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.


Alliance Française hosts “new soul voice of Cameroon”, Blick Bassy

Blick Bassy surveyed the tray laden with shorteats and helped himself to some bajiya, gulha and masroshi, at the teashop in the carnival area. Around him fellow musicians John Grandcamp percussionist, Geimbakouyate who plays ngoni and the guitar and Johanbarby the bass guitarist, munched away, happily chatting with the Maldivian musicians who had turned up to their workshop an hour earlier.

“I don’t think it’s too hot, we are used to eating spicy,” says Bassy, referring to his Cameroonian roots when told the food might be too hot for him.

The singer, often hailed as the new soul voice of Cameroon, is in town to perform a music show on Friday night at the request of Alliance Française of Male, before heading off to Sri Lanka to perform there.

He had not known much about Maldives before coming here. “I just knew that Maldives was reputed to be the most beautiful place in the world.”

Bassy started his first band at the age of 17; the band played a fusion of African melodies, jazz and bossa nova. In 1996 he formed a new band called Macase, which had a successful run, releasing two albums in 10 years and winning a host of regional and international awards.

“I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do,” says Bassy explaining his reasons for leaving the group after 10 years. “In groups you need consensus to do things, going solo is like taking another step, revealing who I am really.”

His first solo album Léman, was released in February 2009 under a Dutch label. The album has been well received in Europe. Bassy is the songwriter, singer, guitarist and percussionist of the album and it connects the music of Central and West Africa with bossa nova, jazz and soul.

“My second album in production now has contemporary African music. It’s a modern vision of Africa through my eyes.”

He explains how with the availability of internet young Africans listen to the same music as young American or English people.

“It’s traditional music colored by other types of music I hear, Brazilian jazz, old soul.”

Tradition is very important to Bassy who sings in his native language Bassa. Despite having lived in France for the last 5 years he says he envisages continuing singing in Bassa.

“Lots of reasons for this, foremost is that there are 250 tribes and languages in Cameroon, but our national language is English and French. If I talk to someone from another tribe we talk in French now to understand each other.”

He says Cameroonian native languages are in the danger of disappearing. “If you lose your language, you lose your culture, tradition and identity.”

Each language colours the music differently. “If you sing to the same tune, a song in two different languages it will sound different because each language’s intonations are different.”

His interest in the native sounds and music of a country is evident. He questions if there is a singular way of singing or music that is Maldivian, and says he has been told of Zero Degree Atoll and is looking forward to listening to it.

When a musician points out that Calbace the Cameroonian drum and boduberu (maldivian drum) have somewhat similar sounds he agrees.

“In Nigeria a drum like boduberu is played and the rhythm is similar to Maldivians.” The band also uses ngoni a guitar like instrument found in Mali and North Cameroon.

Playing traditional instruments is not difficult, he says:“It’s like any other instrument, if you practice its easy.”

Bassy can almost be called a revivalist; he has brought language and traditional elements along with him on his journey, and found a place for them in his music and the modern world.

“You have to be proud of where you come from; it’s a beautiful thing to have. The difference among people is what’s enriching, meeting Maldivians have been so interesting because people of the difference.”

He rues the fact that some youth try to copy the westerners. “You have to think of what you bring to a place, and what your identity is.”

Bassy’s music is a reflection of his philosophy on life itself. A mix of tradition and modern, shaped by his childhood spend in Cameroon and his travels around the globe as an adult.

Asked what kind of music he will be playing tomorrow night, Bassy’s answer is “beautiful music.”

Blick Bassy will perform at Artificial Beach on Friday October 15 from 9:00pm to 11:00pm.