, like harvesting the fields or singing a lullaby to a child, or big life events, like weddings, or the birth of a new born.

They are descriptive in nature and sometimes even humorous. It is not uncommon for the groom to be mocked in some of the Mehndi songs – the Mehndi being one of the wedding events.

“Sit on the stool oh groom and may your stool be decorated in flowers. Sit on the horse oh groom!” Excerpt from Bhindi bo buniya - A Gheet for the Mehndi.

Gheets are sung in a tone that is accessible for everyone to sing. They are communal in nature. They are shared orally and there was often one woman in the community who would hold in her memory the words to the songs. Gheets are usually sung in the local dialect and so are always rooted in local cultures. Gheets are usually sung with no instrument or with the Dholki drum.

Sadly, the move to the UK has seen a loss in the living memory of many of the Gheets as the opportunities to sing them have lessened. For the women who moved from a rural setting to an urban setting, songs about the harvest are no longer relevant. Wedding events, now shorter in days and restricted by invitation-only, limit time in which to sing. Houses in England have locked doors and tend to require an invite so occasions for women’s communal activity are impacted. Now, the women who held the lyrics have passed on shortened Gheets for weddings or to sing to babies. And generally, women have turned increasingly to television and Bollywood to influence the songs they sing for special occasions.

The Qawalli

The Qawalli is a performative song. It is designed as an emotive and evocative spiritual awakening - singing it is the reserve of specialist performers. It uses the scale of the Indian sub content, the Raga scale. A scale that works in several ‘modes’ to evoke different emotions, associated with a particular time of the day, season, mood or special occasion.

Qawalli’s were traditionally performed in the national language, Urdu, and at centres of Sufi spirituality. Singers are often revered and are usually accompanied by a band with harmonium and more recently keyboards, flutes and violins. Qawalli singers are both male and female.  

The globalisation of music and culture has much benefited them with well-known singers broadcast across the world, Abida Parveen, a renowned female artist is currently performing in London as part of her world tour. The Qawalli is very much kept alive by these singers who have embraced global media to remake and popularise traditional songs. So much so that in Peterborough, school children will know very well some of the Qawalli’s that their grandparents grew up hearing. We are lucky to have local Qawalli musicians in Peterborough.

The dholki drum

A young women with the duff drum

Forging British Muslim Identity Through Arab Music (1990’s to Now)

The second generation of Muslims of South Asian origin, this time born in Peterborough, had the challenge of being the first generation to forge an identity both British and Muslim. There was no ‘how to’ guidebook for this.

Many felt that whilst they were definitely Muslim and definitely British, they couldn’t entirely relate to the Pakistani cultural expressions of religion nor did they find their cultural space in English norms. So a group of young Muslims went to find answers in the Middle Eastern centres of spiritual tradition. In Yemen, Damascus and Morocco. They were sent back with song. 

Classic Arabic Song

These songs were brought back by men and women in the last two to three decades. Songs are sung in conjunction with a litany in weekly or monthly gatherings at homes or in the mosque. Whilst spiritual in nature, they serve a social role that has been fervently upheld by Peterborough’s women, bringing busy communities together in a world of distractions and usually followed by a shared meal.

 “The weekly gathering is a social event where we can come together and let off steam at the end of the week. We sing the Shimmering Light Litany because it is beautiful” – A young woman who runs gatherings from her home in Peterborough.

The Arab songs are sung sat in a circle on the ground and often describe the characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad and his close companions, they attribute love to him and his companions and praise God. They purposefully employ an accessible Arab Maqam, a scale that usually sits between middle D and G with many microtones - both beautiful and easy for anyone to sing. Songs are upbeat and accompanied by a duff or several duffs of varying sizes to give a range of sounds from Bass to Tone. Whilst anyone can sing these songs, there is usually a strong lead singer who guides the rest of the gathering in the melody, and a lead duff player who leads the group in metre. The song words are written down but often not the musical notation, so style and even wording can change according to the lead singer and the Oral tradition therefore still retains an important role for this generation.   

These gatherings host Polish, Caribbean and English converts to Islam as well as Indian subcontinent origin Muslims and African origin Muslims. The lyrics are beginning to be translated into English with prominent Muslim artists like Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) and The Pearls of Islam popularising these versions of songs. Musician Noor Yusuf has recently written a fully English language litany The Soliloquy of the Full Moon. Other styles entering the gatherings include Urdu and even some Malay.




The Establishment of Peterborough’s English Muslim Song (Present to Future)

 Peterborough’s third generation are the children within the Muslim communities. They are influenced by their parents, the second generation, who's search for a music that fulfils a social role was found in the weekly gatherings described before. But their desire for a bridging music, that joins the Muslim and English sides of their communal life, remains a goal. One that looks as though it may be achieved by turning to the English choral tradition. At the same time retaining the beauty of both the Qawalli and the Arab Classics in music which fuses three styles. 

Muslim Choral Song

In the last few years the first Muslim Choir was set up in Peterborough. With 30 choristers under the age of 12 in this choir, other members of the community are looking to set up their own version for older children. It is also notable that one of the members of the choir is also a member of the Cathedral choir.

The Mini Munshids are based at Khadijah Mosque and perform all over Peterborough and the surrounding areas. Run by a brother and sister team and comprising of boys and girls they have been taught how to sing Arab songs using the Arab Maqam scale like their parents, and the Indian Subcontinent Raga scale with songs of their grandparent’s liking. Yet they are also learning to sing in the English scale with a choirmaster from within the Peterborough Diocese, adopting English Muslim Choral Songs, imagined not far from here, in Cambridge where Professor at the Divinity Faculty Timothy Winter has written Muslim songs of the British Isles. In this book he sets Turkish and Arabic and English poetry to Celtic music.  

So whilst some of the Mini Munshid songs are very British, they are creating fusion pieces which bring together South Asian and Arab music in English, Urdu and Arabic. All this is played to the sound of the duff. 


Some members of the Mini Munshids