First Night: Musafir - The Gypsies of Rajasthan - Queen Elizabeth Hall London

Mesmerised by a band of Gypsies
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The Independent Online
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 sub-continent.

Elder statesmen such as the sitar playing Beatles collaborator Ravi Shankar and Pakistan's late, great qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan might have been attracting Western attention way before "A Brimful of Asha" hit the charts, but the region's rich folk traditions have been largely ignored in the West.

The latest troupe to step out of the World Music ghetto are Musafir, a 14-strong "mystical cabaret" 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, tonight Musafir 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 in a reflection of gypsy life.

Musafir (literally, 'nomadic people') are the brainchild of singer and tabla player Hameed Khan. Born into the professional musician's caste, Khan performed 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 Rajasthan's Sapera gypsy community - in 1995.

Musafir deliver their special blend of folk and burlesque with superlative musicianship and no small dash of humour. While the fire-eating, balancing of cartwheels on heads and treks over broken glass have all the appeal of a circus, their devotional songs uplift and mesmerise as the players come together in a hybrid frenzy.

With soundtracks from India's film industry usurping folk music at weddings, births and other rituals, Rajasthani traditions must be nurtured and experienced. Musafir are, they say, available for theatres, festivals and street events.