By Mark Wilson
Some bands perform for the money, while others hope for the fame that comes with a chart-topping song. Despite the temptations of fame and fortune that motivate many musicians, there are groups who are inspired purely by music and the opportunity to share its powerful message. Debu, a 15-piece ensemble hailing from the United States and Indonesia, is a band with this mission.
“Because we’re Muslim and the women in our band wear hijabs [headscarves], people naturally categorise us as [creating] Islamic music”, explains Mustafa. “But we’re not an Islamic band. We categorise ourselves as world music – because our message is for the world.”
Debu, which means “dust” in Indonesian, has a lineup that fuses East and West. In addition to the usual acoustic guitar, bass and keyboard, Debu also uses a Turkish baglama, an oud, an Iranian santur, a Middle Eastern qanun and a percussion section that includes Indian, Peruvian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Western drums. Debu’s unique fusion is grasped most powerfully when listening to the band in full flow.
“Originally we weren’t really a band”, says Mustafa Daood, the lead vocalist, composer and arranger of Debu’s music. The band members follow the Sufi tradition of Islam, Daood explains. “As a tradition, Sufis sing, so we’d all sit down and sing together for about six to eight hours a day”, says the 30-year-old musician. “After a couple of years we’d picked up some musical skills and then people started asking us to perform. Then we were on our way.”
Since then, the group has been on an incredible journey. Twelve years and seven albums later, Debu have played to audiences in Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Algeria, Singapore, Brunei, Iran and Canada.
Daood, whose father and son are also part of the band – the former writing poetry for the band’s music, the latter playing the violin – says that Debu’s message is linked back to the same idea wherever the band plays. “It’s about the universal message of love, about treating others with respect and about living in harmony even though we might be from different backgrounds. It’s just like the saying ‘when you smile at the world, the world smiles back at you.’ When we sing to the world, the world sings back at us. Wherever we go we get the same response – we’re always received in a beautiful manner.”
That message resonates in one of the band’s more recent songs, “Doa Rakyat” (Every man’s prayer) in which Daood sings: “Purify the hearts of mankind, forgive each woman and each man, revive each heart that’s dead or blind, transform each tyrant in every land.”
“Naturally we call people to a beauty that we see in Islam, but we realise that our view is not necessarily how everyone sees Islam”, he says. “When we went to Canada we took our core message with us, and people shared it with us. It was a beautiful response.”
With music that transcends borders, cultures and attitudes, Debu appeals to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The group has recorded albums in English, Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, Persian, Spanish, Turkish and Italian.
Debu has a fan base spread across the world – and 55,000 people have “liked” their Facebook page (a number that the band says has grown with little promotion). Through their music, Debu has attracted a diverse audience.
For instance, 25-year-old Mostafa from Puerto Rico, was drawn by Debu’s sound. “I like bands like Metallica and heavy rock styles, but I think Debu is also great because they use instruments from all over the world and try to integrate it all into one sound”, he says. “And for me, Debu’s music is about positive life messages.”
Andi, a 38-year-old Indonesian who has been a fan of the band from its beginning, says, “Their lyrics have real soul and I love how they also bring pop and jazz influences into the mix.”
Debu has also performed at interfaith dialogue events in Indonesia – a country that has a majority Muslim population but also recognises Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – and has been invited to perform at a similar event in Australia. The essence of interfaith work – building stronger relations between people of different faiths – is something that Daood says is an important part of what Debu is about.
“The Sufi message of universal love is a message for everybody”, he explains. “It’s about reaching a certain state that brings you comfort, and for us as Sufis it just so happens that Islam is a way to reach that state, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t reach that state if you aren’t a Muslim. At the end of the day it shouldn’t matter what a person believes. Our music is about mutual respect.”
Mark Wilson is a British journalist based in Jakarta. He writes for the Indonesian national daily The Jakarta Post and is a contributor to IRIN, the United Nations’ humanitarian news agency.