Maldives in still mode

A legend undeterred

Posted in information, interview, Music, People by Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeg on November 2, 2012

Ahmed Nashid’s voice on the phone is calm and elegant much like his released music albums and performances. He gives me directions on the phone to his house at a private residential complex in a suburb of Sri Lankan capital Colombo. The man even answers his own front entrance gate, greeting me with a large smile on his face and a welcoming handshake. By all means he appears strong and shows no signs of his ongoing battle against kidney cancer.

He closes the gate behind and leads me to the first floor balcony, just passing a small room, which has a basic music recording setup. Imagine being Nashid. You are a pop star who about 20 years ago was absolutely massive in your own country and abroad. And, however little you do and time you spend in mainstream music scene, your fame refuses to diminish. Unlike other countries, the 49-year-old singer might not have to deal with paparazzi stationed outside his residence or fans stalking him 24/7, but he is one of the few music legends the country has ever seen.

I place my phone on a chair alongside Nashid, making sure the recording app is not missing out any part of our conversation. “I rarely give interviews. This must be the most comprehensive of them yet,” he shrugs, introducing me to his beautiful wife Safoora, a professional singer from Fuvahmulah island, who had been performing in Colombo and Dubai over the last ten years. He is right; he has refrained from the media’s eyes during his entire musical career, which spans over 30 years. But here I am, welcomed into his home, surrounded by the rather pleasant sound of his neighbours’ pet parrots chirping which add to the relaxed atmosphere.

Growing up in a typical Maldivian household, Nashid was used to the sound of his grandmother use ‘Baiypolhi’ – a traditional Maldivian ware used to winnow and clean raw rice – and other tralatitious utensils every day. For a normal teenager, sounds such as the swishing of winnowing rice and the husking of coconuts would not appear anything more than just mundane sounds. Nashid, however, found those seemingly everyday sounds to be something more.

“As a kid, I started feeling the rhythms in the sound of my grandmother winnowing rice using ‘Baiypolhi’ at the kitchen,” he says, delving into the discovery of his artistic talents at a very young age. His fascination with natural sounds as a kid would later become the cornerstone of Zero Degree Atoll’s unique music and the driving force behind their rise to fame as the most successful Maldivian band of all time, both locally and in the international arena.

When Nashid met Mohamed ‘Mohoj’ Hassan Didi in his childhood, the seeds were sown for a musical career that was to gain him popular support in the Maldives and worldwide recognition. The duo performed regularly in several Maldivian resorts before setting out to compose their first song in 1987 with fellow music aficionado Ahmed. With Reethi Handhuvaru, a song produced by Worldview International Foundation and home ministry to promote the natural beauty and serenity of the Maldives, the trio burst into mainstream music scene, employing the songwriting talent of Nashid’s father Mohamed Rasheed and his cousin Ahmed Naseer. “Both of them were very talented and my father especially followed Dhivehi poetry in writing the songs,” he says.

In 1988, Zero Degree Atoll began work on their first album, travelling across the Maldives to record various sound bites that conveyed the natural rhythms of the laid-back atoll lifestyles such as clinging of oars on water, winnowing rice and traditional boat building. “I told Mohoj that we should include natural sounds in our album. He also agreed to the fact that sounds unique to the Maldivian island community would make our music last longer,” Nashid enthuses. After about two years of recording and extracting the rhythms from the sound bites, the band released their iconic Dhoni album in 1990. The masterpiece rang with early morning birdsongs, the thumping of coconut husks and the laving of waves ashore. “We proved our concept and that’s one of the reasons our music is still popular,” Nashid explains.

Nashid’s fascination with natural sounds did not end with Zero Degree Atoll’s music. In 1993, he released his solo blues album Bird in Flight, winning awards in Australia and in the US. He won the award for the Best Acoustic Blues act at the New York International Music Festival in 2003. “Blues is basically the art of expressing the bad feelings of a good man. It originated from African American slaves playing instruments like harp to the beat of moving trains. It has roots in other forms of music such as R&B and jazz,” he explores his deep interest in blues. “When I got the invitation to perform at Madison Square Garden, I asked the organisers why I had won the award. I was told that except two, all of my songs had our ethnic rhythms. They were very impressed by the way I had put together the odd time signatures of the local ‘Boduberu’ rhythms using modern drum sets.”

The subsequent 1997 album Island Pulse, a westernised version of Dhoni album with more guitars and drum, was recorded at the Couleur Studio in France under a seven-year contract signed with a French record company in August 1996. The album, however, lacked many natural sounds and rhythms from the original album. “Despite our efforts to include natural sounds in the album, our investor didn’t want that. He believed that natural sounds wouldn’t please the western audience,” Nashid recalls the hard compromise the band had to make. “But people still prefer the original Dhoni album.”

Zero Degree Atoll’s unprecedented success continued through the late 90s with several local and international concerts that saw the band perform in Switzerland, Germany and France. Then…. nothing. Although their music continued to enjoy popular support in the Maldives and elsewhere, the band completely disappeared from spotlight. They went “on our separate ways”; Nashid and Mohoj continued performing separately at Maldivian resorts, while Ahmed went to UK for studies. The fans did not see the trio perform until their reunion show 16 years later at the Alimas Carnival of Male in May 2007. It was attended by over 7,000 people and remains perhaps the most successful music show held in the country to date.

