Indonesia is endowed with hundreds of musical instruments and many more compositions. The emergence and spread of dangdut and pop music, however, has all but vanquished traditional tunes. Some people have dared to go against the flow managing to prove that in their hands, traditional music remains as vibrant as ever. They have innovated and fused the music with popular and technically modern compositions to produce amazing harmonies. In celebration of World Music Day on June 21, Tempo English reports on the unique talents of traditional musicians from Aceh, North Sumatra and other areas in the country.
The idol of Aceh
The Acehnese are enamored by the traditional and modern music compositions by the Kande music group, with the acclaimed Rafly as vocalist. His concerts have never had fewer than 20,000 spectators.
Hundreds of visitors crowded around the stage in the yard of Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, Banda Aceh, on Wednesday two weeks ago, celebrating Isra Miraj the spiritual journey of Prophet Muhammad to heaven. One of the most awaited programs was Rafly's concert with his band, Kande. //… Puleh darah, gapah utak, ie ngen minyek, saya ya Allah. ...// [my blood and mind recovering, with water and oil, all thanks to Allah].
Above is the lyrics of Puleh sung by Rafly, telling the story of recovery from sickness with the power of Allah. The song was accompanied by praises and other verses of tauhid (oneness of God).
The sound of rapai Aceh's tambourines played by his group members chimed to the song. Their tones were no less passionate than the drum beats. Rafly, who is said to cover six octaves, hit a high note. "His voice is remarkable," said Natasha Rahmany, 32, a fan from Banda Aceh. "I've never been bored listening to his songs," said Aisyah, another fan from the same city.
Each time the music group launches an album, their CDs sell by the hundreds of thousands. One of their charms is the ability to combine traditional musical instruments like tambourines, seurune kale a wind instrument and local drums and tambo percussion instruments with modern ones such as guitars, basses and drums. At first glance, their music is similar to R&B. But they've never abandoned Acehnese music's ethnic character.
Rafly's lyrics contain religious sublimity and social criticism. When Aceh was in conflict, for instance, he frequently voiced peace. One of his songs that became a top hit is Anak Yatim (Orphans), about children losing their fathers in the conflict. There's also Hom, among the songs in Kande's first album, asking that people not be apathetic.
Rafly often tours Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia. "I've also visited Scotland, London, and Malaysia," said Rafly. He said he had more frequently appeared solo than with Kande. "Inviting a group with complete equipment of up to 60,000 watts demands high costs and energy," he pointed out.
The vocal talents of the man born in Samadua, South Aceh, in 1967, is inherited from his father, Mohammad Isa, an artist of the Meudikee music group. His father used to sing verses of religious advice. The shows made Rafly intimate with the traditional art. He became skilled in playing the tambourine.
But Rafly once let go of Aceh music. As a junior high school student, he got to know rock music. So he learned to play the guitar. Rafly thought he would be seen as old-fashioned if he could not play the instrument. While attending school and college, he became an amateur rock musician.
Finishing his college study in 1994, Rafly taught at a state Islamic school, Madrasah Ibtidaiyah Negeri (MIN), West Aceh. His musical endeavor was halted. However, in 1997 he returned to music, singing solo to the accompaniment of ethnic and modern instruments.
In 2000, he was transferred to the Banda Aceh MIN and began considering forming a band. He was worried to see Aceh music separating from tradition. "Aceh's songs at the time mostly imitated dangdut (Hindi tinged pop music) and Indian songs translated into Acehnese," he noted. So he gathered five musicians and formed Kande. Rafly aimed at creating ethnic Acehnese music in dynamic rhythms and in accordance with current trends. "It should be pleasant to the ears of the old and the young," he said.
He faced many constraints in composing. "There are no standards for playing Aceh music with modern instruments," said Zulkifli, a member of Kande. They also strove hard to ensure all musical instruments were heard in their compositions. "They should be in harmony. One instrument mustn't overshadow the other," he added.
Kande started making an album. Rafly himself also compiled a solo album. But they still had difficulty in finding a producer. Many producers rejected them for various reasons: there is no female voice in the album; there are mixed languages Indonesian, Aceh, and Jame (an Aceh traditional tongue). And even because their music is too old.
So Rafly began playing the music at coffee stalls to test the public reaction. "Many people turned out to enjoy the songs," he said.
They then found a producer in Banda Aceh. The result? Rafly's first solo album Hasan dan Husein, which sold 70,000 cassettes. Hundreds of thousands of its VCDs were also bought. Kande's first album, titled The Fighting Spirit, was released in 2002 and its cassette sales reached around 50,000. Rafly and Kande became widely known and made progress. Now Kande has eight core members. Its full team comprises 14 people.
What has made Rafly and Kande popular? Aceh's cultural expert, Azhari Aiyub, said they fulfilled desire of the Acehnese for their beloved folk music. "The people of Aceh immediately responded to Rafly's music," he explained.
Many imitation groups emerged after Rafly's fame. "But only Rafly has continued to survive," said Azhari.
How does Rafly maintain cohesion within his band? He creates an intimate, familial atmosphere. "We discuss difficulties collectively," said Rafly.
The local government supports Rafly in his work. "We often invite him to perform in government programs organized in Aceh," said Banda Aceh Tourism and Culture Office head, Reza Fahlevi. "Rafly has popularized Aceh music at home and abroad."
No. 45/12, July 03, 2012