Bodu Beru – the beat of a nation

Bodu beru – literally meaning “big drum” – is one of the oldest surviving aspects of Dhivehi culture and is popular amongst tourists visiting the Maldives.

It is a tradition thought by historians to have been brought to the islands by African slaves shipped from Arabia.

It is widely believed that these magnificent beats settled in the Maldives in the 18th century as these slaves sought to remain close to their culture. Now, these enthralling drum beats form the very pulse of the islands.

The beat is hammered out with bare hands on a goatskin drum of traditional design  – sometimes stingray skin is used.

The tempo starts slow and builds up into a crescendo – this intensity then continues before reaching an abrupt end. During the music, performers do a splendid dance.

Ahmed Athif, known as Arthu – a member of the 24-piece band that is Harbee – is the grandson of the legendary musician and bodu beru player “Mureedhube”, who was revered in the Maldives up until his death at the age of 106.

“The tourist reaction towards the bodu beru is always positive. In almost every resort there is a bodu beru group, or they take us or other groups to perform,” said Arthu.

“It feels so great to be part of the most popular bodu beru group in whole of the Maldives.”

“I started to learn bodu beru when I was around eight years old – my grandfather was my master in teaching bodu beru. I learned so many styles of various kinds of beats from him. Every Maldivian knew my grandfather. He even got the President’s National Award.”

The group has been around for almost 15 years but officially came to be known as Harubee after their 2005 Dubai Shopping Festival performance, which brought them fame.

Since then, Harubee has gone onto perform at tourism expos  and various major events at resorts. They have appeared on the National Geographic Channel and the BBC, in addition to performing alongside major local artists at live events.

Harubee’s first mainstream success came when they won the MNBC Bodu Beru Challenge 2010, before retaining the title in 2011.

Fitting their engagements around full time work, there are 24 members with Shina, Puchu, Naube, and Shamru as the four main drummers. The other members sing backing vocals. Mandey is the main vocalist and the line up changes depending on who can get time off work for a performance.

Harubee relates to the traditional greeting of the sultan. During Eid, citizens would march with trumpets and big drums in a ceremony called “Harubee Ah Vadaigathun”.

Nowadays bodu beru is always popular at parties and weddings but mostly on eid and circumcision celebrations – or “hithaany”.

Many of the songs circulating around the bodu beru scene are so old that their origins are lost entirely. Harubee has revamped the musical style and made “bodu beru cool again” – not just something your grandparents did.

There are various styles of bodu beru – including baburu , nala , kaashimajaa, hedhi-beru or taki,  and now zamaani.

Harubee is currently working on a new album as the group continues to bring bodu beru to the mainstream. Not only are they carving a career for themselves at home in Male’ and in resorts like Bandos, they are also gaining international recognition, touring in India and China in recent years.

Arthu says that Bodu Beru could easily be exported and it is easy to learn, if you have the right attitude.

“Everyone, young to old knows our songs and sings them. It brings the nation together.”


Q&A: Maldivian metal band Nothnegal

Maldivian melodic metal band Nothnegal launched their self-titled EP last month for digital release in America after putting it on general international release. In that time the EP has shot up to 22nd place on Google Music’s Top Metal Albums chart.

The EP, which ranked above albums of bands such as Megadeth and Queens of the Stone Age, was produced in collaboration with Paul Reeve – producer of music for the legendary Muse.

On their new four-track EP, recorded in their native Dhivehi language, they go back to their island roots so even more locals can enjoy their work.

The Music

Donna Richardson: Tell me about your band?

Hirlal Agil: We are the only band in Maldives to tour internationally and have an album distributed by a major label on a wide scale, but lot of locals here are still not aware of us even though we are doing quite well in the world.

We have been featured on major international rock/metal magazines like Rolling Stone, Revolver, GuitarWorld and Metalhammer.

DR: Tell me a bit more about the music and your influences looking back at your first release, how have you changed your style since, are you becoming more daring since having fame?

HA: Yes we would, we have already booked summer festivals and tours for Europe for winter 2014. And next year will be busy for us after we release the new album.

We started off as a really extreme metal band, and our music was quite fast and aggressive with growled and screamed vocals. Now our sound has evolved and we have slowed down while retaining our melodic sound. We have enjoyed clean vocals since our new singer Affan joined the band and now we have a good heavy metal sound.

The new EP we released has a more experimental sound and is more Maldivian than our previous releases. We will start work on the new album in a couple of months, which will have a more progressive sound. We aren’t afraid to experiment and always try new stuff.

DR: Your EP has been released, what has been the response internationally?

HA: It has been doing quite well. We have received good reviews and gained new fans through the album as well as new tour opportunities and brand endorsements.

DR: How did the association with Matt Hyde (Slipknot, Bullet for My Valentine, As I Lay Dying) and Paul Reeve (MUSE) come about?

HA: I sent them our music from the previous album, and discussed working on the next release together and they were readily onboard. We had a lot of help from Shamheed as a producer and engineer who has a lot of experience in the Maldivian music industry as we intentionally wanted to steer the sound towards a more Maldivian sound. He has worked with other Maldivian artists, like Ahmed (of the legendary Maldivian band Zero Degree Atoll) who recently released his solo album. Shamheed has a lot of experience with the Maldivian culture and its music.

DR: Describe the writing and recording process of your latest album, and describe some of the themes?

HA: We usually write the songs at our home studios before we enter the studio with the producers. We had Shamheed, a Maldivian producer handling the overall production of the songs, me and him worked on the concept and themes.

We had a new singer and guitarist this time. Affan and Chippe’ who played the guitars with me. By the time Matt and Paul flew here from the UK, we already had the song compositions done.

Matt gave instructions on arrangements and Paul gave tips on the vocals.

The main theme of this record was inspired from traditional music of the Maldives with the lyrics being based on the folklore, beliefs and legends of the islands here.

DR: What are your plans for the future?

HA: We will be starting work on the next album in a month or so, the follow up to our debut album Decadence. It will be a concept album and we are planning to record most of the instruments in Europe, like we did with the first album. It always helps to have more resources.

This winter we will tour in Europe from December to January. It will be a smaller tour of 10 shows across Germany, Switzerland, France, Netherlands and Belgium. We see it as a warm-up before our major tours for 2014 which kick off after our album release around April or May.

Over the summer we will play all the big summer festivals around Europe. This will lead into a fully-fledged European tour at the end of the year to support the upcoming album.


DR: Lyrically, you draw upon your Maldivian roots, do you want to use your fame to highlight the problems in your country? You bring these issues to a wider audience using your fame and that is something different, people can learn more about the mystical and exotic Maldives, is that your intention?

HA: Yeah, we would incorporate this even more for the next release. It would be our second major album and out next year. Overall it will have a more focused sound.

Because we are from Asia, and far away from the major music markets in Europe and the US, labels and promoters are reluctant to take the risk of taking a band from an unknown territory. Luckily we seem to have been able to pass this barrier. It was a huge challenge and we had to put in everything we got, but we managed to get through somehow.

DR: Are you a political animal? What do you make of current election preparations?

HA: Not really, I am not too involved with politics but I do keep myself updated with what’s going on around me.

The music scene has been quite inactive the whole year, with no shows or anything in the capital. But we operate differently, focusing more on the international market. At home, people seem to be involved in politics and too distracted for music.

Right now I’d say everybody is too occupied with politics and the upcoming elections and on promoting their choice of candidate. I don’t think people even find time to entertain or enjoy themselves.

DR: Do you think that the political problems will have a negative effect on the Maldivian music industry?

HA: Yes, obviously. We used to have bigger shows but that has changed mostly due to the fact that not a lot of people would show up for shows as there is always some political event or rally.

Businesses too are reluctant to sponsor music concerts and this is leading to smaller events.

DR: How would you like to see the record industry evolve in the Maldives?

HA: We don’t really have any official music charts here, so it would be interesting to develop one and it would be really great to have a major rock music festival like the Download Festival or Wacken Open Air.

DR: When you are writing material, what influences do you draw from your environment – for example poverty, environment, religious extremism – all reign on your islands – so a lot to shout about?

HA: On our first album we wrote the lyrics based on a concept we came up with, which was a fictional story about machines taking over the human race, our environment being destroyed and stuff like that.

We released a new four song EP last month, which is more focused on promoting our culture, music, by making use of traditional instruments here with some songs being sung in our native language, the lyrics were mostly based on the darker side of the Maldivian history.