Nashid has won several international and national awards as a solo singer, including the President’s Award for promoting ethnic music. But there is one achievement – the “most significant of all” – that he has so far kept to himself. “It was when Paul McCartney visited Maldives. He was staying in a prestigious resort and we were invited to perform Dhoni album for him. Paul was in his yacht, while we were sitting on stools at the top of a vessel tied to the side of the yacht,” Nashid recalls the “most memorable experience” of his career. “Mohoj started singing [The Beatles song] Get Back and Paul couldn’t stay still. I started tearing up when he came over and sang the song along with us.”

As a musician, Nashid loves to play guitar and experiment with various tunes and melodies during his leisure time. Earlier this year, he found himself unable to hold simple items like his mobile phone with his right hand let alone play the guitar. “At that point, I was worse than a baby,” he jokes. Doctors at the ADK Hospital found two tumours in his brain and asked him to go abroad for treatment as soon as possible. He moved to Colombo in last April and did several chekups, which diagnosed him with stage four kidney cancer. He was even told by one doctor that his chance of survival was very slim – odds so bad he was advised “to forget about the upcoming show”. Despite the cancer cells being spread into his lungs and brain, other doctors are optimistic and Nashid is determined to overcome it.

“The cancer in my kidney is at its last stage and it’s dangerous and impossible to surgically remove it. But my doctor Dehan Gunasekara is very confident and so am I,” he says, cheerily. “My spirits are very high and my faith in Almighty Allah is extremely strong. Like any other person, I have always trusted Allah and I do have a positive mind. And with my prayers, I’m continuously seeking closeness with Him.”

The grueling radiotherapy sessions have presumably weakened him over the past couple of months, but this is still the very Nashid who cheered up audiences of thousands with his elegant voice and unique music. Gone is his long hair but his musical career is far from over as fans will soon see his musical magic unleashed at a whole new level.

Note: Above article is published by Haveeru Online and here is his interview published by Haveeru:

Ahmed Nashid is one of the best musicians ever to come out of the Maldives and his contribution to the country’s most successful band, Zero Degree Atoll, is immense. Despite his ongoing battle against cancer, his talent remains unchanged. He will perform at the benefit concert to be held on December 7 in Colombo to raise funds for his treatment. In his most revealing interview to date, the legend speaks about his musical career and his fight against cancer.

Haveeru: What are the most noteworthy events surrounding the formation of Zero Degree Atoll?

Nashid: Transport was an issue at the time and it took a long time to reach islands on boats. There was no chance for us to work together as a band either. I requested President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who made it possible for us to register the band at the home ministry under the regulation on ‘bandiya’ parties and other clubs and associations. It made our operations easy. Later we came under the administration of the information ministry, which was headed by Ibrahim ‘Summer Blue’ Manik.

Haveeru: Were natural sounds used because of a difficulty in getting musical instruments?

Nashid: We had the opportunity to use various types of musical instruments. But I told Mohoj that there was no way we could make an album without the use of natural sounds and our ethnic rhythms. Mohoj facilitated that through the help of Husni, then owner of Rannaalhi resort and a close friend of him. We obtained a very old sampler and started travelling to islands to record sounds. We used the sound of thumping of coconut husks instead of bass drum and the sounds of ‘baiypolhi’ and grinding of spice instead of shaker. We then brought those sound bites into musical formation by separating out the rhythms. It was quite a difficult task at the time. But because we were so passionate about it, it proved to be a fascinating work. We knew we were composing something unique.

Haveeru: How did you compose songs for the albums?

Nashid: For our first song Reethi Handhuvaru, we composed the melody before writing the lyrics. But in the songs that followed, we wrote lyrics first and melody later. It proved to be a much better way, as we had a narrative – a storyline on which we could then base the melody. I believe that this is the proper way.

Haveeru: What do you believe made Zero Degree Atoll the most popular Maldivian band?

Nashid: The assets of any band will be its songs and many Maldivian bands have composed beautiful melodies. We too became successful because we composed some very good songs. At the time, there were no original songs with a local Maldivian flavour. I see every song as a picture. It will be very difficult to take that same picture again with the same colours and cloud formations.

Haveeru: Would a future show create as much interest as it did back then?

Nashid: The high incidence of gang violence and political gatherings in Male has made it impossible for anyone to attend a music show. I’m not going to waste my time by holding a big show under such circumstances. Many people requested me to change the upcoming Colombo show to Male. But Male doesn’t have the kind of environment that can facilitate such an event.

Haveeru: Why didn’t you release another album after the success of your solo album?

Nashid: At that time, I had been considering to move to the US and continue the work from there. Many people told me that I’d be very successful in the States. But due to financial and other constraints, I couldn’t make that possible. It isn’t easy to get a sponsorship for such an extensive undertaking.

Haveeru: Do you listen to the songs of other local and international artists?

