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Arts: Rhythm of the nomad

THE RECENT mainstream success of Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and Cornershop has meant it was only a matter of time before the so-called "Asian Underground" sparked a resurgence of interest in more traditional forms of music from the Indian subcontinent.

Out of the World Music ghetto come Musafir: Gypsies of Rajasthan, a 14- strong "mystical cabaret" troupe from north-west India. After a storming WOMAD performance, a European tour, a guest spot on Transglobal Underground's Rejoice Rejoice and a critically acclaimed self-titled CD, Musafir tonight set about transforming the stuffy QEH into the equivalent of a Rajasthani village fair. Sitting cross-legged before a huge kaleidoscopic backdrop, singers in pink turbans armed variously with tabla, harmonium, kartals (castanets), dholak (double-headed drum) and pungi (a snake charmer's flute) begin building a heady atmosphere of religious devotion, love and yearning. "You've already mounted your camel / And with a charming wave of your hand you are on your way," they wail.

Musafir (literally, "nomadic people") is the brainchild of singer and tabla player Hameed Khan. Born into the professional musician's caste, Khan performed extensively at weddings and festivals before settling in Paris in the mid-Eighties and going on to collaborate with a variety of rock, classical and jazz artists. Mindful of his roots, he founded Musafir - a group of classically trained Hindus, Muslims and members of the Sapera gypsy community of Rajasthan's Thar desert - in 1995.

Cross-dressing, it seems, is standard in Thar marriage ceremonies, though a hirsute male dancer in a pink, sequinned frock is all the more curious for the fact that his head happens to be on fire. The vaunted Whirling Desert Drag Queen turns out to be a coquettish figure laden with silver jewellery and driven to dervish intensity by some furious tribal drumming. "Real" female dancers do duets with swords and interpret mythological themes. A somnolent tune on the pungi succeeds in charming the QEH audience instead.

Musafir deliver their blend of folk and burlesque with superlative musicianship and no small dash of humour. While the fire-eating, glass-walking and balancing of cartwheels on heads have all the quaint appeal of Billy Smart's Circus, their devotional songs uplift and mesmerise as players come together in a frenzy, palms lifted in supplication.