We don’t really incorporate what is currently happening around us to our music.

The only obvious influence from here would be the environment, our culture, traditions and that’s basically it.

We are already discussing our next major album, which would be our second album and we would mostly focus on creating something based on the natural environment around us and our culture.

DR: What challenges are you facing as a musician in your home country, even though you are an international band?

HA: I’m not sure if it’s due to Nasheed leaving government, but I do feel that the music industry, especially the rock and metal music has really gone backwards in the last year. The year before that, we had a quite active rock and heavy metal music scene from 2003 to 2010 with frequent shows and festivals which catered to larger audiences.

Now it has slowed down. Music has been promoted – kept alive – by the public with not much involvement from the government, maybe the bigger businesses aren’t too motivated to sponsor and fund this area of music anymore. There are shows happening occasionally, but not a lot of people care to go as its mostly smaller shows and i guess people expect certain standards in shows.

I would say that music was at its peak of activity from 2004 – 2008 and then for some reason it slowed down as companies stopped sponsoring music shows. It hasn’t been easy for organizers to put on shows without good sponsors. Dhiraagu and Wataniya sponsor commercial music shows, but not a lot of ‘metal’ shows.

One thing we would like to point out is that, all of European and American bands tell us that they have government programs to aid their internationally touring bands finance their tours since it takes a while before a band can really take off. In our case it’s hard because the Maldivian government does not have such a program. We find that we are mostly funding things ourselves. Sometimes we get help from private businesses. We did get grants in 2010 for our European tour by the then government which was a huge step forward for us.

At the moment, the government does not have a program to support bands internationally. If such a system existed, it would be a lot easier for us to do what we do.

The main driving force behind the band is me and Hamad right now and we have ploughed almost all our savings into it. We don’t really get a lot of sponsors and aid here.

This can be hard as we are playing outside their market. After all we are considered a Maldivian band and we are representing our country out there and in the international media.

You may know what it is like for a British band to breakout, tour and get to the next level. It’s ten times harder to achieve that being from here.

Labels, booking agents, managers are always reluctant to work with an artist from a region this far from their industry. But we have managed to get their attention, land big tours and actually do it. So I believe the least the government could do is to help us take things to the next level, I’m sure it’s not just us who would be talking about a Maldivian band being popular in Europe.

DR: Would you say that death metal is a reaction to the social conscience of the nation?

HA: I don’t really think so, it’s more about the music, the trend and the hype and most of the guys I know don’t really care about the lyrics or anything. They just listen to it for the sake of the music, and some people just like faster more aggressive music. Music is art and there are different styles of it just like everything else, extreme music is just one of it.

The band members or fans of the bands don’t usually believe what they have on the lyrics or what they do onstage, it’s just a show.

You can’t judge an actor’s real life attitude or behaviour based on a specific role he does on a movie. It’s basically the same thing here.

DR: For those unfamiliar with the Maldives, can you give a brief description of your country and what are your thoughts about the upcoming elections?

HA: I would say things have been slower since the change of the government last year. No attention has been given to the music or the arts, and no major shows have happened since then. The elections are quite unpredictable for me at this stage, but there it could make a major difference depending on who wins the election.

DR: Are you back in the Maldives now? Tell me how you feel when you go home?

HA: Yes, I’m in the Maldives right now. Right now everything is politicized over here. I grew up in Maldives and I was in Sri Lanka for a time for my studies. Maldives has changed quite much since I was a kid, maybe it is more civilized. Our debut album was recorded in Maldives, Finland, US and mixed in Canada. This EP was mostly recorded in Maldives and mixed in Canada.

We are planning to travel to Finland during winter to record the new album.

It’s always easier with more resources, and these are hard to find in Maldives.

DR: Do you believe that democracy has failed in the Maldives? Or is there still a chance?

HA: There still is hope, if only everybody would start working together to resolve all that’s happened rather than fighting for power.

DR: What’s the theme of your songs generally? What messages are you trying to convey?

HA: In earlier material, our lyrics are mostly based on a fictional story of a war between man and machines which takes place in the future. Our theme does reflect on global warming where the world is left with just water and artificial islands built to support life.

DR: So you reflect some of the issues affecting the Maldives?

HA: Yes the story takes place in the distant future where all land is under water and artificial islands are built to support life. Humans depend on machines and machines grow more powerful and enslaved the human race. That’s the basic concept.

DR: Personally, how do you feel about climate change, as a Maldivian your homeland will be the first to be affected?

HA: Everyone needs to make it a priority and start with the simplest stuff like not using plastic bags. That would make a huge difference to the damage done to the environment. It is something anybody could do.

DR: How do you feel about rubbing shoulders with the international metal music industry?

HA: It feels great. We have already gotten to a point which we never thought we could and we have been able to share the tour bus with some of the bands which we used to listen as kids. We have been able to share the stage with some of our favourite bands. It feels great that at least these bands know that we exist.

DR: What would you like to see for the Maldives music industry?

HA: I want to see more bands doing what we are doing, and more bands gaining international recognition.

What goes on tour

DR: Tell me about some of the bands you have toured with and who for you have been the best?

HA: We toured with Finntroll in 2010 and together we played in 24 European cities non-stop and enjoyed every bit of it. We had a good audience each night and we made a lot of new fans. We also worked with a producer of Slipknot and it was obviously a huge thing for us to be working with producers of that level. We learned a lot and it opened up new opportunities for us.

Of all the bands that we have worked with so far Opeth was a favourite band of ours. They are very down to earth and they drew the most people. They know how to do a good show and Mikael is one of the best frontmen in the world. We hung out before and after the show.

DR: How did you meet them?

HA: I have been in contact with Opeth’s manager Andy for some time and we discussed a concert in the Maldives. It happened to take place on February 8 2012.

DR: What happens when you go on tour? How do you combat boredom on the road?

HA: When tour on Europe we would travel on a night-liner. We travel with other bands and we do a show every night. We would wake up the next day in a new city, new country, once the crew are done setting up the stage and equipment, we would do a sound check and do the show. Some of us would back to the bus and sleep right after the show and others would wait a bit to meet fans before going to sleep. That’s the routine for a whole month or more. The night-liner is our home for the entire duration of the tour and has TV’s, PS3 inside a living area with a coffee machine. We don’t have time to be bored while travelling.

DR: Do you have any funny stories from tour?

HA: Yeah there was a lot of memorable stuff that happened on tour. Like when our bassist misplaced his passport at the Heathrow airport when we were already late for a flight. Our flight to Maldives got cancelled due to snow while we were at the Frankfurt airport and we were stuck inside the terminal for over 30 hours because our visa had expired the same day. It’s always unpredictable when travelling and on tour.

DR: What did it feel like being on stage with Arch Enemy, Opeth and the likes. Have you played with Megadeth or Black Sabbath at all – is that on the list?

HA: It was amazing. We had covered Opeth’s songs when we first started out.

I have known Megadeth’s bassist David Ellefson for a while and gave them the Decadence CD when I met them in Singapore. We haven’t played with them yet but that could happen next year

We are already booked for a festival with Children of Bodom and Arch Enemy -bands we covered extensively when we started out, so we feel quite accomplished already

DR: I read somewhere that growing up in the Maldives you would read Metalhammer – how did it feel to actually appear in a magazine you read as a teen?

HA: It was amazing. I would never have imagined myself being mentioned in it back in those days.

DR: You guys have been around for a while, formed in 2006 but had your first taste of fame in 2009 when signed to season of mist, as one of the founders of the band, what has been your vision all along and do you think you have achieved it all yet?

HA: I would say the record deal was the biggest breakthrough for us. Season of Mist have distribution with EMI one of the biggest record labels in the world, so our releases got really good distribution and promotion. We were accepted by the international community from there. I wouldn’t say we have achieved it all but we have come a long way from where we started. I would say the internet has helped a lot. I spent years researching the industry before actually diving into it. I kind of knew what had to be done, and which paths to take.

DR: What advice would you like to give to an aspiring band?

HA: Spend as much time possible with your instrument and try to come up with your own original sound. Write as much music as possible. The internet is your best friend these days, there are loads of websites and social networks to helps you spread the word about your music and band. That’s how we gained international recognition in 2008.

DR: Where is the best place you have travelled to?

