CD Recommendation: Unlocking the Past: Maldivian Traditional Music from V. Keyodhoo Opens the Box of History

MaldivanArtist: Maldivian Traditional Music
Title: Vaavu Keyodhoo
Label: Asasi Records
Genre: Maldivian Traditional Music

The Maldives. With its blue seas and perfect weather, the islands in the Indian Ocean are a favorite vacation and honeymoon destination. But look past the tourist glitz and there are centuries of history and music here that have gone undocumented. All that changes, though, with Maldivian Traditional Music from V. Keyodhoo (released October 7th, 2014 on Asasi Records), a three-CD collection that offers the very first glimpse of the boduberu, thaara, and raivaru traditions from one of the islands in the chain. And it includes the singing of a woman who know those traditions well – she was already a centenarian when the recording was made.

“The music is in its traditional form as it would probably have sounded like even 100 years ago,” explains Abdulla Kaleem, the album’s producer. “It’s not practiced on every island, either, although it’s strong on V. Keyodhoo, which is about 90 minutes by speedboat south of the Maldives capital, Male.’

Kaleem first visited V. Keyodhoo in 2012, meeting members of the Keyodhoo Rahvehi club, the social club for the inhabitants, who’d long since hoped they’d have their music and dances recorded for posterity. And now they have.

Boduberu, which translates as ‘big drum,’ is the sound of the log drums so familiar to visitors and the dances that accompany the music. Some of the rhythms have their origins in Africa. Each lengthy piece needs to be heard in its entirety in order to appreciate the complexity and changes in the music. Each begins slowly, gradually increasing to a frantic climax that can send some of the dancers into a trance state. In live performance, the role of the dancers is vital within the music.

It was Gulf Arabs who brought thaara to the Maldives. The word refers to the tambourine-like instrument so vital to the style, generally only played for religious celebrations like Eid festivals.

Raivaru is vocal music, folk songs sung to ancient tunes handed down through the generations, the melodies using scales originally from Indian and Sri Lanka. Featuring a solo singer, the verses tend to three or six lines.

“There’s never been any in-depth research on Maldivian music,” notes Kaleem. “Much of what we know is based on hearsay. We do know that thaara came here in the 17th century, though. About the only difference is that now it’s sung in Dhivehi, the local language, instead of Arabic. I think these CDs could be a vital document in a few years.”

Everything was recorded in a single take, using equipment brought over by boat from the capital.

“It was recorded inside a restaurant in the island. We looked around V. Keyodhoo to try and find to a good outdoor location,” Kaleem recalls. “We just wanted to spot a place with good sound. Outdoors is great for boduberu. But the weather didn’t look great that day and we didn’t want to take a risk. We decided to scout indoor options, and decided that a restaurant we went to would be perfect. It had a natural sand floor. We tried a couple of drums and it sounded good in there so that’s how we decided on the location.”

One great impetus for making the album was to document the singer Maryam. At the 2013 session she was already 100 years old, and with her son Manikbe, is one of the great torch bearers of the raivaru tradition.

“No one had ever recorded her before,” says Kaleem. “But that’s true of every traditional musician or dancer living in the islands. Maryam’s voice is very weak today. She would have sounded much better 10 or 20 years ago. For us, Maryam alone was a good reason to do this record. She’s still alive, although she could leave us at any time.”

But the music won’t die with her. For the last 60 years Manikbe has been very involved in keeping it alive and vital.

“He could possibly be the most influential person on the island of V. Keyodhoo as far as traditional music is concerned,” Kaleem observes. “He’s been very actively involved with just about everything in traditional music in the island since the late ‘50s.”

It’s all too common to hear a release described as “groundbreaking,” but in the case of Maldivian Traditional Music from V. Keyodhoo, for once the term is apt. For the first time there’s a spotlight on this music that’s developed in isolation from the influences of the rest of the world.

When it’s released, there will be a celebration on the island.

“Actually, they have still not heard the music we had recorded,” Kaleem says. “Our idea is to hand them the final finished product on the day we put out the album. We’ll also be giving away a free copy of the album to every household in the island of V.Keyodhoo.”

And with that, history will really be made.