A stereotype reversed? Well maybe, but basically a damn good Rock band.
There’s an awful lot of nonsense spouted about Islam in the West. It almost seems to have become the new bogeyman to frighten the metaphorical children after the fall of communism. Certainly, like most religions and ideologies, it has produced its fanatics, and hideous things have been done in its name. But they shock most Muslims every bit as much as they do everyone else. Nor is Islam monolithic. There are many different Islamic states, sects and societies, each with their own histories, traditions and attitudes.
One of the myths of fanatical Islam is that music is un-Islamic. But the Islamic world can boast a rich variety of musical traditions, both sacred and secular. There is also a tradition of fusions between Islamic and Western music, with one particularly gorgeous recent example being the 2015 collaboration between Natasha Khan (‘Bat for Lashes’) and British Rock band ‘Toy’ which produced an exquisitely beautiful album that was perhaps unwisely given the title ‘Sexwitch‘.
Indonesian female three piece, ‘Voice of Baceprot’ (pronounced bachey-prot) is often described simply as a Heavy Metal band, with ‘Metallica’ cited as their strongest influence. Well Metal is a broad spectrum and ‘VoB’, as their fans often call them, certainly fits under the umbrella. But they are not just clones of a western model. They are not trying to be ‘Metallica’, or even a female western Metal band like ‘Ice Age‘. Their music adds a strong Javanese flavour to the genre which makes them too a fusion form, just as Japanese band ‘Babymetal‘ adds a distinctively Japanese female vocal style to Metal to produce another East/West fusion.
There’s a big difference, though. Where many western metal-heads can find the likes of ‘Babymetal’ more than a teensy bit cloying, ‘Voice of Baceprot’ (Baceprot means ‘noise’ in their native Sundanese) are a much more serious proposition. They play their own instruments for a start, and are a genuine grass roots growth, where ‘Babymetal’ are a largely synthetic creation.
Of course, another thing all too many westerners think they know about Islam is that madrasa schools are simply places of indoctrination. So the idea of a Metal band consisting of three young farmers’ daughters, wedded to their hijabs (even if worn with leather jackets and black nail varnish) who met at the madrasa in their rural West-Javanese village of Garut, might sound like fantasy. Except that that is not what a madrasa should be at all. Instead, the three: Firdda Kurnia, Euis Siti and Widi Rahmawati, found themselves in 2014 with an inspiring teacher called Erza Satia, who happened to be a Metal fan.
They discovered the music on his laptop and it was love at first hearing. Many a teacher would just have shrugged or even tried to discourage these slightly rebellious students. Instead he supported their growing passion, and the girls soon turned from friends who’d never played an instrument, into enthusiasts willing to practice every hour they had free.
They soon proved to have real talent. Firdda Kurnia became the guitarist and also handles most of the vocals. Euis Siti is the drummer and Widi Rahmawati has turned herself into a truly superb bassist. By 2017, despite a degree of parental opposition, they were good enough to get paying gigs, and their teacher took on a new role as their manager, as well as sharing the songwriting duties.
The band have faced flack from conservatives. They’ve had hate mail and death threats. There have been attempts to disrupt their gigs and they’ve literally had rocks thrown at them. But none of it has put them off and the three see no conflict between a genuine faith, including such outwards signs as the hijab, on the one hand, and playing Metal on stage on the other. Nor do they see why their gender should make any difference. Their message to Muslim women, and indeed women in general, is “Don’t be afraid to be different.”
Indonesia has a strong Metal scene and most fans agree with the band, so while some of the old guard may condemn them, many younger Indonesians view them with pride. And it’s not just Metal fans. They get TV coverage, both at home and increasingly abroad, and in 2017 they were invited to perform for an audience of 2,000 senior officials, business leaders and student groups in Jakarta, at a concert held to mark the anniversary of Indonesia’s independence.
The band soon progressed from playing cover versions of western songs to writing their own material, with a free mix of lyrics in English and Sundanese. So are they singing ‘Death to America’ as some bigots in the West might still expect of an Islamic band? Er, no! Their music deals with social and environmental issues such as global warming. They call for peace, religious tolerance and gender equality. Like Malala Yousafzai they support equal education, and want their music to be a force for good in the world.