HA: Probably Switzerland – the audience is amazing over there and very dedicated to the music they listen to. It was on our European tour at the end of 2010 when we played in about 14 countries in Europe. We did the tour with 4 other bands – Finntroll from Finland, Samael from Switzerland and two other bands.

DR: How can new bands gain the recognition you have?

HA: Dedication, hard work and having a plan are all keys to success. People should believe the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of bands out there around the world seeking recognition, a record deal or a tour. I guess more people should be aware of how music business model works and how the industry functions. There are a lot of potential musicians in the Maldives, but playing an instrument or being able to write a song alone is not enough to break out to international community. It is quite a challenge, takes a lot more than that.

We were led to believe global recognition is not for Maldivian bands but I ignored these critics and set my eyes on this from day one. I was 18 years when I first started out on this now I’m 26, so it has taken some years but we are finally getting somewhere. We have spent almost all our savings on getting things working.

DR: Tell me about your music, who writes your material?

HA: My cousin Fufu and I were always the primary songwriters. Others contribute once we come up with basic song structures.

Inside the Band

DR: Your cousin Fufu was not able to be part of the songwriting and recording of this EP due to personal commitments, but Chippe’ filled in for him, will Fufu return for the next album?

HA: We are hoping he will return but he was not able to give time for the band and we had to start work on it without him. It takes a lot of commitment to write and record. We hope he will return shortly as he is one of the founder members. We formed the band in 2006 as Fufu and I were both into music and playing the guitar.

DR: What is your inspiration when you write music?

HA: Probably listening to other bands we like and watching movies. But we are going to be more creative with the new stuff adding a Maldivian touch to the sound.

DR: How did you meet your international band mates?

HA: Our drummer is American, keyboard player is Finnish and I met them both online.

DR: Do you have a hobby or a pass time that most people would find weird?

HA: I am a computer programmer and that’s what I keep myself busy with when I am not working on music and the band. I studied in Sri Lanka and later continued to learn online through the Harvard Extension School and focusing on software engineering.

DR: How often would you say you are touring?

HA: We record and tour for a couple of weeks or months a year, and then take a year break, and then the same thing again with occasional tours during the break year.

DR: What do you do during your break year – do you have another job?

HA: I work on contract as a web programmer. Some of us have some day jobs and others play commercial music in the Maldives. But it looks like that has to change from next year onwards because we have five months of touring and shows planned and we wouldn’t be able to do anything else apart from music.

DR: Who have you worked with internationally that you have admired and who would you still like to work with?

HA: We have worked with some of the biggest producers from Canada, US, UK and Scandinavia. We always try to work with different people with each new recording, as this helps us achieve a different sound each time.

DR: Can you name anyone in particular?

HA: Greg Reely worked on our debut album. He has worked with such diverse artists as Machine Head, Fear Factory and Sarah Mclachlan. More recently we have worked with Paul Reeve who produced some of Muse’s albums and then Matt Hyde who have worked with Slipknot, Bullet for My Valentine.

DR: The Megadeth gig is that a certainty and where will it be?

HA: Yes it would be at a festival. It’s not announced yet but we are going to be playing about 8-9 festivals next summer across Europe with an average crowd would be 20-80,000. It should be good exposure for us. The Festivals include Rock Harz and Summerbreeze in Germany.

DR: How does the band work when you are based in Maldives and the keyboard player and drummer abroad, do you only meet when you are on tour?

HA: Our drummer and keyboard player come over to Maldives from Norway and America, to rehearse or if we are doing an Asian tour or show in Maldives. We are a very international band. Our sound engineer is Australian and light engineer is Swiss.

DR: How do you fund the band? Do you get any other sponsorship or earnings from shows?

HA: Season of Mist funds the recordings and some support for tour. Labels never cover all of the band’s expenses so we mostly pay for touring from our pockets. Mostly Hamad and I pay for it. We haven’t been earning for shows, but its slowly changing. We believe from next year we can sustain this through the band’s income. We are starting to get better deals sponsorships are hard, almost impossible.

DR: Do you have an agent?

HA: We recently hired a booking agent who handles some huge bands like Arch Enemy, W.A.S.P so should be good for us Dirk Lehberger from Germany. Before I used to handle all of the band’s management and booking stuff but since we started working with him it’s been a lot easier and we have been getting a lot better shows and tours all booked for 2014.

DR: Tell me about your journey to international fame and who has been your inspiration?

HA: The music scene could take a major turn depending on who gets elected.

DR: There are a lot of heavy metal bands in Maldives, but what’s your secret, why did you get a break?

We have been working towards this goal from the very beginning. I guess having a good plan and pushing ahead regardless of all the challenges we faced has been the key. There were times that we thought we could not continue, but we just never gave up, we kept going.

DR: How would you characterize its sound/style/genre?

HA: It is a fusion of Folk rock, Folk Metal, Alternative Rock, Metal and Heavy Metal

DR: What makes your band different to any other bands out there?

HA: I don’t know any other band in the Maldives that have been touring around Europe and the World like us here. Some bands have done one off gigs at different levels.

DR: What inspires you most as an artist and who are your muses?

HA: International artists I have listened to since childhood – I was always curious to learn how they succeeded. I’d say curiosity is what made me study the industry.

DR: What’s your favorite band?

HA: Early heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer: which I have been listening to since a kid. It is hard to say, but Iron Maiden is definitely a favorite.

DR: What’s the most exciting place you have visited on your tours?

HA: Finland. Everybody there is into heavy metal. Even at the immigration the officer there asked us, are you a metal band? We said yes. His response was ‘cool!’ It’s winter 75% of the year over there, I’m not a fan of the cold weather but it’s different.

DR: How did you get your first break?

HA: I learned the technicalities related to recording while learning the music business itself. Then I bought myself a sound interface and began experimenting and learning the recording software. I used all my own savings.

My computer background helped a lot. I started the band with my cousin Fufu on the other guitar and we recorded four demo songs some inspired from video games, just for fun.

We had trouble with finance in the beginning but since Hamad joined the band we have been more stable.

We saved up, paid for the mixing and uploaded some songs to Myspace as free downloads. Surprisingly we got some recognition out of them and we were motivated to continue.

Our biggest break came when we recorded a full album with the financial backing of businessman Abdul Majid. It was this album that landed us the record deal with Season of Mist.

Majid contributes a lot to the Maldivian music community and also our friend. Fariheen who runs the Fihalhohi resort, has been helping us in a lot of ways since the beginning and Ismail Noordeen believes in us and contributes to our activities.

I could easily say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.

DR: Also you play guitar, when did you learn how to play and what are you playing right now – electric or acoustic and brand – do you play any other musical instruments do you also write music?

HA: Me and fufu started playing guitar as kids, both electric and acoustic. I primarily play with Jackson Guitars with whom i have an endorsement deal with. Jackson is also the choice for a lot of my favorite guitarists. I am very much involved in the composition and concepts of the bands’ music and albums.

DR: In terms of your career what else do you want to achieve?

HA: There is still a lot to be achieved. I feel like we are just getting started. We want to be able to sustain this. I see a lot of bands giving up at some point. There have been times even we thought of doing that, but we have come this far and intend to continue.

DR: How have you evolved so far, do you think you have changed much for example since your last album and release before that?

HA: We have tweaked our sound for each release, we believe we have been improving it and the EP is something completely different for us, the next album would have some resemblance to our previous album, but will retain a sound of its own. We try to bring something new every time. Decadence is the only full length album so far but we have a release next year.

DR: When did you know you hit it big? Describe the moment?

HA: We were really excited when we got the opportunity to tour with Finntroll. There were also other bands which we had been listening to on that tour, and we all travelled together and performing on a different country, different city every night for over a month while sleeping on a night-liner.

That was right after we signed with Season of Mist, and it didn’t take long for our name to appear on big rock, metal websites and magazines like Guitar World, Metal Hammer. From there we knew we were getting somewhere

DR: I know it’s a digital release but what is the name of the EP and describe the artwork, is that on your cover of facebook?

HA: Its self titled -simply ‘Nothnegal EP’. The artwork is from a carving on the walls of very old buildings and mosques here. The patterns are unique on it.

You’re stranded on one of the Maldives’ many desert islands. List five albums you’d take?

Pink Floyd – Dark side of the Moon, Megadeth – Rust in Peace, Slayer – raining blood, Black Sabbath – Master of Reality, Judas Priest – Painkiller.

DR: Which songs do you like performing live most and why?