Nashid: I believe composing music is like painting. If someone else tries to re-colour the painting of an artist, its original expression is lost. I refrain from listening to other musicians because they might influence my thoughts. I listen to my old songs and those I’m currently working on. And since my wife and daughter are singers, I listen to their songs.

Haveeru: Do people still express interest in the band’s albums?

Nashid: The public still support our songs. I think there won’t be anyone in Male who doesn’t know Dhoni album. But even many resorts buy the pirated copies available at the marketplace. We don’t get any income from that. We’ve asked the police to look into this. A popular Maldivian musician I know in fact renovated his shop twice from money generated by selling pirated copies. I advised him several times to stop that. But he shrugged off that there was no copyright laws in Maldives. Things remain in such a sorry state then and now.

Haveeru: What do you think of the songs composed by modern bands?

Nashid: Everyone has the right to express oneself – whether it’s through speech, painting or song. But it shouldn’t be done in a way as to humiliate another. To my best knowledge, no band in Maldives works like that. Political songs should only cover the general issues. And an original song composed by a Maldivian should be considered a local production.

Haveeru: What are the obstacles faced by Maldivian bands?

Nashid: The only way bands can progress in Maldives is through the tourism industry. But even that is in a sad state. During president Gayoom’s administration, there was a regulation that prohibited a resort or hotel from employing a foreign musician. But resorts started to bring in such professionals in the disguise of gardeners and bartenders. And because of that our local musicians didn’t get any work. Many resorts would say that they’ve an in-house Filipino or Thai band.

Haveeru: What could be done to solve that problem?

Nashid: I request Tourism Minister Adeeb to address the issue. I think the ministry should submit a bill to parliament, making it a requirement that a foreign musician can operate only within a local band. Football also progressed due to Sri Lankans and other nationals playing for our teams. Local bands should also include some foreign talent. For instance, if a resort requires the services of a violinist or saxophonist, a foreigner can’t go there all by himself. The local musician who accompanies the foreigner can learn a lot from him. My wish is that, until such legislature can be drawn, the authorities put in some kind of arrangement similar to the regulation under president Gayoom. It’s because there’s no such provision that local artists are now scattered and can be found mostly whiling away their time on the streets with their acoustic guitars.

Haveeru: Do musicians have any opportunity in Maldives?

Nashid: The opportunities for musicians exist in the tourism industry. When Mohoj and I first ventured to the tourism industry, there wasn’t even a two-piece band. After us came the trio band of Umar Zahir. But we all got many opportunities. We even got a sponsorship from Universal Enterprises, which I’d say, revived western music in the Maldives. I wouldn’t be here today if not for the generous assistance of Mohamed ‘Koli’ Manik and Ahmed ‘Koli’ Manik. Both ‘Champa’ Afeef and Bandos [Island Resort] owner Waheed Deen have kindly helped BC Band then and continues to support modern Maldivian bands. Ali Noordeen and Sun Travels owner [Ahmed] Shiyam are also ardent contributors.

Haveeru: What do bands need to do to progress in the tourism industry?

Nashid: This is the time to go to resorts and identify the songs most favoured by holidaymakers. They now want to listen to popular songs modified to individual musicians’ tastes. A lot can also be done now using computers. The most important thing is to make use of the opportunities and maintain great discipline. You need to sleep well and practice regularly. It’s also important to be punctual and not engage in any questionable activity while in the resorts.

Haveeru: Can you share your experience of cancer?

Nashid: To undergo an ear operation in 2008, I went to KK Hospital in Madras with ADK’s doctor Nitin. After the surgery, I went through a full-body medical checkup at Apollo Hospital on Dr Nitin’s advice. The physician who observed the report told me that there was no problem and that it would suffice to walk for 45 minutes every day. I didn’t bother checking the report myself because it’s a doctor’s task to check the report. After I came here, my mother sent me the x-rays taken from Apollo Hospital. One evening while bored at Nawaloka Hospital I was checking through the x-rays when I noticed the circle around the kidney and the writing that said, “Needs further examination.” The first test conducted here showed that it wasn’t cancer, but further tests diagnosed me with stage four kidney cancer.

Haveeru: How’s the treatment progressing?

Nashid: The tumour in my brain has shrunk and most of the cancer cells in my lungs have subsided. After ten sessions of radiotherapy, I’m now taking a tablet called Sunitinib, which is the most expensive medicine in the world prescribed for cancer. I’m buying it from India because it’s more expensive here. Each tablet costs US$128, totalling a sum of about US$4,000 a month. I’ve to complete a 28-day cycle and leave an interval of 14 days before starting the next cycle. This is the fifth cycle now. I’ve asked the Maldivian government to render me some sort of assistance, as a I don’t have a huge saving. My friends are very helpful.

Haveeru: Are you working on any music at the moment?

Nashid: I’m working on a new solo album, which includes songs written by my father before he succumbed to cancer. Now 80 percent of the work has been completed. I can’t give an exact release date because I’m here right now. But I’ll perform five songs from that at the show to be held in Sri Lanka. Apart from that, I am practising for the upcoming show.


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  1. […] a nice interview with Nashid from a few years ago by Abdulla Naafiz, for the now defunct Haveeru Online, archived on […]

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