DEPOK, INDONESIA // On a balmy evening, the mixed sounds of traditional and modern musical instruments drift out of a garage-turned-music studio. An oud, or Arabic lute, strums up a haunting Middle Eastern tune. A bass guitar unleashes a metallic twang. A tambourine evokes hippie-chic nostalgia from the 1960s. You expect a bunch of spiky-haired punk artists trying to jam together. But the doors open to a group of men in filigreed skullcaps and women in colourful jilbabs performing on a variety of stringed and percussion instruments.
Meet Debu, a 12-member Indonesian Islamic band, who are inviting much intrigue among music aficionados in Indonesia and much of the Islamic world. They are Muslim, but most are American. Together, they are blurring the lines between Islam and the West. "If you close your eyes and listen to our music, you might imagine us to be Turkish or Iranian musicians. When you open your eyes, you'll see blond Americans with long hair," said Mustafa Daood, the lead vocalist of Debu. "People have no idea where to place us."
Formed in 2001, the band's members, eight of whom are American citizens, live in a housing complex in this city on the southern edge of Jakarta. Debu, which means dust in Indonesian, have released three albums since 2003, with sales touching 120,000, and have delivered top-rating performances during Ramadan on national television. Debu train under the tutelage of Shaykh Fattaah, a bearded Californian in his 60s, who converted to Islam in his 30s and has become an active proponent of Sufi Islamic mysticism.
Four of his children are part of the band and they all hail from a community of 60 followers who, a decade ago, trailed Shaykh Fattah on his spiritual sojourn to Indonesia. Their lyrics are inspired by Shaykh Fattah's poems about universal love, laced with strong overtones of Sufi masters such as Rumi. The band members appear pious and soberly dressed, and the central theme of all their music is religious. But Debu are wary of having their songs labelled under the rubric of Islamic music.
"What is Islamic music, anyway?" said Mr Daood. "Music is music." Their catchy beats, energetic rhythms and the ethereal fusion of jazz, rock and qawwali, resonate among Muslim and non-Muslims alike. "People in the Muslim world are shocked to learn about their identity - but in a very positive way," said Rafly, the lead artist of Kande, an Acehnese Islamic band, who shared the stage with Debu during a fund-raising event in Jakarta last year for Palestinian refugees. "The popularity of their music debunks myths about religious music, which many believe is rejected by the young in a modern world."
Singing in multiple languages including Indonesian, English, Arabic and Turkish, they transcend cultural boundaries with ease. Their American nationality, however, has been both an asset and a liability. When they released their Turkish album Hep Barabar (Let's say it together) two years ago, Turkey could not get enough of them. "People exclaimed, 'An Indonesian band comprising of Americans singing in Turkish!'" said Naseem Nahid, 33, one of the women in the band. "'How did you get on a show in Turkey wearing a hijab?' people asked us. That's where holding an American passport helped."
But in Iran, their American passports invited trouble. A promoter spent US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million) to fly Debu to Iran where they were to perform to packed out audiences across the country. Ahead of their Tehran show, they were interviewed on Iran TV and 40 million people called in. But just after the interview, Debu received a fax from Iran's ministry of culture, revoking their performance licence. Shocked, the band stayed on for two weeks, hoping the ban would be lifted. That did not happen.
However, on their final day in Tehran, the band met the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who expressed regret about their revoked licence. "He said: 'You're Muslim, we are Muslims. This shouldn't have happened. Come again. And if you perform, I'll be seated on the front row,'" Mr Daood recalled the president saying. One of the challenges Debu faces albeit minor in the view of the band, is confronting an extremist fringe that believes music is not compatible with Islam, and that the female voice is forbidden.
"I have only one message for them: if you think this is wrong, don't listen to our music," said Mr Daood, who insists that propagating Islamic morality is not Debu's agenda. "Islam is not just about praying five times a day. Beyond the literal interpretation, we need to catch the deeper meaning of Islamic preaching." Debu's popularity among its exploding female fan base baffles some of the band members.
"Women, completely draped in niqab, insist on posing for photos with us," said Mr Daood, smiling. "Unable to see their own faces, I wonder what they do with these photos." But the band's popularity has not translated into economic success. Sluggish marketing and Indonesia's strong piracy industry cut album sales. Three-quarters of their musical gigs are charitable endeavours. Most of the band members have side professions to earn extra cash. Naseem Nahid is a self-taught fashion designer. Ali Mujahid, the bass guitarist, is a writer.
But music, more a form of benediction than source of income, is the band's main focus. "Our resolve to do music cannot be governed by commerce," said Ms Nahid. "It's something that comes from the heart." * The National