HA: We usually start off with Salvation, Sins of our Creations and Singularity – our fan favourites.

DR: Your dream band (living or dead, who would they be, vocal/bass/drums/keyboard/lead guitar/guitar/producer?

HA: My dream band would be: Phil Anselmo on vocals, Jason Newsted – bass, Dave Lombardo – drums, Jordan Rudess – keyboards, Marty Friedman – guitars, Dimebag Darell – guitars and Rick Rubin as a producer.


‘New wave’ of Maldivian psychedelic art growing despite religious restrictions

Handfuls of sand are sprinkled are carefully onto glass, and a single finger pokes the grains to magically morph them into a moving painting as an animation unfolds telling important narratives about the survival of a nation, against the soundtrack of haunting music.

The form of an old man takes shape, holding a cane in his hand. All around him a street scene of buildings is developed under the sleight of a single hand sprinkling sand, as the other creates perfectly drawn images. Behind the old man is a wall of people, and one of them is brandishing a Maldivian flag. Suddenly the music tempo changes. On the other side of the road a brace of helmeted police officers appear all brandishing riot shields and shaking their batons at the old man and the people. Suddenly, these images of the people are “wiped out” and in their place, a single menacing bulbous face appears.

All these scenes capture the moment that the Maldives was changed forever.

They were created by an enigmatic artist called Afzal Shaafiu Hasan, also known as Afu. He has decided to use his unique talent of drawing with sand to describe what he calls Baton Day, the day after the coup which destabilised the country and toppled the first democratically elected president the Maldives had seen in 30 years.

Afu learned his craft by watching you tube videos. In a short space of time, he had perfected it enough to perform a moving sand art play to a delegation of eight nations at the SAARC Summit in Addu. Later it was performed at an audience of thousands at Raalhugandu area earlier this year as part of an artists’ drive for democracy. Later his recorded performance went viral on Maldivian social media,

“Being noticed is a blessing, but it can bring pressures as well,” he said.

But how did he learn this incredible talent?

“About three years back I saw some videos of sand art by Ksenia Simonova and it was simply amazing. I wanted to try it,” said Afu. “So I taught myself how to do it through hours of experimentation and practice.

“Then just when I got the hang of it, I was given the opportunity to perform for the Heads of States of eight Asian countries, who all met for the SAARC Summit.

“The first performance I did after that was watched live by almost 8,000 people. That’s incredible for Male’.”

Of course practice makes perfect and it takes a lot of pre-planning to get right, just as any animation does. “It is important to get the story right and fit it into the least number of key frames and transitions, while keeping the emotion at all times,” he said.

“Since it is live I don’t have a second chance to get it right.”

To draw the images he uses his hand, and he has grown a long fingernail especially for the purpose of fine tuning details. He refers to this as his “paintbrush”.

Afu’s Sand Art has the air of the theatrical to it. Perhaps that is not so surprising as he counts the great performance artist and choreographer Mohamed Mun­thasir, known as Munco, among his friends from school.

In fact it was Munco who drew his attention to the very opportunity to perform at the SAARC Summit.

“Sand Art combines drawing, creative story-telling, skill and performance” said Afu.

“As soon as I started doing it, I fell in love with the medium, it expresses emotion on so many levels.”

He is also a classmate of the famous Dinba music creator Ishaantay Ishan. Music is a vital ingredient to Afu’s sand art performances. He often uses Hamy on the keyboard or piano and Shambe on the guitar to build up the drama and tension as Afu’s incredible artistic fingers work their unique magic.

Afu also sometimes performs sand art exhibitions to entertain tourists in resorts.

“Sand art is extremely versatile, it can be a pure art form as well as a commercial opportunity for tourism in resorts, but we still have a lot of work to do to develop this art in the Maldives,” he added.
“So far I am the only sand artist in the country. If people are interested in learning it, I would be more than willing guide them.

There is also a connection between Afu’s sand art and Maldivian tradition. Sand is used as a medium to teach children the alphabet and shapes. It is put in a large shallow container and the teacher uses their fingers or a little twig to write on it.

He currently has an exhibition in the National Art Gallery entitled ‘Breathing Atolls,” which features a video of “a sand animation based upon a traditional Maldivian fisherman’s life, called A Maldivian Tale.”

Afu believes that the Maldives is undergoing an artistic renaissance which is helping to enrich the culture of this island nation.

So what motivates Afu?

“The chaos of course, I feel it necessary to say something about it as an artist. That alone pushes me to do something – not just in my sand art, but in my paintings as well.”

And so, Afu’s artwork is constantly pushing boundaries. He is an enigma who seems to be constantly innovating and experimenting with any art form which takes his fancy. He has mastered everything from stamp design, to oil painting and now as his self -taught sand art proves, his talents to innovate know no bounds.

As well as politics, Afu’s oil paintings and sand art also showcase the simple lifestyle of Maldivians in the past.

He is also interested in the environment. One of his sand art animations called “Forever”, which was performed live at Thudufushi Resort in January 2012 shows how human interference and rubbish is causing the coral reefs to die.

He has a talent for showing the fragility and beauty of a moment, something which defines him as a truly great artist.

“Chaos. I feel it necessary to say something about it as an artist. That alone pushes me to do something -not just in my sand art, but in my paintings as well.”

Afu has painted since childhood, but surprisingly has had no classical training.

Asked how he learned of his talent, he said. “I was born with it, I guess. I was good at art at school so when I finished formal education, I joined the Post Office and drew stamps. This is the point I started taking art as a serious profession.”

During the 13-years he worked at the Post Office, he was responsible for creating almost a hundred stamp designs.

Later he was accepted to study a three-year diploma course in graphic design and multimedia in Malaysia.

“I did this, and then I developed my fine art side as a hobby with paintings, performing arts and sculptures. It is mainly all self-taught.”

He says he was encouraged from a young age by his father to be creative, although none of his siblings went into art.

“Dad was a man of many talents – carpentry, calligraphy, poetry and so on, and he inspired me to develop my artistic talent,” he said.

Afu says his inspiration includes local artists Maizan Hassan Maniku and Hassan of Pink Coral as well as more traditional muses such as Van Gough and Picasso.

Painting has always been one of his great loves. Over the years he has created many works of art, and many have been exhibited in the National Gallery.

However during some periods, some of his paintings have also been banned for being too evocative, especially during the Maumoon administration.

A series of paintings Afu did during this time was called the Man-Wall series, which saw man as the people, and wall as the Government. It deals with feelings such as hope, fear and freedom – themes which have returned since the events of 07/02/12.

“One particular painting was removed from the exhibition ‘Maldives Contemporary’ because the Government felt it was not appropriate. At that time there were a series of people going missing, in jails or just randomly disappearing. The wrapping says police line do not cross. The tree was our future and the zebra crossing was the point where our people will have to cross to reach that future,” he said.

“Religion is killing art”

Afu counts himself among part of a “new wave” of artists and craftsmen in Male’, who inspired by the political changes have been promoting innovative artforms and paintings.

All are facing challenges from the establishment, political and religious figures who believe creative arts are sinful.

“They have destroyed the ancient artefacts and they preach art as hara’am,” said Afu. “They have even preached against drawing human beings with eyes as this is supposedly directly ‘challenging God’.”

“In a country where the idea of art is limited to drawing it’s dangerous going beyond that limitation. Art has been off mainstream for a very long time, from the point we converted to Islam back in 1153 AD. That’s my opinion and there’s evidence to back it up too,” said Afu.

Art only very recently entered the mainstream – around 15 years ago due to religious restrictions. Psychedelic art in particular is growing fast, especially digital and doodle art, which is flooding social media right now.

Another artist, who goes by the name of K.D, acts as Afu’s agent. He was also the project coordinator for the SAARC Summit where the sand art was first displayed.

“The situation is as simple as this – religion is killing art,” said KD who is also a painter. “That’s my open view on it.”

He revealed how recently religious scholars in the Maldives had banned drawing human figures with eyes and noses, which they believe go against god. The exhibition was created by an artist known as Siru Arts who held an exhibition of political art without these features.

Afu said: “This exhibition was an asset to the current regime because it has a twisted narrative to the events of the coup.

“Some follow blindly because it’s about religion. It’s sad, but it’s happening all over the world, why not here?

“Here everything that happens reaches to every individual. It matters here more than countries with millions of people where only a little portion of it the population is directly affected.

