Friday, May 6, 2011

Baby Arabia

Yesterday I attended the only scheduled UK screening of a documentary titled Baby Arabia, about a Thai Muslim pop group based in Bangkok. After the screening at SOAS, one of the film's creators, a screenwriter who also writes for the Bangkok Post, conducted a q&a session.

The band started in 1976 as a nasjid group covering popular Arabic, Malay and Indonesian songs. (The Malay and Indonesian repertoire is referred to locally as 'Malay-Arabic'.) Baby Arabia added instruments over time - guitar, bass, drum kit, accordion - and also incorporated female vocalists and a backup chorus. On stage, the singers dress in Malay garb (though they wear normal Thai clothing off). They have little understanding of the meaning of the Arabic, Malay and Indonesian lyrics they sing, and even unable to articulate their sources, but these songs are enjoyed by local audiences The long-lived band performs some 150 concerts a year (lasting 2 to 6 hours), typically playing mosque fairs and private celebrations, sometimes earning only 300 baht. Band members have other jobs- one works as a motorcycle taxi driver.

The documentary is essentially a concert film which follows the band to gigs around the Bangkok area and also provides glimpses into band members' lives and religious practices. For example, we see the lead female vocalist teaching a class in Quranic recitation to boys. (She claims she is a better teacher than a man as her voice is closer in register to the boys'.) It is a portrait of a minority culture in a major Asian metropolis.

The film makers are all Thai Muslims and say they made the film to show the voice of moderate Islam. After 9/11 and the escalation of violence in the south of Thailand, Muslims in Thailand suffered from negative stereotypes, and the voices that dominated the media were extremists who espoused radicalism, counterposed by liberal Muslims who often offered anti-Islamic comments.

Listening now to the sound track as a type this post, I hear the music as Indonesian- a variant of orkes Melayu. But Thai experts in attendance said they perceived the backup rhythms as Thai country music, and the backup dancers in their cute costumes as typically Thai. So an interesting case of transnational hybridity.

A DVD of the documentary is planned.

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