- Mulud Nabi pieces have no titles, but this piece details penyebara agama, or the spread of Islam.
- The second recording captures the doa penutup, or closing prayer. Note how the piece starts with a traditional prayer with an Arabic flavor before launching into the soulful, very Minang-flavored conclusion.
Location: Nagari Taluak, Jorong Baringin Sakai, Lintau Regency, West Sumatra
Sound: Mulud nabi
I have to admit: of all of Indonesia's remarkable musical traditions, the one form I've most often ignored is Islamic music. Some of its strengths - its persistence, its massive spread across huge areas of Indonesia, its relevance to so many people's lives - are also what make it easy to miss, a homogeneous constant in a country full of hyper-local music strongly grounded in place and regional culture.
While so much of Indonesia's music is tinged with religion, especially Islam, I'm speaking mostly of those Arabic-derived devotional genres that can be found across the archipelago, largely unchanged, from the frame-drum music of rebana to qasidah chants. This music is so faithful to its Middle Eastern source that most, upon listening blindly, would be hard-pressed to guess it's found all across Indonesia.
My favorite Islamic music in the archipelago is that which retains the beautiful spirituality and feeling of of all religious music and brings it home, tying local musical traditions in with the devotional spirit. Take cigawiran, an a capella devotional form from Garut, West Java which sets prayers to unmistakably Sundanese melodies and vocal techniques.
In Lintau, a highland area of West Sumatra, a remarkable fusion has taken place as well. Mulud nabi, a genre of vocal music performed during the time of mawlid, the occasion when Muslims celebrate the birth of their prophet Muhammad, is performed all over West Sumatra - the name itself comes from a local pronunciation of the Arabic mawlid-al-nabi, or "birth of the prophet." However, only in one pocket of West Sumatra, an area called Lintau, have I heard a remarkable fusion of sung Arabic texts and local scales and vocal techniques that sound remarkably bluesy.
In West Sumatra, Islam runs deep in the Minangkabau blood - my friend Albert described this intense religious identity by explaining that for Minang people, "If you're not Muslim, you're not Minang." The history of the religion in the area is complex - it was first brought to the area by Sufi merchants from India and Persia, but most Minangkabau converted to Islam around the 17th century when the religion was brought from the devout northern area of Sumatra called Aceh. Since then, the religion has faced constant change in the region: in the early 1800s, Orthodox, Wahabbist-inspired ideologies were brought home by Minangkabau pilgrims returning from Mecca, with these new beliefs forcefully spread during an event known as the Padri War. Under attack were traditional, heterodox beliefs that merged Islam with adat, or traditional customs. With the help of the Dutch, this orthodox movement was largely shut down, and Islam with roots in adat continued to thrive despite threats by secularism and modernist Islam in the 20th century.
The vocal tradition of mulud nabi is a wonderful illustration of the Sufi-inspired, adat-based form of Islam that has prospered in West Sumatra to this day, fusing the Sufi tradition of devotion through music with the adat-based use of Minangkabau musical idioms. What's immediately striking is that this music is sung using a bluesy, soulful pentatonic scale typical of certain areas of highland West Sumatra, despite being sung in Arabic -this is particularly odd as the Arabic language almost always goes hand-in-hand with Arabic scales and melody types.
Using other Minang musical idioms and vocal techniques such as sisiak kaciak, a particular kind of vibrato, Minang musicians sing through a series of religious texts narrating the life of the prophet Muhammad. These texts are split into three main parts: part one details the events leading up the birth of the prophet, part two describes the birth and events immediately following it, and part three describes Muhammad's ascent and the spread of Islam, with the performance opened and closed by a chanted prayer. The texts are mostly sung a capella and solo, with three to four vocalists taking turns reciting the pieces from memory, but occasionally vocalists double up or even, as was heard in the final prayer, sing in unison.
This artform was developed in the surau, a kind of small Islamic building mostly found in West Sumatra, similar to a small mosque and used for assembly and ritual - importantly, they don't allow women, so mulud nabii has developed as a male-only artform. True to its roots, the music is almost always taught and performed in the surau and quite rarely in larger mosques. It is in these surau that mulud nabi is performed a handful of times annually during the time around the month of Maulid, as well as being occasionally performed for religious funeral ceremonies.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I first encountered most of the music I've written about on this blog not in the field, in a romantic explorer's narrative, but sitting in my house, watching YouTube. I'll never forget the time when, scouring YouTube for obscure Minangkabau music videos, I chanced upon this cellphone video of mulud nabi being performed in Lintau. I was taken aback - the video shows a handful of men, saronged and peci-capped, sitting on the floor of a surau and passing the mic around the room while soulfully intoning texts that were clearly Arabic but sounded uncannily like the blues. This was something special. I had to find it, had to learn more.
Once I found myself roaming around West Sumatra with my buddy Albert, I knew I had to go to Lintau. We headed to the area, a rarely visited corner of the Minangkabau homeland called Tanah Datar. With the kind help of the YouTube video's uploader, a Lintau local, we were able to find the small village in which it was recorded and were helpfully led to the house of a teacher of the style, Pak Hamza.
Pak Hamza seemed surprised to see us - no researchers, bule or otherwise, had ever shown up at his door to ask about mulud nabi. He graciously invited us in and fielded our inquiries, kindly agreeing to let us record his group later that evening. Meanwhile, we munched on rambutan and dug into Pak Hamza's history with the music. He had learned, perhaps thirty years ago, from his parents, and now was a teacher of the artform himself, one of only two remaining in Lintau.
Pak Hamza was now seventy-two, and he had a grandfatherly charm - between questions, he would tease and make faces at his young granddaughter toddling about the room. Because of his age, I expected his voice to be something of a croak, but when we finally sat down with the group to record later that night, I was blown away by the power and soul in his voice.
The recording went on for more than an hour, with brief versions performed of all three main parts. The vocalists - Pak Norman, Ruslan, and Detri Kaputra, led by Pak Hamza - seemed quite familiar with the routine, standing and sitting at designated points and joining their voices together at prescribed moments. The evening was concluded with a stirring prayer in which all four voices joined in unison, a beautiful loop of melody repeated until a remarkable energy filled the room.
Upon finishing up, I felt I had to let Pak Hamza and the others know how deeply the music had stirred me. In Indonesian, I explained, "Walaupun saya bukan orang Islam, waktu saya dengar musik itu, ada rasa yang sangat kuat dalam hati saya.": While I may not be Muslim, when I hear this music, there's a powerful feeling in my heart.
Pak Hamza laughed and, looking pleased, said "It only takes a few steps to become a Muslim!"
Thank you of course to Pak Hamza, Pak Norman, Pak Ruslan, and Pak Detri Kaputra for sharing their beautiful music with this atheist American, and thank you to Mas Melki, the uploader of the original YouTube video, and Albert, my ethnomusicologist companion from Solok.
My explanation of the history of Islam in West Sumatra is indebted to Delmus Salim's excellent essay, "Islam, Politics, and Identity in West Sumatra."