“This can be dangerous because we’re a nation of just 350,000 people. Here everything is magnified.”

In the modern Maldives the art world is growing, but at the same time, due to religious restrictions, artists have gone in hiding and dare not express their opinions.

“The government needs to keep artists like Afu and others safe and secured away from all these dangerous people,” said KD, who classes Afu as his mentor.

“In my own personal opinion I believe that artists should be more open in their views because the more we stay hidden, the more damage will be done,” he added.

Education, KD believes, is the key to challenging these ideologies.

“This place is filled with talent but no proper guidance or guidelines are implemented. In the current situation we can see how art is growing.”

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government actively supported the arts, introducing venues and practice rooms, intellectual rights for the artist and open forums, the artists say.

Many people in the country have talent, but they have not learned the fundamentals.

Each artist is self taught and as yet no National Art School exists and for the moment art is off the mainstream curriculum. There was an art school called Salaam school, which collapsed following the tragic death of its founder in 2011, Aminath Arif ‘Anthu’.

As an event manager KD has worked with many painters, musicians and performance artists. His main concern is to encourage the government to invest in art in the mainstream education system.

“I believe if art is involved more in the current education system, Maldivian art will grow,” said KD.

Overall, Afu has taken Maldivian art in a new direction.

“My utopian view as a Maldivian is that I live in one of the most beautiful places. My community is small and loving and live a simple life. We are happy.

“But my view on the political chaos is different. I believe what we are going through is healthy and necessary for our country’s future.

“Change shall come, but at a cost. We will be the generation who has to deal with it.”

His beautiful images are crafted out of the very sand which makes up the dazzling beaches that so many tourists frequent.

This in itself is quite symbolic.

The medium makes a statement as much as the art. An image or scene can be wiped out in an instant to make way for a new image.

As the Maldives approaches crucial elections, this also says something about the state of the nation and the events of the last 18 months.

Sand is also strong and fragile at the same time. Can the sand beneath their feet holds the country together or will the single grains just blow away in the wind?

Baton Day, by Afu:

Feelings, by Afu:

Forever: by Afu


Turbulent post-February 7 politics trigger ‘artistic renaissance’

A visual art event that would have seen graffiti and street artists gathering to host a live demonstration to encourage young people to vote for change in the upcoming elections, has been postponed.

Organised by the artist known as Feshun, the visual art event was to take place from 4:00pm on Saturday at Raalhugandhu, and continue up until 11:00pm in the evening.

The event was to feature live graffiti painting by numerous artists across various locations around the capital city island along to live music performed by a DJ, intended to inspire the disaffected younger generation to vote.

In recent years, artists have enjoyed greater autonomy and freedom of expression – particularly when covering political subjects.

Following the controversial toppling of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 2012, many artists have turned their talents to highlighting the ‘coup’, and all of the other issues affecting social and political landscape of the island nation.

Many artists who plan to take part in this live event can remember the oppression under the previous dictatorship, and say that five years of creative freedom has helped to inspire artistic creativity. Since the February 7, there has been an upsurge of political statements through art in what one artist calls an “artistic renaissance”.

The Maldives’ answer to Banksy, who goes by the nickname of “Sob Sob”, told Minivan News: “The aim is to involve more people in the movement that Feshun has started. It will continue non-stop until the voting. I am sure it will make a difference.”

Tagging is a way of life for Sob Sob. Now aged 30, he has been painting over the drab walls of Male’s concrete jungle with his 3D graffiti art for more than 12 years.

As the government has cracked down on these graffiti artists and painted over their “works of art” with grey paint, Sob Sob, who once painted a 3D trompe l’oeil of a toilet door to highlight the need for outdoor lavatories being installed near the surf point area, says he will just spray paint another statement.

Asked why he and his peers are using the streets as his art canvas, rather than exhibiting in a museum, he said: “It’s the only way to express to the public. If I exhibited my art work in a museum, only a few would actually see it.”

“The streets are our neighbourhoods and the only place here where we get out to. We live on islands and we have nowhere to go. We are limited by our boundaries. All the islands have been sold as resorts and locals cannot afford to live in luxury. That’s our dream too, the Robinson Crusoe feeling, but the reality for us is working hard and living in a concrete jungle.”

As an artist he is known for making political statements, he says that the main aim of his graffiti is to express what he feels and to tell things like they really are. “Thoughts are meant to be spoken, not just thought,” he said.

“The biggest hand played here was the protest back in 2012 on February 8. Look around Male’ and you will see many of my works they include: ‘Looting the youth and Shooting the Truth’.

“When I felt rage back in Gayoom’s regime, then there was ‘bridge my ass…vote for change’ [in reference to a promised Hulhumale-Male bridge] and ‘Enough is Enough’, which led to our movement in 2008 under the studio called “Freedom Factory”.

Other artists have been campaigning for political change. These include the talented sand artist Afu Shaafiu Hasn who first started making a political statement about the coup in his sand art debut during the SAARC Summit.

His works have been demonstrated in front of live audiences of thousands. He said: “Right now some artists are gearing up for campaigns to encourage the new batch to vote in these upcoming elections.

“We’re setting up events the age group can engage in, like graffiti events, music, 3D street art and other stuff.

Most of the mainstream artists are pro-democratic, and particularly antagonistic towards former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

“We just want people to go and vote, for whoever they wish. It is up to them. GO VOTE,” Hasn says.

“The politics going on here are of no interest to the young people who live here, because most have already lost hope of things getting better,” he adds.

Afu has made some bold statements about the coup in his sand art. ‘Baton Day’ is about the events of February 7 and 8 and the police brutality that ensued, and ‘Feelings’ which deals with the psychological trauma of those events.

“The journey after the coup is very bad. I don’t want to hear the news nowadays. I even gave away my TV when the coup happened and I haven’t a TV since that day,” says Afu.

But is all this art just preaching to the choir? Asked whether the country will see a fair election, he said: “I don’t know, seriously. I can’t think of a way the people in power will simply give it up and go to jail. But yes I have hope. Where there is art, there is hope.”

Baton Day


Visit the artists on Facebook for more information


Posted to Paradise: RAF Veterans remember Gan, part two

Part one of this series of recollections of RAF veterans stationed on Gan can be read here.

As I sit with a gin and tonic overlooking the blue lagoon at Equator Village, I try to imagine what Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II must have been thinking when in 1972 she visited what was then one of the most glamorous Royal Air Force base locations in the world – RAF Gan.

Back in the seventies well before the advent of resorts the Maldives was the scene for the ‘real jet set’ – the RAF Far East Air Force pilots who used the former RAF base as a layover location long before the advent of tourism to the region.

Enviably located south of the equator RAF Gan in Addu, was a staging post during the Second World War and continued to be a base for thousands of air force personnel through the cold war. It was handed back to the Maldivian government on March 29, 1976.

During its operational days, famous visitors landed at RAF Gan including the Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. As well as attending to business, they were drawn to the perfect islands fringed by glorious azure blue lagoons and white sands.

They would stay at the Blue Lagoon Transit hotel on the base, and VIP/Officers’ accommodation known as Dhoogas, which has now the opened as a resort in its own right called Gan Island Club, located next door to the Equator Village resort (the former Sergeant’s mess).

Like many of the tourists today who visit the Equator Village resort, even the Queen must have been mesmerised by the perfect islands with lush tropical vegetation fringed with pure white beaches and an infinity view of an azure blue lagoon that is home to beautiful coral gardens teeming with tropical fish and baby reef sharks.

Terry Joint, an officer stationed at the airbase, recalls meeting Princess Anne who was “quite a beauty”. The pair chatted about spearfishing and he described her as charming and friendly: “Princess Anne said would have liked to have come out on a spearfishing trip with us but unfortunately she had to catch a plane back,” he reminisced.

Nowadays the island of Gan is home to two resort developments, the quintessentially English Equator Village resort and the Gan Island club (the officer’s mess).

Equator Village has resisted the urge to conform to the sleek lines of most resort chains, remaining a historic landmark.

Those in search of historical references can still find them among the station grounds. These remain almost unchanged, save a lick of paint from its service days. From the wicker furniture to the uniform blue doors, this three star resort has all the markings of the RAF Marham officers’ mess, with a better view and weather. I should know because I have also stayed there too.

