The chief language of Madagascar, Malagasy, belongs to the Malay family of languages spoken on the islands on the other side of the island. On the Konkan coast, from Karnataka all the way up to Gujarat, there are people who owe their origins to Abyssinia and beyond. In Maldives, they speak Divehi, a word which borrows from the Indian root Div meaning island. In Mauritius, Hindi (specifically Bhojpuri), French, Swahili and English have got mashed up into a lilting creole which Amitav Ghosh plays with in River of Smoke, his second book in the Ibis trilogy. Every piece of land on the shores of or sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean share languages, religions, cuisine, customs, trades and even disasters.

These are just a few examples which give evidence of the intense traffic in the Indian Ocean over millennia. Cargo including spices, rubber, teak, opium, coffee, horses, gold, frankincense, myrrh and slaves were exchanged between the lands. All this togetherness is also embedded in the music of this part of the world.

The rhythmic movement of waves and tides serve as the basic tempo of boatmen and fishermen songs from Indonesia to Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka to Maldives to Madagascar. Islam has contributed to a Sufi like structure to song writing where the Almighty is personified as the beloved. Africa and South India have sent out varieties of drums and percussion instruments to the far lands to lend the beats.

To start exploring the music of the Indian Ocean, we can follow the spice trail – starting with Indonesia and Burma in the east through Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the islands of Lakshadweep, Minicoy and Maldives in the middle on to Arabia in the north.

We can also follow the people trail – slaves transported from Africa to India and the East Indies; indentured labourers from Bihar and Bengal transported to Mauritius, East Africa and Southern Africa; Arab traders settling down in Zanzibar, Somalia, Kutch, Malabar and the Malay; pirates setting up free cities in Madagascar and Mozambique; peoples of one land crossing the seas to another land escaping persecution and war and of course the Europeans of all shades and tongues conquering everything in sight.

In this post I go east and explore the music of a contemporary band in Aceh.

Aceh, in the northern tip of Sumatra, has a history of its own. Being closest to India and West Asia, it was a port of call for ships sailing east. Islam came to this part of the world in the 13th century with graves of Sultans dating to the period found here. There may have been some influence from Hindu kingdoms of India as there are a number of places with Sanskrit names. But for the last 800 years, Islam has been the guiding force here and remains so. The Sultanate of Aceh was one of the wealthiest in the region because of the strategic location and was much coveted as an ally by the Portuguese, Dutch and of course the Arabs. It is still has a status of an autonomous region within Indonesia, the outcome of the peace accord that ended over 30 years of internal conflict, triggered by the tsunami.

This move towards peace, some people say, started with the huge destruction caused by the tsunami in December 2004 that wiped out 120,000 people from the town of Aceh and destroying 60% of the city. There was thus a two levels of rebuilding – one physical from the calamity and one more psychological from the horrors of conflict.

I found this band called Kande (meaning candle). Built around frontman Rafli, considered a rockstar in his country, the vocals and the strong bass lines of the band generate a powerful force that makes you pay attention. His vocals remind me of the legendary Baaba Maal of Senegal.

Kande’s 2006 album Meukondroe (If Not Us) discusses the dual rebuilding process which requires peace and unity and this message comes through in this album. Rafli himself traveled from refugee camp to refugee camp in Aceh province, singing and providing solace to the internally displaced people there. Incidentally, most music shops in Aceh were washed away and it is very difficult to find music discs in Aceh itself.

The songs which I have put in this playlist are in Acehnese. I don’t understand the words. But some of the visuals in the video give their own message. The vocals themselves resemble the muezzin’s call. Aceh is one of the most conservative parts of Indonesia and the call to prayer is very much part of the ambient audioscape. Rafli’s voice travels through like those of the best qawwaals and classical singers. The band that plays around him accentuate the power of the vocals.

Playlist:

  1. Meukondroe, the title song from the 2006 album. There are two versions – the original and a concert version with a string orchestra
  2. Hoom
  3. Bumoe, the opening screen of the video suggests that the song is about the tsunami and the destruction it caused
  4. Asai Nanggroe
  5. Meukuta Alam, which has old archival pictures of Aceh and has a touch of the saudade in its tune.
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