Monday, August 9, 2010
The American-founded, Indonesia-based Sufi group Debu is always busy this time of year, but right now that has reached a fever pitch.
The members have just spent two weeks in Yogyakarta recording their annual series of 30 buka puasa pieces — music played during the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast — for the “Kulthum”show on TVOne.
Their fifth album, “Dianggap Gila” (“They Say You’re Crazy”), also dropped this week. And if that wasn’t enough, Debu is deep into planning an international tour later this year, building on its recent success at the outstanding — if somewhat muddy — 13th annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia.
The members of Debu are a part of a Sufi community that chose Indonesia as its home after a dream by its American founder, Shaykh Fattaah, who brought 50 members of his extended family here from the United States in 1999. After two years in Sulawesi, the group settled in Cinere, South Jakarta.
The word ‘‘debu” means dust in Indonesian and the band’s 28-year-old spokesman, Mustafa Daood, says the name was chosen as a humble reminder that “we are all, in the end, simply dust along the road.”
Despite the inherent humility in their name and concept, Debu’s members are outstanding musicians and excellent showmen. But one never gets the impression that their egos play any part in their performances. They are moderate Muslims spreading the message of love and peace and, whether in Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia, audiences love them.
“The Sufi believe that the glorious things we do are a reflection of the glory of God,” Daood said.
The group’s 45-minute performance at the recent RWMF — which opened the vibrant, three-day event — was welcomed by a Jakarta-style deluge of rain that lasted until almost the last bar of Debu’s final number, then disappeared until the event’s closing night.
Despite the downpour, it took only a few beats of the first song before the festival crowd broke shelter and swarmed into the center of the vast amphitheater. That’s when Debu’s unique and irresistible sound, cohesion and stage presence took hold and a few members of the crowd moved forward, placing themselves firmly in front of the stage. Reluctant to leave their dry havens, others shook their heads in disbelief, but found their feet twitching and just a few minutes later moved forward too.
There were times when the water sluicing off the stage roof became a wall between the audience and the musicians, as translucent veils of mist covered their instruments with a film of water. But the band played on with a total disregard for the driving sheets of rain that sloped onto the stage, turning the roving beams of stage lighting into shimmering, glistening cones of silver and sending technicians scurrying to cover the precious equipment.
This was Debu’s first appearance at a world music festival, and it was a perfect fit. The band’s unique style is a rich and colorful blend of Eastern and Western influences — both traditional and modern — and includes the sounds of Javanese flute, guitar, violin, Iranian santur, Turkish tar and Arabian tambourine.
The RWMF audience — consisting of Sarawak locals, peninsula Malaysians and international visitors — was mesmerized. And putting aside the music, the four blond, pony-tailed Americans and four Indonesians made for a striking sight amid the deluge.
One audience member from New Zealand was full of praise for the band: “The last thing I would have expected — great music with an Islamic message, and two of the singers are blond Americans, singing in Indonesian, Spanish, English and Arabic.”
Debu’s lyrics — all Sufi poems written by the multilingual Fattaah — are both mystical and inspiring. Revolving around the theme of love and harmony, they hold a universal appeal. One song, “Ucapkanlah Bersama!” (“Say It Together!”) calls for people of different religions to focus on their common belief in God, not on what divides them.
Debu’s members have their own bustling recording studio and are constantly experimenting and recording in new languages (they have already recorded songs in nine languages), new musical styles and different instruments.
“Whether we are performing or not, being a Sufi is about living life, and every moment, with joy and peace,” Daood said.
With sold-out international tours of Turkey and Iran under its belt, Debu has been booked for another tour in Turkey in August, plans to make a splash in Canada in November and may squeeze in Holland and Saudi Arabia in September. The group has expressed hope about collaborating with fellow RWMF performers — the electrifying Farafina from West Africa and soulful Leila Negrau from the Reunion Islands — but planning for those projects will have to wait until the three groups slow their respective global orbits long enough to begin talking.
“We go all over the world, hoping to learn new music. One of the best things about the rain forest festival was that the daily workshops gave us the opportunity to sit alongside other musicians — great musicians from England, France, Iran, India, Africa and South America. We were learning every minute, it was pretty awesome,” Daood said.
As for the rain: “No matter what happens there is a reason for it. We’ll wait to see the answer.”
Debu’s Sufi community strives to be a nurturing environment for young talent. The group’s 13 performers include 15-year-old santur player Ahmad Kauthar, from Banten. Ahmad has been part of this musical family since he was little. He tried the flute when he was 10 years old, but “didn’t find it quite interesting.”
The santur, also called a dulcimer, is a 72-stringed instrument used in ancient times to entertain the kings of Persia. Ahmad took over playing the santur after another group member retired, leaving a space for someone to play the delicate instrument.
Ahmad is home-schooled and fits his academic classes around tours and performances. He studies mathematics, Indonesian, English and Arabic, but he had to teach himself how to play the santur by listening to compact discs because he is thought to be the only player of this unique instrument in Indonesia.
“Find out what you really want to do and just do it. Try to be the best at it but just do it. Enjoy your life,” Ahmad advised. “I want to take this life I am offered and make the most of it. I want to be respected for my music in Iran and other countries where the santur is played.”
Picture: A rainstorm transformed this year’s Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia, into a muddy melee, but that didn’t stop Debu fans from dancing. Photo: Courtesy of RWMF/TJG