Performers with a timeless serenity

CLOUDS covered the Birmingham skyline and Pam Chowhan began to sweat.

The Jewish-Yemenite Diwan Ensemble, a devoutly religious group due to perform this weekend at the Spirit Of The Earth festival in the city, had told the organisers they would not sing unless three stars were visible in the sky as proof that the Sabbath had ended.

Yesterday, Miss Chowhan, artist liaison officer for the festival, was monitoring the weather forecasts. She was also fetching a doctor for a Venezuelan dancer who had a fever, commandeering a conference room at the Grand Hotel as a meditation centre for septuagenarian folk-musician monks from China, and combing the Bull Ring shopping centre for consumerist Cuban percussionists.

Spirit Of The Earth is the largest festival of devotional music to be held in Britain. The groups are appearing in Birmingham all this week and at the South Bank Centre in London next week. Looking after 100 performers from most corners of the globe, some of whom have never been abroad before and have certainly never seen hotels and televisions, falls to Miss Chowhan.

She said: 'I'm feeling very self- conscious running everywhere with my mobile phone, surrounded by these serene monks. I want to keep saying, 'Please hurry up'.'

The lack of any concept of time among many of the groups has been a problem. The Bhakti Bhajan Marga group from southern India, which plays for rice in Tamil villages, has, Miss Chowhan says, 'a very flexible idea of time'. One was still in bed at 7pm when a concert was due to start half an hour later. The group arrived at 5pm for a tour of the Conservatoire scheduled four hours earlier.

The varying food needs are another headache. Miss Chowhan scoured Birmingham without success for kosher food for the Jewish Yemenis and had to have it delivered from Heathrow airport. The vegetarian Chinese monks found breakfast to be a revelation, with the discovery of butter and jam. The Bhakti group needed Indian food last Sunday when all the suitable shops were closed, but the resourceful Miss Chowhan convinced them of the ethnic suitability of McDonald's chilli burgers.

Members of the ensemble from Cuba, where the economy is in considerable straits, had headed for the Bull Ring, returning with dark glasses and personal stereos. But other visiting artistes are taking appropriate delight in simpler pleasures. Liao Man, 70, a Buddhist monk from the Shanxi province of north-west China, described Birmingham as 'a beautiful, clean city with wonderful weather'. In Shanxi, it is 35C (100F) at this time of year.

(Photograph omitted)