In Search of Sulemani’s Seal

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Swahili boy with model boat on a beach in Lamu, Kenya © Eric Lafforgue

Today’s tale of cetaceans in world folklore comes to us from the Swahili people of Africa’s east coast. Occupying modern-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the Swahili have been predominantly Muslim since the early Middle Ages. While the influence of the Qur’an can be felt everywhere throughout their culture, local versions of internationally popular Islamic stories take on a character distinctive to this coastal people. One such story uses a legend of the mighty King Sulemani (the Swahili name for Solomon) to explain the origins of the dolphins that frolic in the Indian Ocean.

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Late 16th century illuminated manuscript by the Persian Master depicting Solomon presiding over a court of djinn and animals

Sulemani is one of the most popular characters in Swahili folklore. While King Solomon is an important figure in all Abrahamaic religions, his veneration in Islam has some unique characteristics. The Bible’s Solomon turns to idolatry under the influence of his hundreds of foreign wives, building temples and statues dedicated to the pagan gods of their homelands. He remains a figure of great wisdom and, in Judaism, an important political figure as the last king of a united Israel, but his overall portrayal is rather ambivalent. By contrast, Islam maintains a more positive outlook on Solomon throughout his reign. As one of Allah’s prophets, he is gifted with special supernatural powers. He rules over all spirits, people and beasts, and can even understand the language of animals. His power is contained in a special signet ring Allah gave him which bears “the seal of Solomon”. Solomon’s decline into idolatry is blamed on a djinn who stole the ring and impersonated the great king.

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New Music Week

MusicPlanetHello everyone! Things have been quiet on the blog front recently because I’ve been writing about whales and dolphins for my job! I work as coordinator of Music Planet, an initiative at the University of St Andrews which brings together musicians, scientists and other researchers to explore the relationship between humans and their environment through the performing arts. The goal is to engage new audiences with environmental research and get people to connect to climate change the way they connect to art and music.

The past month and a half I’ve been working to prepare for New Music Week, an annual celebration of innovative new compositions. For two of the events, I’ve been lucky enough to work with the research of leading marine mammal biologists who work at the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews. The featured composer this year at New Music Week is a Canadian woman called Emily Doolittle who describes herself as a zoomusicologist. She’s fascinated by animal sounds and how humans perceive them as music. Two of her pieces are being performed as part of New Music Week – Social Sounds of Whales at Night, which is named after the label on a St Andrews researcher’s recording of sperm whale clicks, and Conversation, a new piece which has been commissioned specially for New Music Week. Conversation was inspired by research Doolittle undertook with marine biologists in St Andrews about the haunting howls of grey seals when they’re hauled out on the beach. I haven’t heard either piece yet, but you can listen to one of Doolittle’s other pieces on Youtube here – the imitation of birds, whales, and other seaside sounds is really uncanny!

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