The Baloch Gulf: Musical Culture Between Makran Coast and the Arabian Peninsula

The following article was written by George Mürer, a researcher and ethnographic filmmaker interested in flows and complexities of musical/poetic expression, regional identity, and popular media across various geographies including the Gulf, Balochistan, the Indian Ocean region, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Africa. He has published articles on Baloch culture in the Arab Gulf States and the aesthetics of electrification in Kurdish wedding music. 

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Between 2014 and 2017, I spent extended periods of time in Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, researching the role of music in the cultural life of Baloch communities of the coastal Arabian Peninsula. During those residencies, I was struck by the way every quotidian vista acquired a Baloch soundtrack. The blinding, white-washed neighborhoods of Muscat; the highways of Doha after dark, flanked by fleeting silhouettes of unfinished construction projects; the heavily congested ring roads of Kuwait City; the traffic circles and mosques that serve as indispensable landmarks in cities that all but dispense with street names; the tracts of desert, beach, and palm grove between towns; the causeway between Manama and Muharraq. Even the most trivial, unceremonious perambulations were narrated by the sonorities of traditional Baloch instruments: the surōz, the benjū, the nāl, and the dōnelī

The recordings that transformed each generic white 4WD vehicle into a mobile listening environment were created by hereditary masters in Makran, the southern portion of Balochistan that spans the Arabian Sea coast of southern Iran and western Pakistan. Nestled in breezily produced studio tracks downloaded from sites such as malorani or obaloch.com or isolated in fragments of vintage performances streamed from youtube, the strained vocal intonations and cascading surōz passages conjured a desolate, forlorn terrain of national longing.

The consumption of Baloch music while driving was an integral part of the texture of cultural life, a signifier of a far away homeland, but also of its nearness—the Gulfs separating the coastal Arabian Peninsula from Southern Iran and Balochistan are relatively narrow, the facing shores virtually identical in climate, flora, and geology.

Doneli and damburag players from Makran, Balochistan at a private gathering in al-‘Ain, UAE. (Photo: George Murer)

One evening in Kuwait, while riding with a distinguished trio of resident Baloch poets, I brought up regional Arab music, something I might not have done in Muscat or Doha or al-’Ain. Kuwait City is a congested, often impersonal city where social and cultural life thrives in private settings beneath the surface; its bristling subterranean musical nodes make it an unsung capital of Arab culture.

The deep connoisseurship cultivated by circles of musicians and music aficionados in Kuwait is not limited to an engagement with music deemed emblematic of its peninsular culture and maritime heritage but extends to an effusive enthusiasm for Yemeni (especially Hadhrami), twentieth century Cairene, late Ottoman, Southern Iraqi, Bahraini, Hejazi, and South Asian musical repertoires. 

My hosts were gracious as I played a vintage recording by the Bahraini Yusuf Funy that I was particularly fond of.  My friends puzzled aloud as to whether any set of circumstances could possibly justify listening to this Gulf Arab music rather than the sublime vocal mastery of Baloch singer Mazar Ibrahim or haunting zahirōks played by Rasulbaksh Zangeshahi.

After a while, the poet driving the car, who came originally from Bampust, a town in Iranian Balochistan, played me a Baloch song from the eastern portion of Iran’s Hormozgan province (far west Makran).

The singing was in Baloch but everything else about the track, which had reached him via Whatsapp, very much conformed to a Gulf Arab aesthetic—sharply accented oud, regular, dramatically weighted beat cycles, and of course climactic eruptions of rhythmically patterned clapping. This he liked very much, even as he had been indifferent to what I had played them earlier on the car stereo. 

In Jask:

This acute and highly variable relation with musical styles coded as Gulf Arab underscores the trans-Gulf fluidity of Baloch as a regional population, a historically attested fluidity all the more remarkable in the current era of bitter geopolitical rivalry between Iranian and Saudi spheres of influence. While the Persian Gulf has served as an easily navigable waterway across which Baloch have traveled for centuries, today, the embattled position of Baloch in greater Balochistan impels many to settle in the Arab Gulf States in search of employment and spaces for cultural and political expression, while maintaining strong ties to their home cities and villages and relations, ties clearly discernible in musical flows.

The belligerent friction between Saudi Arabia and Iran has had a constraining effect on local economies, trade patterns, and representations of trans-Gulf community. This is despite the fact that the Gulf region has historically fostered a society somewhat independent in its character of the centralized rulerships of Iran or the Arabian Peninsula, whether we consider the Safavid, Qajar, or Ottoman eras/jurisdictions. Baloch today continuously navigate their well-worn routes unhindered, not only participating in trans-Gulf flows but cultivating a culture in many respects imprinted by them. 

The maritime context of Omani empire, of Hadhrami networks of trade and religious learning, and of the Indian Ocean slave trade continues to infuse the musical and ceremonial idioms with which Baloch intersect, both in Makran and in the coastal cities of the Eastern Arabian Peninsula.

In this piece, I present corresponding examples of various kinds of communal performance and ceremony from both sides of the Gulf, centering Baloch routes and communities as conduits that nourish this symmetry and simultaneity.

