Photographic portraits of Muneera Williams, Sona Jobarteh with her kora harp, and Abi Sampa

Salaam Festival is a new biennial festival of Islamic culture coming to Manchester from 2022. At MIF21, Salaam present a special preview of what’s to come, with three artists performing for one night only. Aniqah Choudhri introduces Salaam and their MIF21 line up.

As many-faceted as a rainbow and spanning at least 1,400 years, art in the Islamic world is rarely explored in all its vastness and diversity – especially when it comes to presenting alternative narratives and identities in the modern world. Salaam Festival, a new celebration of Islamic culture launching fully in Manchester in 2022, is looking to change that. As a preview of the festival to come, Salaam have curated an exciting line-up of three contemporary artists for one night only at MIF21.

‘When we started planning for MIF x Salaam Festival, we realised the most interesting musicians and performers on our lists were women who were innovating new ways of interpreting traditions,’ says Salaam organiser Asad Ali Jafri. ‘Abi Sampa, with her Orchestral Qawwali, brings a new sound to this 700 year old South Asian tradition. Musician and activist Sona Jobarteh continues her own family's Griot (Jali) tradition as the first professional woman kora player. And Muneera Pilgrim blurs the lines between poetry, hip hop and spoken word with her lyrics and performance.’

'There is always time to understand each other, and we can only do that if we see each other'

Rizwan Iqbal, Salaam Festival

Salaam’s event at MIF is focused on challenging misconceptions of the Islamic world by illustrating the vastness and beauty of it. For many, it will be their first time hearing the Griot and Qawwali traditions or the original blend Sufism and spoken word, and for others it will be hearing a breath of new life infused into them.

All three sets push against limited preconceptions of what Islamic art and culture is, and the audience that it is for, showing Manchester and the world the broad scope of possibility. ‘We want to share totally different stories in order to open more doors and opportunities for Muslim artists to be part of mainstream festivals and narratives,’ says Salaam’s Rizwan Iqbal. ‘There is always time to understand each other, and we can only do that if we see each other.’

Get excited for the event by discovering more about each performer, below.

Sona Jobarteh, Kora Virtuoso

Sona Jobarteh credit Dan Pier

A trailblazer and pioneer, Sona Jobarteh is the first female kora virtuoso from the rich Griot culture, an oral tradition that dates back centuries where storytelling and history were passed down from generation to generation. The kora is a string instrument, like a combination of a lute and a harp, that is played widely across West Africa.

Jobarteh was born into a Griot family from the Gambia and has played the kora from an early age. She gave her first performance at the London Jazz Cafe when she was only four years old and has since performed all over the world. Released in 2011, Jobarteh’s album Fasiya drew widespread acclaim for its compelling West African rhythms and Jobarteh’s effortless mastery as a composer over multiple instruments.

Jobarteh is also a composer for film and is best known for her sweeping score of the documentary film Motherland, an odyssey of the African continent from ancient Egypt to the present. Cinematic and emotive, the score also demonstrates Jobarteh’s distinctive voice. Her lovely, almost haunting vocals rise like smoke over the instrumentals, a combination that can turn dreamlike or heartbreaking in equal measure.

Abi Sampa, with Rushil & Amrit Singh

Image courtesy the artist

When she appeared on The Voice in 2013, Abi Sampa struck an emotional chord with the judges and the nation with her use of South Asian classical vocals fused with pop. Since then, her mix of western pop music, devotional song and Indian classical music has made her an inspiration for a generation of young South Asian artists.

Her recent collaboration with Rushil, Hold This, is written with a beautiful fusion of English and Urdu lyrics, with Sampa and Rushil’s vocals flowing through the rise and fall of piano notes and Indian percussion instruments.

For MIF x Salaam Festival, Abi Sampa and fellow musicians Rushil and Amrit Singh will be performing Qawwali, a form of devotional song and music originating from the Indian subcontinent that is often used for inspiring a communal atmosphere, one of spirituality and ecstasy. Abi Sampa is the UK’s first female Qawwal. The group’s success as the Orchestral Qawaali has gone from strength to strength since their debut in 2020 and has met with widespread acclaim for their use of ancient Islamic poetry, classical Indian music and modern orchestral arrangements.

Muneera Pilgrim, Poet, Artist and Activist

Muneera Williams, image courtesy the artist

Muneera Pilgrim is a poet, artist, activist and one of the co-founders of the hip-hop duo Poetic Pilgrimage. She has regularly appeared on BBC Radio 2’s programme Pause for Thought, and has led workshops on theatre and politics. Muneera Pilgrim will be performing and acting as host for MIF x Salaam Festival.

Poetic Pilgrimage formed when Muneera and co-founder Sukina Owen-Douglas bonded over the autobiography of Malcolm X back in 2005 and started on their journey together of creating art and exploring what it means to be a practising Muslim in the West. The group has never shied away from challenging the misconceptions that exist about Muslim culture, both within and outside Muslim communities, that often overlook the vast and beautiful world of Islamic art and culture from the African diaspora. Dubbed the ‘hip-hop hijabis,’ Muneera and Sukina have performed across the UK and internationally.

The influences of Sufism, her Caribbean heritage, social justice and sharp observations about the minutiae of human life, are buried like jewels throughout Muneera Pilgrim’s spoken word; each image flickering bright and heady. In her piece Rakhi, commissioned for the English Touring Theatre, she uses a flow of delicate lyricism — speaking of her ‘tongue blistering’, the ‘coffee beans buried in the belly of stone fruit in Blue Mountain, Jamaica’, and the moths ‘waging war’ on her insides. In other works, like Dear Everyone, the imagery is stark, blunt, to let the message of her piece sink into the audience like one devastating arrow. ‘But I swear,’ she says ‘change gon come. And change starts with one.’

Aniqah Choudhri is a journalist from Manchester.

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