Popular Islamic music – girls band!

A set of various drums

It is no secret, while traveling in Indonesia we often have to rely on what shiny Lonely planet book advices us, however we need to note that the authors of Lonely Planet and even travel blogs have overlooked quite an important part of Indonesian cultural experience… That is – islamic devotional music. It would be quite strange not to mention it, as 88% of Indonesian population are muslims and since Islam came to Indonesia around 13th century, music played an important role in spreading the message of this new religion. Nowadays islamic devotional music can rightfully claim to be one type of Indonesian traditional music and can also rightfully request its place on the pages of Lonely planet. And so we are proud to be the ones telling you about the popular islamic music. Please applause for the islamic music girls band!!!

The girls band "Al Amanah"

There is a widespread perception that music is generally prohibited in Islam. However, if you flip through Qur’an, the holy book, you will not find a verse stating such prohibition. But let us leave this discussion for the scholars and intellectuals… We trust our feeling and agree – if God should be praised, then this is a good way! The sound of intricately arranged drums followed by melodic voices of 10 girls is captivating! Abdul Chaliq, the leader of the group, says he believes that even those radical muslims who are convinced music is “haram” will have their heart softened when listening to the girls band Al-Amanah. (to read more about whether music is prohibited in Islam please refer to this article and its references).

Al-Amanah is an all girls group from Surabaya, singing devotional songs accompanied by various drums. Based on the genre they represent Al-Amanah is categorised as Qasidah rebana group. Qasidah is an ancient arabic word for religious poetry accompanied by chanting, popular in many muslim countries, from Egypt to Indonesia. Religious poetry in this case is also accompanied by rebana. Rebana is a one sided frame-drum or tambourine, often used in islamic devotional music across South East Asia. The name comes from the Arabic name “Robbana” meaning “our God”.

Islam has spread in Java island with the help of Wali Songo, 9 pious men, who, it is popularly believed, were mystics, had supernatural powers, were descendants of prophet Muhammed and many more… One is known for sure – many of these highly respected 9 men took what was the best of traditional Indonesian arts and applied it for spreading the message of Islam. Thus, the shadow puppets, the gamelan, many dances though changed still exist today and it is right to say that these are the best examples of art forms that have experienced many different influences, but still survived. Local drums and drumming traditions were also adopted to spread the message of Islam, therefore it is believed that rebana existed in Indonesia before arrival of Islam.

There are so many types of frame drums, and so many different genres of rebana music spread throughout Sumatra, Java and islands, that even for a skilled musicologist it would take years to catalogue them. Also most of the drum ensembles do not play their beats by the note sheet or strict melody developed through centuries – frame drumming is a constant improvisation and dynamics. For example, Abdul Chaliq revealed to us that he draws his inspiration from Balinese music, Indian and other world music. No wonder, that group he is leading has been winning local competitions for couple of years in a row. Even with our unprofessional ear we could hear that girls stand out of the crowd of other drummers. Mr. Abdul puts his passion in what he does, composes at any time and in any place.

In frame drum ensemble there can be from 2 up to 30 people. In Al-Amanah there are 10 girls, Farah, the youngest daughter of Abdul Chaliq, is the main vocal and a charismatic leader of the group. Each girl has a different drum: keprak, high bass, low bass, middle bass, tambourine. And each girl has her own pattern to play, so when put together the nine drums produce complex and very beautiful musical arrangement. It becomes even more sophisticated as patterns are unequal, followed by beautiful singing and appropriate choreography.


In early centuries of spread of Islam through Indonesia men would sing stories of prophet Muhammad accompanied by drumming. Nowadays the message of the songs is still the same: praises to God, message of peace or story from prophet’s life, but lyrics have also developed into a mixture of arabic and indonesian languages, or even local dialect. As Farah admits “it is difficult to hide her Surabayanese accent”.

Rebana used to be played in ceremonies, but nowadays it becomes more as an artistic expression and there are many competitions across Indonesia to define the most artistically skilled in beating the islamic rhythm. Farah tells us, that Al-Amanah also performs at important gatherings, meeting politicians or other important people, and rarely in religious ceremonies. And of course, the girls have a big fan club – who can resist their charm and beauty of the music they do??? Even if you do not like religious songs, do not pay attention to the praises, but listen to the beautifully arranged drumming and singing. Watch costumes floating in the wind and simple choreography. Everytime the girls would go on stage, I would have goosebumps covering my skin – I find their singing so powerful!

When I think about girls performing praises for Allah, I unwillingly compare it to Balinese practice to dance for the gods in the temples. And I wonder whether there is something in the blood of all Indonesians – to praise God in artistic way with extreme elegance and beauty.

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