As Baloch settled over time in the regions that today comprise Oman and the United Arab Emirates, they assimilated local Peninsular Arab culture, language, and identities to varying degrees. In certain regions, like Ajman and Fujairah in the UAE and Oman’s Batinah coastal regions, large, long-settled Baloch populations have melded into the peninsular cultural landscape while retaining distinctive customs within domains such as marriage. Weddings are marked by specific configurations of song, drumming, piping, and dance that are referred to in Arabic as dagg Balūshī

If we search for a counterpart to these dances across the Gulf in Balochistan, it is the Baloch culture of the eastern portion of the Iranian province of Hormozgan, rather than to the adjacent province of Sistan va Balochistan, where we find the greatest continuity. The wedding dances in Jask and Sirik that closely resemble the dagg Balūshī commonly performed in Batinah and Ajman are also closely related to the yazleh dance that is found across coastal Bushehr and Khuzestan provinces, well outside the core concentration of Baloch. 

Dagg Balushi in Ajman, UAE look out for chamag—rapid shaking of the shoulders:

 Dagg Balushi in Kalba, UAE, a region culturally continuous with coastal Batinah province in Oman:

Wedding in Sirik, East Hormozgan, Iran, note the similarities:

These dances are a part of a shared Gulf culture in which a prominent subset of Baloch have been traditionally engaged. The term chamag (among Baloch in Batinah) or chamak (in Bushehr and Bandar-e Abbas) is used to describe a vigorous shaking of the shoulders that is a distinctive feature of the dancing. 

An American colleague teaching in Abu Dhabi reported to me that he overheard his middle-school-age daughter arguing with her friends about the origin and correct pronunciation of chamaki, which has emerged as a slang terms for a certain type of young guys hanging out in malls in the UAE, reinforced in songs such as this one: 

An Egyptian friend long resident in the UAE pointed to the prevalence of chamak on tiktok and said that a common expression in Arabic was that someone “yuḥab ash-shai’ ḥab al-Balūshi lihaz al-kataf” [loves a thing with the love of Baloch for shaking their shoulders].

Another view of a wedding in Sirik, with the chamag prominent:

Similarly, the use of the bagpipe with attached single reed double flute, known variously as habbān/habbūneh/ney anbān/qirbah/hizak/hinzag, is a circum-Gulf phenomenon that is an institution in Batinah Baloch weddings. Prolific habbān players in Kuwait City have Iranian (particularly Afro-Iranian) ancestry and to this day obtain their instruments from Bushehr. 

Habbān, Southern Iran:

Muslim communities of the Indian Ocean littoral, from Zanzibar to the Comoros to Malabar to Indonesia, have historically received a great deal of guidance from ‘ulamā’ from Hadhramawt—Southeastern Yemen. The way the birth of the prophet is celebrated, narratives of the Prophet’s birth and life (most especially the text known as the Barzenjī), and the infusion of Sufi doctrines and hagiographies, especially the Qaderi and Rifai tarīqāt, are remarkably unified across a vast intercontinental geography. These currents converge in the mālid, also known in parts of Southern Iran as the mashāyekh (plural of shaykh) and in Swahili as the maulidi ya homu

The mālid is a recitation with group response, drumming, and choreographed motions performed in celebration of the birth of the prophet, often preceded on those occasions by a recitation of the Barzenjī. On other occasions, in Muscat, Batinah, Makran, and southern Iran, mālids serve an explicit function as a spirit possession-ceremony structured similarly to zār customs historically understood as emanating from the Horn of Africa. These are more condensed, often weekly ritual gatherings with an emphasis on the drumming and chanting and their psychosomatic effects.

The focus shifts from the Prophet to other figures, most notably Abdulqadir Gilani, Ahmed Rifai, Ahmed Badawi, Aydarus, and—among Baloch—Fariduddin Ganjeshekar and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. While these shaykhs as spirits transcend all geographic confines, they also combine to support a cartographic consciousness extending from Tanta in northern Egypt to Baghdad to Aden to Sindh and Punjab (not to mention the zār heartland), with the Gulf region very centrally situated.

Mālid in Southern batinah Province, Oman:

Another example, from Oman, with greater emphasis on drumming and the posture of zār possession:

Maulidi ya homu in Swahili context:

The relentlessly repetitive chorus of frame drums and chanting bears some resemblance to the Qaderi zekrs of Kurdistan, Iraq, and Syria, while in some cases people pierce themselves with knives and skewers in a manner akin to Rifa’i ceremonies in Baghdad and elsewhere. The song texts, displaying a colloquial piety in the form of dire supplications, overlap a great deal in their themes and vernacular with the maritime work songs of sailors and pearl-divers, who themselves were uncommonly susceptible to spirit possession out on the lonely seas or in the dark depths of the beds frequented.