An RAF legacy remains in former buildings and relics, bringing back military tourists – veterans who served here to visit the RAF memorial and reminisce about days gone by. There is a former NAAFI (commissary) and the Astra Cinema. The former RAF vehicle maintenance workshop is now maintained by the State Trading Organisation (STO) for its fleet of trucks.
The resort located near Gan airport, the former airfield, now used for VIP flight, Island Aviation transfers to the resort and international flights from Hong Kong and Gatwick.

In its service days there was a church on the base, which is now of course a mosque as Islam is the only religion allowed to be practiced in the Maldives by law.

Adduan’s grew up around the service personnel and some even became servicemen themselves. One Adduan recalls visiting the base as an 11-year old boy: “I used to visit the church to have tea and coffee with a relative who worked there. That was very unusual because as Muslims we were told we shouldn’t even look what’s was inside!” he recalled. “Upon visiting the resort recently, I was most surprised to see that the place is a mosque. I didn’t know it was facing Mecca.”

Back in the seventies the RAF provided a rich source for jobs in the area and at one time locals and airmen used to live side by side, employed as room boys, chefs, maintenance, and some were even trained to learn a trade. As such Adduans are broadly thankful to the RAF.

Hassan Najmy trained in the photographic department of the RAF and like many Adduans who worked closely with the Royal Air Force and quickly picked up the English language and qualifications.

“We will always be grateful to the RAF who gave us jobs and treated us like their own brothers,” said Hassan. “I spent many happy years with them and learned all I know today.”

Hassan joined the photographic section, not long after the Queen’s visit to the Maldives and RAF Gan in 1972.

“I joined photographic section when I was 18 and learned the trade, I really enjoyed the dark room training and studied for my Cambridge CSE certificate at the RAF Education Centre in Gan,” he said.

“I still remember buying my first Pentax SLR camera from the NAAFI store, a discounted store where you could get anything.”

Hassan was eyewitness to many historic events which make up the Maldives’ military history. As the president of the time’s official photographer, he captured the images of royal visitors to the base and impressed the president so much that he became the presidential palace’s official photographer.

According to the military personnel who served here, the island remains much the same as today as it did back then. Unlike their cousins in the north, Adduans are proud of the British influences.

At Equator Village hens run freely between the tropical foliage and rose gardens and the beach. There is also traditional afternoon tea and scones at 4:00pm, another relic from its service days as the sergeant’s mess. Equator Village feels like a home away from home.

Many industrious Adduans in fact helped to found the tourism industry in the capital of Male region following the RAFs departure. In 1972 the first resort in the Maldives, Kurumba, was founded by Mohamed Umar Maniku, and still runs today under Universal Enterprises.

Some Adduans say that some of the original furniture from the RAF was taken to Kurumba and remains in the resort’s presidential suite. Some original furniture still remaining includes the billiard table and darts board at the Equator resort for guests to enjoy.

Original framed photographs from the time, including of the Queen’s visit, are on display at the next door Gan Island Club, formerly the Dhoogas guest house, and the Blue Lagoon where Prince Charles frequented.

The RAF’s main mission was to install radio transmitters on the island of Hithadhoo to listen in and intercept intelligence from the East during the cold war.

Hithadhoo was first discovered by the Royal Navy and the fleet air arm in the 1940s. In those days supplies were ferried between the islands and nearby Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it was known then) by boat.

When it was handed it over to the RAF in the fifties, they established their base on the island of Gan and built a causeway linking all six islands, establishing a precedent in this geographically challenged country consisting of 99 per cent ocean – bases which became known as RAF Gan and RAF Hithadhoo respectively.

The RAF’s presence came to an end as the Cold War ended. In fact some say that RAF Gan’s cards were marked as soon as the “Royal Far East Air Force” (RFEAF) was disbanded in 1971.

The British decamped further south to Diego Garcia and then leased the land to the US, who still have a base there today. RAF Gan was handed back to the Maldivian government on March 29, 1976.

Hassan recalls it was a very sad day when the RAF left Maldives. Many “wept” as they saw off the servicemen who become friends as well as colleagues over the years. That bond remains today through social media pages on Facebook remembering life at Gan.

Hassan has recorded many historic events which make up the Maldives’ military history during his service, including profiling historical figures and royal visitors to the base. Some of his work can be viewed on a page maintained by veterans who served at Gan and Hithadhoo: RAF Gan Remembered.


RAF veterans remember their days on Gan: Part 1

A group of Royal Air Force (RAF) veterans remember their time on the beautiful Maldivian island of Gan in the Addu Atoll as the best days of their lives.

Living thousands of miles from home, the servicemen of Coral Command who lived and worked on the atoll of Addu in RAF Gan and nearby Hithadhoo, where the RAF were fitting radio transmitters in the seventies, made their own fun long before the resorts were created.

In true forces style the squadrons based here, mainly Brits and the Indian Air Force, with a couple of Americans, created a night life scene which was enjoyed by many, including some liberal locals. Sadly, all this ended when the forces pulled out.

The RAF needed to travel back and forth between the islands for work and entertainment. They built a causeway linking six islands to help them to get there easily but before that they had to travel by boat.

Nowadays there is little entertainment, save the bar at the Equator Village resort in Gan on the other side of the island, and the sleepy hamlet of Hithadhoo is a very different place now – but it didn’t used to be, as one former airman reveals.

Richard Houlston, now 63, remembers the recreational activities which were available in the seventies in Hithadhoo after hours. Long before the resorts, Hithadhoo can proudly boast the establishment of the first entertainment in the Maldives.

Weekends were filled with diving and crab fishing, dhoni racing, pranks and skinny dipping in the pristine lagoon. After work hours Coral Command would spend hours drinking at “Siggies bar”, known affectionately as ‘Fairly Blato’, for obvious reasons.

On special occasions, some of the lads would head to the legendary Bushy disco – the first outdoor rave on a jungle-cropped island close to Hithadhoo.

“There were around 25 of us on the site when I arrived, this gradually increased to about 50 over the next few months when Skynet came (Satellite Communications),” remembers Richard.

“We had a big 2000 litre water tank in case of fire but we filled it full of fish from the lagoon, including three 4ft sharks, six puffer fish and a large titan trigger who ruled the pool. This had to be emptied, cleaned out and re-filled every week on a Tuesday afternoon to keep it going.

It was very entertaining to watch the catching of a four foot long shark by the tail,” Richard recalls.

Many hours were enjoyed placing a pole across this tank for people to walk across (which gives a whole new meaning to Shark Infested Custard, for those with a service background).

“No one ever did manage to make it across. If they looked as if they were doing well the pole was rolled first one way then the other! With three 4ft sharks in there, no one stayed in long,” he laughed.

On weekends and evenings many pranks were played by the men on their fellow comrades. These practical jokes helped to keep camaraderie and spirits high and playful by nature Richard was one of the main pranksters.

“John Scott and I used to go and catch 20 sand crabs and a large land crab every evening after tea and sometimes at night when everyone was in the bar Scotty and I would catch frogs and put them in peoples beds. We’d put the land crabs in washing boxes or down the loo,” he said.

“It was quite startling when you are about to seat yourself down to have a number two and a huge pair of pincers suddenly appears – that would make your eyes water.”

Firm and long lasting friendships were made during the time on Addu, which is evident in the hundreds of messages posted on the Then and Now website.

These lasting friendships enabled the RAF Gan memorial visit a couple of years back, where more than 50 former airmen and officers stepped back onto the atoll and met again for the first time in almost 40 years.

Many shared tales of times gone by and made new friends too. At the time men were not allowed to socialise with local women so with little social interaction, apart from with each other, the men filled their days with activities such as snorkelling, and diving.

There were dhoni competitions where men would row for entertainment and many other games too.

“As you are probably well aware the main problem with Gan was the lack of women. For 12 months with no female companionship, it was very difficult for servicemen – almost unbearable,” Richard explained. “Of course, we were not allowed to meet the Maldivian women, probably just as well, as I think I might still have been out there… or washed up on some beach.”

He left the air force to get married and remains happily so, with two children and recently the addition of a new grandchild.

There were some characters on the base. Richard fondly recalls the madcap adventures and avoidance tactics of a particular infamous squadron leader called Buckle.

“At the time we had Squadron Leader Buckle based on Gan but in charge of us on Hithadhoo. He heard a rumour that some airmen on Hithadhoo were sunbathing in the nude. This would of course be upsetting to the Maldivians – well the men anyway – who used to pass through the camp from time to time.