On stage they are powerful performers, with Euis Siti in particular a tub-thumping drummer. But they are also forthright and confident in interviews, some of which are conducted in English. And all three speak out freely even though singer Firdda Kurnia tends to be the frontwoman more often than not, both on and off stage.
The band are now reputed to be recording their first full length album, but at present their music is available from a disparate set of sources, notably their Facebook page, with some of the songs on-line in several different versions. Perhaps their best known track translates as ‘School Revolution‘: although it’s a revolution for, not against, school. It’s a real rocker, but while the instrumental parts are pure metal, the vocals, especially in the verses, are almost rap.
Another rocker, ‘Age Oriented (let’s be old)‘ repeats a complaint that’s at least as old as the Roman poet Martial: that young artists seldom get respect for their ideas, and that somehow you need to be old, or better still dead to matter. The song has Kurnia singing in an evokative Javanese classical style, with elongated notes filled with quarter-tone vibrato that initially sounds slightly odd to a western ear. The instruments also deviate from pure Metal. In particular, Rahmawati plays often breathtaking slap bass which gives her a funkier sound. Kurnia’s guitar has a distorted but surprisingly light single coil Fender feel here, rather than a more normal, Humbucker Metal tone. And she’s a real shredder, something this song especially brings out. Her playing is lightening fast, hard edged and often discordant to give a sound that takes few prisoners.
‘The Enemy of Earth is You‘ is an environmental song and again shows a fusion between distinctly Indonesian sounding vocals and largely Thrash-metal instrumental parts. Yet even here Kurnia plays a highly original guitar solo (from 2:35) which also has a definite Javanese classical feel in places. The song again showcases Rahmawati’s bass, and she really is a remarkable player. As someone who plays bass themselves, I can only watch and envy. She mixes slap and finger plucking with total fluidity and lightning speed and gets a twangy Rickenbacker sound from her Ibanez, Schecter and Cort instruments. I can personally relate to one very noticeable aspect of her style. She tends to play well up the fretboard, seldom using the bottom five frets and often being at or above the tenth. And this may be partly down to her size.
Without being too personal, all three women are physically diminutive, even now at approaching twenty years old. There is a ‘YouTube’ video of them appearing on an Indonesian chat show in 2017, and the program’s male and female hosts both tower over them. They make the band look almost like children by comparison, yet they were already seventeen at the time. Full-scale bass guitars are large objects, however. Their fretboards are significantly longer than a guitar’s and the individual frets are further apart, so Rahmawati may simply not be able to reach the far end of her instrument very well. I have the same problem and get round it by playing a short-scale Fender Mustang. But a lot of people don’t like short-scale basses and Rahmawati’s approach is clearly just to play higher up. This denies her more than the occasional visit to the bottom few notes of the instrument’s range, except for the open E string. But it clearly works for her, because she has to be one of the best new bassists around.
Two more songs ‘Perempuan Merdeka Seutuhnya‘ and ‘Kentut RUUP (Merdeka Itu Kentut)‘ were recorded in a live session for Shoebox and are more classic-Metal in feel. But they currently suffer from technical issues. You get the impression that Kurnia may not have been able to hear her foldback clearly enough to give of her best. Certainly her voice is less confident than usual. Plus both songs are less than perfectly produced for the genre, being mixed more as Pop than Metal, with the guitar and voice too prominent and glassy in tone, whilst the drums and still more so the bass are all but drowned out at times. It would be good to hear these tracks recorded more sensitively at some point and hopefully they will appear on the band’s forthcoming album, because they are two more strong compositions.
To sum up, ‘Voice of Baceprot’ are a remarkable young band who I hope to hear a lot more of. They deserve every success and I sincerely hope that they get it. They have already played abroad and their ambition is to play more globally. I’d also say that if I had a hat I’d sure as hell take it off to their teacher/manager. How cool is that to recognise and nurture such talent in three somewhat mutinous students in what was pretty much a village school in a conservative rural area? I wish I’d had a teacher like that. They got ‘Metallica’. We got Bobby bloody Shafto! But it makes you wonder how many other great talents go to waste because they don’t meet their Erza Satia, and instead got teachers who simply told them to shut up..
Top Image, ‘Shoebox Sessions’.