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In Search of an Ehcheh Kalheh

In 1990 The 20th Century BC Band presented to the world ‘Ehcheh Kalheh’ live and for the first time. In the video four men are seen at the front of the stage, dressed almost with too overt an awareness of the times they inhabit and at one with the irresistible motion of the music they are playing. There is Inaadh (Vocals, Bass), Absy (Vocals, Cowbell), Mannu (Vocals, Tambourine) and Mezzo Mode (Vocals, Rhythm) who, in a few years, would wean and go on to make some great music of his own. Behind them are Zahid (Founder, Lead Guitar), Madhee (Keyboard) and Ogarey (Drums).

The spine of the song is Inaadh’s buoyant bass, which lightly supports Absy’s austere singing – no tricks, no falsetto, no bullshit. The lyrics are sparse, leaving it to some deft playing to rescue the song from the musical depths where earworms crawl, elevating it into a masterpiece. The paucity of the verse complements how little is being asked by them: Ehcheh Kalheh; one hedhikaa and a black tea - a reasonable request. But this is art and easy reconciliation is its nemesis, strife and disappointment its life force; hence getting a fathuli hakureh that tasted like shit was only to be expected. Absy’s voice with its clarity and remoteness imbues such poignancy into the words, in the odd moments I slip away from the song’s grasping groove and find myself thinking about their meaning, I start craving an ehcheh kalheh.

But of course, ehcheh kalheh is now archaic – in disuse for decades, fast approaching meaninglessness; a phrase from a different economic and social landscape of the islands – a time before civil service and bureaucracy annexed a large section of the work force, when a man could spend the morning breaking and chiseling coral stones for the walls of a new house, sitting under the shade of motionless palm, arms coated by film of sweat and white fines down to the heel of the cotton glove, casting an odd glance at the membranous calm of the lagoon in front of him, and at a moment decided on by the rhythm and feel of the day rather than by a clock on the wall, get up and walk with the involuntariness of habit, barely registering the few words of banalities called out by passersby but returned with toothless smiles of varying facial tension, towards a sai hotaa before noon to partake of a hot cup of tea.

During school holidays I used to help my uncle in his café with the book keeping – your humble prodigy of numeracy – and around 11 in the morning men would start to file in, more than four hours of labour already behind them, breakfast a fading memory, Fajr a distant Mesozoic. As they left, I would get an account of what they had, and almost invariably it would be ‘ehcheh kalheh’. To me, a preadolescent of an already voracious appetite this was incomprehensible and in my exasperation I could have cried out:

Are you sure, Easabe? You have plastered half the walls of your home this morning! Aren’t you hungry? Aren’t you famished?’

‘Ehcheh kalheh’

‘Ahamadhube, you have been welding since 7! Have another bajiyaa, have another gulha! For the Lord!’

‘Ehcheh kalheh’

‘Moosabe you have wandered the Sinai for forty years! You have fasted for forty days straight! I’m begging you!’

‘Ehcheh kalheh’.

It had to have been unintelligible to me: theirs was an age of frugality at its twilight, mine is the age of excess – a fish roll that costs an arm, a mas’roshi that spans the whole pan. (Within weeks I would be gently let go because I was having tea four, five times a day on the house).

Perhaps these strong memories of an idyllic childhood conjured by the song is why it has such a grip over me; or maybe it is being part of a generation that came of age at a time when Maldivian culture was in total arrest in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami – caused no less by the blunt force of the event, sudden and remorseless, than by the waves of fanaticism and hatred that crept onto our shores in its wake – and the bleakness of the intervening years why I find myself reaching for a song performed before I was born, in my eagerness and yearning to be rooted in the rich cultural history of my country, an act of feeble resistance to the forces that try to homogenize or renounce it.

Looking for concrete causes for our affinity to art might be futile and even childish; and whatever they may be, every time I listen to the song, my feelings are intense melancholy and euphoria – wholly at peace with each other. I feel like the sole audience member seen in the lower half of the screen, that fluid silhouette in a steady flow, given over to the irrepressible urge to dance.

It has been more than three decades since the song was first played, and Zahid and Ogarey are no longer with us, but they have left us with a song which encapsulates a culture not necessarily superior but demonstrably more at ease.


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