While the overall character of the mālid is understood as culturally Arab, it is performed by officiants who may be Arab or Baloch. Even if he is an Arab, if the social setting in which the mālid is arranged is Baloch, the muallem who leads the recitation should be prepared to interface with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar as a shaykh and inhabiting spirit:

 Qalandari dhikr chanted at a mālid in Oman:

Guātī (a variant of the zār that employs a distinctive Makrani Baloch musicality) and mālid ceremonies can be understood as zār rendered as Baloch and Arab vernaculars, respectively, while the zār, tanbura, and nūbān ceremonies remained coded as African. Another ceremonial idiom with an explicit African association, but this time Bantu, is leywah. Leywah is a kind of multiphase ritual dance that has cousins and ancestors in the Zanzibar archipelago as well as along the coasts  of Kenya and Tanzania and their immediate hinterland. 

As practiced in Oman and the Gulf, it is celebratory and maritime in its orientation, taking place at the seaside and often performed to inaugurate new vessels. It also proclaims an African heritage and less explicitly recalls the experience of slavery and subsequent manumission. Baloch, who were both slaves and slave-traders under the umbrella of a transoceanic Omani empire, have adopted leywah as an expression of Baloch historical consciousness. Among Baloch, invocations of the leywah genre are woven into more modern musical idioms, particularly at weddings, and decoupled from stand-alone ceremonial proceedings. 

Leywah in Oman: 

A Baloch wedding band in Muscat, a representative example of how the sonic palate of the leywah is rendered in a semi-electronic big band format:

Meanwhile, the Iranian musician and researcher Mohsen Sharifian from Bushehr has created for his group Lian a modern arrangement of leywah that distills and amplifies its East African character, drawing on Sharifian’s ethnographic research in Kharg and other coastal and island locations on both sides of the Gulf, but also tapping into fanciful popular imaginings of Africa (think The Lion King). 

A leywah arrangement performed by Mohsen Sharifian and his group Lian:

The dances in East Africa that are most closely related to leywah show contact with the Perso-Arab world in their use of double reed pipes (Swahil zumari from Arabic zummār).

Msewe in Pemba, Zanzibar archipelago, Tanzania:

The symmetry of zar, leywah, and mālid/mashāyekh along the facing shores of the Gulf is striking, although they may be branded as Omani, Emirati, Baloch, and South Iranian arts in various ethnographic contexts, especially in recent years there has been a surge in popular interest in Afro-Iranian, Afro-Arabian, and Afro-Baloch identities. 

In Iran, the periphery is often exoticized, even fetishized, by the center—the frontier imagery of Torbat-e Jam and Balochistan; a trendy fascination with the “Afro-Iranians” of Bushehr, Bandar-e Abbas, Qeshm, and Minab. Films such as Bahram Bezai’s Bashu: The Little Stranger and literature such as the stories and novels of Sadegh Chubak and Gholamhosein Saeedi (not to mention the ethnographic writing of the latter) posit Southern Iran as a realm of evocative otherness—gritty and forlorn, naturally at odds with the forests of Gilan and the cultural and political dominance of Tehran. “Bandarī” pop music and internationally visible performers such as Said Shanbehzadeh (himself a quarter Baloch) represent to many Iranians, inside Iran and in diaspora, a joyous, sensuous antithesis to the colorless, hypocritical puritanism promoted by the Islamic Republic—a Makrani Baloch friend recently referred to Bushehr as the “Brazil” of Iran, although that title is usually ascribed to Abadan.

Meanwhile, at Baloch weddings whether in Makran or Oman or the UAE, one frequently hears “Bandarī” pop staples such as Dokhtar-e Bandari, many of which were originally recorded for commercial consumption in Los Angeles.

Crucially, the Arab Gulf states are a site for the patronage of Baloch culture, with musicians being brought from Makran for sponsored residencies in Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait.

The dwindling roster of renowned pahlawāns (epic singers in Balochi) and master instrumentalists as well as modern singers and their accompanists are all regularly engaged for performances, both formal and informal, in peninsular Gulf settings, from weddings to Baloch culture days to intimate private gatherings. 

The dōnelī player Qaderbakhsh from Makran, then resident in al-‘Ain, UAE:

In some locales, the visibility of Baloch is suppressed. The large concentrations of Baloch citizens in Oman and the UAE enjoy a considerable degree of freedom and privilege—certainly relative to most non-citizen foreign workers. But the states themselves frown upon blatant manifestations of cultural difference, promoting instead a veneer of national unity, so that Baloch cultural organizations and literary associations in Oman and the UAE are quite active but keep a low profile. The Baloch Club of Bahrain is unique in the level of state support and approval it has received, but its leadership still has to navigate thorny patches when defiant displays of Baloch nationalism spontaneously erupt.

If the situation for Baloch culture, human rights, and self-determination in Balochistan is markedly unsettled, connections between Balochistan and the facing shores of the Arabian Peninsula are deep and immutable. The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, as traversable expanses, are more central today to a Baloch cultural economy than to any Arab or Iranian sphere of ongoing migration or communal ties. As evidenced in the array of musical and ceremonial examples provided above, the fluidity Baloch maintain in their contact and conversance with myriad neighboring collectives—Persians, Peninsular Arabs, communities of East African heritage, diverse South Asian cultural groups—is perhaps the most powerful binding agent in maintaining this infrastructure.

Baloch wedding in Liwa, Batinah, Oman (Photo: George Murer).

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