Ramadhan is in full swing, which means the whole caboodle of paraphernalia is in full display—mall décor, endless fast-breaking events and the ubiquitous religious songs on TV, radio, building lobbies and, sometimes, elevators.
I’m not sure exactly when the tradition started, but it’s safe to say that Bimbo who made it into the mainstream (yes, it’s the band’s actual name and no, doubt was coined with English language as a reference in mind). The Bandung-based siblings started out as a regular pop band, the brothers sporting long hair ABBA-style and strumming acoustic guitars. Then sometimes in the late 1980s Bimbo began adding religious lyrics to their usual melodious tunes, which then took the life of their own one day Bimbo just seemed to drop singing any other genre altogether.
Yet unless you were the Beatles, music monopoly doesn’t last. Similar groups started popping out, before nasyid from neighboring Malaysia and the Turkish musicians arrived. Nasyid was quickly deemed ‘too serious, too pesantren’ by moderate Muslim Indonesians. The Turkish group, on the other hand, stole the hearts of Moslem moms nationwide with their fancy embroidered frocks, fluent Indonesian, fabulous cheekbones and, I suspect, flowing fair-colored hair (resist the urge to make a biblical quip, people, resist the urge).
Then, lo and behold, the Sufism arrived (or, as my sufi student friend painstakingly tried to explain, finally manifested on our collective consciousness). A side of Islam that is filled with poems about universal understanding and acceptation, words of worship in Divinity that sound more like love letters—that is almost a devotion to Life than a religion. A breath of fresh air indeed, when organized religions have been fighting each other in so many parts of the world under the holy name of God we lost counts how many have died. People started reading, quoting and composing songs of Rumi’s poems that for a while my social media feeds were rhythmically Rumified after 11pm. Local whirling dervishes also began to appear, where their mundane-yet-magical whirls captivated Indonesia urbanites the jaded crowd forgot to snap pictures and upload them online.
Pretty much at that time musician Candra Malik arrived in the alternative music scene as the modern, local ‘sufi’, singing spiritual praises in Indonesian with fusion band incorporating traditional Indonesian tunes—often tagging traditional performers to join stage with whirling dervishes. For me his music is some other version of soothing yoga chants. For most Indonesians who still can’t differentiate religion to spirituality, he looks the part (flowing robe, turbaned flocks) and sounds Islamically right.
Then the marketing girl in me asks, why not? Why not the sufi brand of Islamic music to sell now? As the country housing world’s most populous Muslims there is always a sizable demand for some form of Islamic lifestyle. Indonesians across the archipelago value piety yet practice religions moderately, and only in recent years wrestling with the ugly seeds of hardline sects. The growing middle class tend to spend more on things considered trendy or status-worthy (the boom of Muslim fashion & umrah travels is a cue), so the sufi-traditional fusion music should fit nicely into the palette. The lyrics speak about love and compassion, nothing about engaging in holy wars. The tunes are soothing yet jovial, refreshing weary hearts and jaded minds of urban living. The dances are modest yet entertaining enough. As a whole performance it’s much closer to Indonesia’s own artistic traditions and a far cry from certain Islamic faction that bans art except calligraphy altogether—the aforementioned faction that worryingly has been gaining grounds on friendly Indonesian soil in the past decade.
That was the potential demand, now what about potential supply? Indonesia is never short of performing artists, I tell you. Rumi poems or other Sufi praises can be delivered in national Indonesian language or countless native dialects, and I’m betting there should be spiritual lines on our antique folklores and manuscripts that can be mined for inspiration. The accompanying tunes and dances can also draw bottomless inspiration from our rich traditions. Whenever I watched whirling dervishes I couldn’t help noticing the stark difference between the peace on these young men’s face and the anger I’ve personally encountered on FPI members’ face—even if both groups set out to act in honor of their Almighty. This can bridge Indonesian musicians’ varied traditions to their collective faith, and present a unique choice in return for fellow Muslim Indonesian audience– that may just impress ancient Persian Sufis watching from their virtual dimension somewhere. On these days when everyone is busy with ‘kami’ (the exclusive word for ‘us’) instead of ‘kita’ (the inclusive ‘us’), for politics and other worldly issues, I’m welcoming any effective effort to patch up the frayed nerves and torn fabric of society. A simple step of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, on that long-hauled walk for Indonesia.
Any amen? Ramadhan kareem, everyone.