Sometimes, it’s better to be in the dark. Like tonight, on the small island near Nika Island Resort, where guests have gathered with just an inkling of what the night entails. All they know is that a band will perform, a local band by the moniker Baburu Kulcha.
All of humanity has roots in Africa, but our connection to that continent is more intimate; evident in our people, in our stories, song and dance. Baburu is a curious Dhivehi term. It means ‘African’, ‘of African descent’, ‘black-skinned’. It can also mean ‘frenzy’. Our grandmothers spoke of beings, baburu kudhin (black-skinned children), who would peer at you through the shrubbery in gifilis (outhouses) while you bathed or relieved yourself.
‘Nostalgia’, the banner under which Baburu Kulcha performs, is the brainchild of Edoardo Caccin (Edo), the resort’s director of external affairs. Edo is positioning the property as a carefully preserved piece of history. To enhance Nika’s historic value, what Edo calls ‘the Maldives that used to be’, he draws on local cultural elements that are obscure or on the brink of extinction. Like coral carving, practised by skilled craftsmen centuries ago, a practice that would have vanished if not for the efforts of a young man Mohamed Imran.
Tonight, it’s a different kind of culture that’s brought to the fore. A bonfire springs to life, crackling and flooding the moonlit stretch of beach with a warm amber glow. It reveals the performers to startled guests; four fearsome young men, bare-chested, sarongs wrapped around their lower bodies and a woman in traditional Dhivehi feyli. The men’s frightening appearance is the result of blackened faces, arms and torsos. No, it’s not blackface, rather their charcoaled bodies allude to something sinister and indigenous; they’re impersonating demonic creatures called Maali, which figure in Maldivian tradition and folklore. Maalis still appear in festivals like Eid on the islands, dressed in grass skirts instead of sarongs, but in that festive context, they’re stripped of the power to strike terror into the hearts of their audience.
Baburu Kulcha’s musical instruments are eclectic; a Tibetan singing bowl, a djembe, a pair of digeridoos, a conch shell and the perennial Maldivian bodu beru. An interesting mix that makes you think about the synergies these disparate instruments can create.Rafil, the charismatic multi-instrumentalist, tells the captive audience about the songs. These songs foreground the mystical and superstitious beliefs of us islanders that were rampant prior to the demystifying influence of modernisation.
The rhythmic lyrics of Sato Raha, a song about the demonic possession of a scuba diver, plunges the night into a horrifying darkness through the imagery of floating corpses, a fearsome prehistoric shark, hovering orbs of light. The music is equally brooding; a hypnotic djembe beat is augmented by pulsating bursts of digeridoo, creating a profound sense of foreboding. Rafil’s gravelly baritone, which adds to the sense of unease, is tempered by the lightness of Dhifu’s voice. If this music must have a label (though labels sometimes obscure more than they reveal) it may well be Dhivehi world music.
Baburu Kulcha concludes with an electrifying jam that compels guests to dance. And during this extended session, the beats become increasingly frenetic, the rhythm and melodies intensify in their urgency. The staff of Nika dance in the traditional bodu beru manner, their movements becoming wilder as the session progresses, and soon everyone is in the grip of this music; it’s as though they’re possessed by primeval powers, the very ones that we islanders used to fear and revere in equal measure.
In the end, the audience is left begging for more. It’s over though, and the night regains some semblance of calmness. The human Maali disappear, but they have left their mark on us. No one expected a performance of this magnitude; that is why it’s sometimes good to be left in the dark, especially when music is on the menu.
Used with permission from Hotel Insider.
Photo by Ahmed Razeen. From left to right: Rafil Mohamed, Mohamed Affan, Dhifla Ahmed Ismail (session singer), Ibrahim Riffath, Jilwaz Hameed.
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