“He made many surprise trips trying to catch the culprits but as they had to have permission to land the boat we always knew in advance,” he laughed.

“It sort of backfired on him when he had a little rhyme composed about him: ‘Bare Bum Buckle was his name’ and ‘Bare Bum Spotting was his game’. I can’t remember the rest, perhaps it just as well). I know we had a flag pole over the bar in the Hermitage with a belt buckle hanging from it – a hangman’s noose.”

The Hithadhoo Diary’ was a cartoon feature for each period and the last six months-worth can be read on the Gan Remembered web site.

While he wouldn’t admit it some of Richard and his colleagues’ pranks even made the gossip sheet, which covered part of the time he was there, he laughs.

Richard and his comrades from Coral Command re-visit Gan as much as they can still have a close connection to Gan and Hithadhoo through Facebook, some say their hearts actually never left the curiously heart-shaped atoll.

Visit the RAF Gan Memorial Website.


Death metal band Opeth rocks Male’ during “coup d’etat”

As tear gas rained down on citizens marching in favor of ousted president Mohamed Nasheed’s government a day after what has been called a coup d’etat, hundreds of Maldivian metal fans attended a live concert by Swedish heavy metal Opeth at the Dhaarubaruge concert hall in Male’.

Nasheed, the Maldives first democratically elected president, resigned on Tuesday, February 7 following street clashes between national police and military forces. He has since stated that he resigned to protect the Maldivian people from further bloodshed.

Opeth, supported by home-grown Maldivian band Nothnegal, played a sell-out gig to eager crowds on Wednesday, February 8 – in spite of the chaos developing across the urban island.

Organisers said the political and civil unrest which has rocked the paradisaical archipelago for the past two days had forced them to postpone the concert, originally scheduled for February 7, by one day. It also made it impossible to hold the gig outdoors, they said.

Yet the band could not be cancelled, nor their fans deterred – offering a surreal insight into the Maldivian psyche. Much like the Lebanese who continued to celebrate as bombs rained down on Beirut, heavy metal fans refused to cancel the show as government hospital IGMH declared a state of emergency.

Rather, Maldivians embraced the chance to take a break from the situation and enjoy the show.

Nothnegal’s lead guitarist and Maldivian national Hirlal Argil reflected on the situation. “There still is hope for democracy, if only everybody would start working together to resolve all that’s happened rather than fighting for power,” he said.

“We Maldivian youth love heavy metal. I am not sure why but perhaps it is our rebellious spirit, our in-your-face attitude,” he continued. “It was a much needed change for the people to see Opeth after all the trouble of the past few days.”

Opeth flew into Male’ with Nothnegal after both performed at the Summer Storm music festival in Bangalore.

Argil said that Opeth, despite their fame, were a well-grounded group and loved being in the Maldives. “They are all really nice and we hung out before and after the show,” he said. “Opeth is our favourite band. They drew the most people and they know how to do a good show, Mikael is one of the best frontmen in the world,” he added.

Argil also looks to Metalica, Iron Maiden and Megadeth for inspiration.

Argil and his cousin Fufu have listened to heavy metal all their lives. Connecting with musicians Kevin Tailey (American) and Marco Sneck (Finnish) online in 2006, the band released their first EP “Antidote to Realism” in 2009. Since then, they have enjoyed growing levels of success, shooting their own music video “Web of Deceit” and releasing the album “Decadence” this year.

Since 2009 Nothnegal has toured with a number of heavy metal bands including Fintoll in 14 countries across Europe. They report that playing with Opeth in their native capital Male’ was the pinnacle of their career thus far.

The devil’s music?

For the past few years heavy metal music has captured the zeitgeist of a young Muslim democracy itching for change – death metal is the country’s most commercially successful musical export, especially, for some reason, in Scandinavia.

However, under the government’s coalition agreement with religious Adhaalath party Islamic fundamentalists became more outspoken against the genre. Some heavy metal fans have reported practicing or playing music in semi-secretive settings, while concerts of Opeth’s scale have not been held in the Maldives for years.

Andu, a fan who attended the event who is also part of heavy metal outfit The Damned Ones, said, “My frustration is that no government, neither Maumoon’s nor Nasheed’s, has done anything to help the musicians in here. Whatever we had has been wearing out for a long time,” said Andu. “There is hardly even a place to have a show. Do you know that it costs like US$20,000 (Rf308,400) to have a good show?!”

While talent abounds in the Maldives, there is virtually no record industry in the Maldives, and artists find it difficult to get signed. Nothnegal is the only Maldivian band to be signed to a record label to date, due in part to their online release of “Antidote to Realism”, which caught foreign interest and led to the band’s signing with metal label Seasons of Mist.

Furthermore, music is still seen by some Maldivians as haraa’m, even though there is nothing in Islam to say that music is banned. Perhaps it is a rebellion against an overtly religious society as interestingly the choice of music of the majority of youths is angry, loud and political metal.

“Music should not be haraam, there is nothing in the Quran that says so,” said Andu, discussing the attitude of the older, more conservative demographic including religious fundamentalists, “who see any music, never mind heavy metal music – as the devil’s work,” he said.

“They believe that one of the signs for end of days is the saying that when the Anti-Christ comes lots of musicians will follow him….I think this is maybe one reason for them to believe that, but the same signs of the end of days state that buildings will rise to touch the skies….but that does not mean you can’t build high buildings!”

In fact, Andu writes ‘”for religion” rather than against it, he says, and rejects any argument that he is propagating the devils music. “I have faced lots of religious people and none can show me a verse from the Quran that says music is haraam. There are a few people who would say we worship devil and sleep in coffins because we dress up in all black and have long hair but I don’t care. They can believe what they want as they don’t want to open their minds.”

The album “Decadence” is now available online.


Talking about a Maldives music revolution

Sounds of Identity is a series of articles that look at Maldivian musicians and performing artists. The first in the series is a profile of the pioneering music movement in the Maldives Dinba Family.

Much like the era of Hendrix, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the Maldives is undergoing its own musical revolution and developing an underground sound of its own.

The emerging new democracy is encouraging the development of the music industry. While a malady of music critics bemoan the lack of support for local music and a lack of original productions, music enthusiasts such as ‘Dinba family’ are creating fresh sounds. Because of their efforts, talented Maldivian artists are finally emerging.

Dinba is all about hitting back at the mainstream pop covers of the Simon Cowell era.

“Forget your manufactured pop covers – you can leave them to the resorts,” says Ahmed ‘Ishaantey’ Ishaan, the creator of Dinba music group, which consists of musicians and artists working at making original music and free expression in the Maldives.

Ishaantey prides himself on nurturing a new wave of underground music, sung by independent, edgy and talented Maldivian artists. As such, the Dinba Family is a fluid collection of more than 50 music artists, composers and songwriters (Ibbe, Faya, Rappay, and others). Inspiring creative music is the core goal, says Ishaantey, the grandson of the legendary singer Jeymu Dhonkamana.

Dinba music draws on an eclectic fusion of Maldivian and different styles of music influences, while blending elements of mainstream bass, rhythm and guitar into the mix. On the first Dinba Family album, Ishaantey played all the instruments himself and having even mastered the album A Different Taste.

“We create music of all genres, Dinba Family’s philosophy is to each his music. People listen to songs they like, no one can dictate taste.” The result is an amalgam of diverse sounds, varying from album to album and even from track to track.

Dinba Family has seven albums to its name. Their album with renowned local singer Shiuz named ‘Kula Yellow’ consisted of seven tracks of different styles, ranging from a piano ballad, world music and even a reggae song. ‘Fanditha’ album, is an eclectic mix, decorated with exquisite works of art drawn by local artists, complete with an interesting track listing of English-Dhivehi. The latest ‘Rakis Bondu’ features famous local singers like Unoosha, Affan, Haifa, Shiuz and Zara.

Creative freedom

What Ishaantey has successfully created in Dinba music is a not-for-profit movement, which provides music to as wide an audience as possible. Already they are starting to permeate the Maldivian cultural conscience. Dinba songs are comprised of a very different poetry.

“This is a 100 percent Muslim country and one of the only ways people can be relaxed is through music,” says Ishaantey.

Since childhood Ishantay has been playing music, going on to create the Seachild band in early 1990 with his childhood friend, singer-songwriter Esa.

Both of them wrote music together as they grew up, but faced difficult times during the previous government’s era.

“For 30 years it has been difficult to express anything in music, back then, in the Gayoom era, they censored lyrics, or musicians would constantly self-censor themselves which stifles creativity,” says Ishaantey.

Singers would insist on knowing lyrics beforehand and be terrified of singing anything that touched upon the government or the people.

“Musicians were scared to write songs in our mother tongue, but all that has changed. Kenereege Mohamed Nasheed [then an activist now the President of the Maldives] freed the Dhivehi language for us; this government gives us freedom to write what we want. We feel that with democracy there is a big change in the country and we want to make music in our own language while we still can, but this is not easy to do,” said Ishaantey.

Sounding Maldivian

Like their music, Dinba Family lyrics touch upon diverse aspects of Maldivian life, at times indulging in whimsical play on words. Some of the songs from Dinba Family have been hailed for preserving the age-old Maldivian style of songs/poetry, ‘An’ba’; offering cultural and societal insight.

Their latest album is Rakis Bondu and it is a study in diversity. It features an ode to a beloved child Dharifulhaa by Faya and great vocal effects by Shiuz while Unoosha belts out a declaration of love tinged with self doubt in Mashah. Muad’s Tis dhathi kamana hovers between spooky and intriguing: a woman steals a second glance and follows the man around, but it is unclear if she will be a prospective lover or stalker. The title track of Rakis Bondu sung by Muad, Shiuz, Haisham and Zara talks about a certain guy saying that only hypocrites can rule this country.

“When we make music we try to move away from sounds of music we had heard, to try and create something with a Maldivian feel,” says Ishaantey.

“At times we do succeed in this endeavor and end up creating a piece that cannot be pigeonholed, as being reggae, rock or anything.” Ishaantey says songs like Rah fushu vaahaka from Kula Yellow album, Koya from Zara’s album and title track of Fanditha album along with Soadhubeyge bodu saobu, Geydhoshu Kujja from Naacharangee fall into this category.

“When this happens often a person will turn around and say it sounds like a Zero Degree Atoll song.” Ishaantey says this in itself is a big credit. “We are happy when this happens, because Zero Degree Atoll is one group that had managed to come up with unique Maldivian sounding music that sets it apart from other world music.”

New pathways

Dinba Family’s unconventional approach even extends to the music’s marketing. Dinba music is compiled on CDs that are given away freely.

Rather than signing artists, the Dinba Family prefers artists to move freely without barriers. However it is the individual artist that holds the rights to sell songs that they perform in the Dinba Family.

“Singers come to us because we give them the space to be creative. We are lucky that a singer like Unoosha who is on the cusp of an international career [she is poised to sing for a famous film production house in India] sang for us. We push her to break boundaries in her singing. We do experimental songs with our vocalists,” says Ishaantey.

Some of the artists in the ‘Family’ include Zara, the first independent female artist to release a solo album in the Maldives history. Her second album with Dinba music Naacharangee featuring songs celebrating life, with those that raise social issues and concerns in was heavily supported and promoted by Wataniya. Ishaantey says “its companies like Wataniya that enables us to produce music.”

Despite the fact that a lot of youth seems to listen to and appreciate original Dhivehi music, Ishaantey says musicians who brought out albums in the past have said it does not sell well in the Maldives. “By giving away albums like this, we hope that in time we will be able to create a demand for original music in the market.”

Ishaantey feels that despite a thriving tourism industry, which caters mostly to high-end markets, the music industry is lagging far behind.

“Clientele from five star resorts want to hear jazz and diverse music, but the pay is so little that it’s not possible to develop the local music scene and buy proper equipment to play high quality music for those gigs.”

Dinba Family is working on their eighth album now, which will be out in March this year 2012. Some of the Dinba tunes are available on You Tube and via Wataniya’s Reethi Tunes engine, and Dhiraagu mytones, an online library of music by Maldivian and other artists.

Dinba music family had recently toured in the South in Maldives for the SAARC Festival and done a show with Shaaz in India ( Delhi ). Ishaantey says the love Indians have for music is amazing: “they love, respect and value musicians regardless of nationality.”

Dinba Family wants to try and establish a link with an international recording studio and Maldivian composers. “The Internet has opened up the world, and this will be a reality in the near future. Our heavy metal bands have already achieved this. It is sad to say that original music by Maldivians is not getting enough support from the media.”

Dinba Music has recently launched a website, where people can download music and budding musicians can contact them. The Dinba family does jam sessions at various locations and establishments across Male’. Talks are underway with hotels to have live bands playing regularly, and to help new music flow in the vibrant new democracy.

As Ishaantey says: “people go to resorts to perform, and sell-out to perform covers to earn money, but they come to Dinba Family because they want to play and they want to express their talents.”

Additional research by Aishath Shazra.


Gan RAF reunion prompts scholarship fund

A group of former British Royal Air Force (RAF) servicemen who were based at Gan in the 70s have set up a fund to improve medical care in Addu Atoll, the country’s southern group of islands.

In March this year, 28 ex-personnel who had worked in the atoll returned to Gan for a reunion, where they were saddened by the decline in medical standards since their departure.

Richard Houlston, 62, who spent a year in the early 1970s working in ground communications on the island of Hithadhoo said: “All of us servicemen enjoyed our time in the Maldives, and the feeling among us was that we wanted to give something back to the community. I feel a close affinity to Addu, it was as if I had never left.”

Richard worked on the HF Transmitters on the isle of Hithadhoo, at the far end of the horse-shoe shaped atoll of Addu from November 1969 until 1970. He and his comrades would visit nearby Gan for scuba diving lessons and shopping trips.

“My memories of Hithadhoo were all good,” said Houlston. “I loved the climate, I loved messing about in the boats we had there, I loved fishing and swimming, I spent many hours snorkeling on the reef, I learnt to scuba dive. When I arrived back on Addu my first impressions were that it seems to be more built up now than when I was there, and obviously has some quite well-off inhabitants, but many people seem to be quite poor. Many of the inhabitants still have to rely on rain water for drinking, stored in large tanks and in those sorts of temperatures that can’t be good for health,” he said.

“When we arrived back on Addu, it became obvious to us very quickly that what they needed help with most was medical care. To go to a decent hospital, many locals have to travel all the way to India, which is a 1000 mile-plus journey. There is a hospital on the island of Hithadhoo, but standards there are very poor: even if they have the equipment, no-one has the expertise to use it.”

When the RAF was in Gan, islanders used to enjoy first class medical facilities for free. Now they have third world services and people must pay for their treatment. The 30 year dictatorship and focus on development of Male’ did not help matters.

Now Houlston and Larry Dodds have set up the Gan Scholarship Fund, which aims to raise enough money to help train more medical staff and improve the standard of medical equipment in the atoll.

“The thing that concerns us most is the fact that many inhabitants have to travel to India for decent medical facilities. Addu is so remote that they need their own medical facilities on hand. When the RAF was there they had those facilities, but when we pulled out in 1976 they were left with nothing,” Houlston said.

“I know there were political issues at the time that did not help their situation, but I feel we have a moral obligation to try to help them now if we can. I feel very passionate about this, and I know that many of the guys I was there with in March feel the same way.”

Their idea is to try and raise enough money to pay for the training of one medical student from Addu, so they can then work in the hospital on nearby Hithadhoo. Much of the hospital equipment is also outdated and needs to be replaced.

“The original plan was to appeal to the RAF personnel who had served on Gan over the years to donate money towards the scheme, now I do not now that this is going to be enough, so I am trying to come up with ideas to help supplement this. I am open to suggestions,” Houlston admitted.

Returning to the Addu Atoll a year ago was an emotional journey for the group, who share many fond memories of their time on the island. Houlston said that his time in the Maldives had left a lasting impression on him, and that he and his former colleagues had been touched by the people of Gan’s enthusiasm when they returned.

“We had such a wonderful welcome on the reunion trip to Addu in March of this year, that it rekindled my love for Addu and its people,” he said.

“The RAF had not visited the Maldives for over 30 years, but the reception was incredible. Children from primary schools danced for us, they arranged trips for us, and thousands of people greeted us wherever we went.”

“It was a very moving experience,” he added. Richard is now in daily contact with people from Addu and is working with both Hithadhoo Regional Hospital and the IDMC private hospital, soon to be Hawwa Trust, which will help provide the next generation of medical doctors along with the help of some former friends from the Royal Air Force.

For more information visit ‘Gan Then and Now’ on Facebook: