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Women's band sing pop for Allah

By Frances Harrison in Kuala Lumpur
The Guardin, London
May 17, 1999

The Taliban in Afghanistan and the hardline clergy in Iran might regard them as blasphemous, but in Malaysia Islamic pop groups are a hit, even with the fundamentalist PAS party. Nasyid groups, as they are known, are winning awards for using their talents to bring people closer to Allah.

Not exactly Malaysia's answer to the Spice Girls, the women singers of Huda wear full Islamic garb, white headscarves, red lipstick and platform shoes. 'It's quite an attractive yet bizarre image,' said the music journalist Graham Nesbitt, who described the singers as 'very confident and competent at performance - and very sexy'.

Sexy is certainly not what they are aiming for. 'How we're dressed is the costume of the Islamic woman way back in the Prophet Mohammed's time,' explained Shila Lama, one of the singer. Nominated for a prize at the recent Malaysian music industry awards, Huda stood out in slinky evening dresses.

The aim of the group, founded in 1997, is to provide a positive role model for young Muslim women, to counter western popular culture.

'Basically, the message is to love Allah and instil good values in our children so they will be good citizens,' said another, Lisa Mohamad. Their music video shows babies and school children learning Arabic. The singers in Huda, which means womankind, were chosen because they are mothers. Their producer, Farihin Abdul Fattah, asked their husbands' permission to form the group.

'Girl groups always have these emotional problems, especially when they're not married,' Mr Farihin said. Asked by Warner Music Malaysia to form a female nasyid group, he was hesitant. 'They have emotional breakdowns - the boyfriends don't want to see them anymore, and then they start not going to the studio.' Stable and secure women, he reasoned, would be wives and mothers.

To sing convincingly about good values, the members of Huda had to exude spiritual serenity. 'Soothe the soul, don't get wild' was the message, he said. Many Islamic countries would not allow women to sing in public at all, but Huda say they are promoting a 'tolerant Asian brand of Islam'.

In their community, Mr Nesbitt said, 'it's still not exactly encouraged for women to sing, or be associated with music'. But he believes that Huda could succeed commercially, as all-male bands have done. Contemporary Islamic music emerged with Raihan, the male counterpart of Huda, which Mr Farihin also produced.

When Raihan, which means 'heavenly scent', released its first album in 1997, it sold a record number of copies in Malaysia and Singapore. Raihan wear traditional Malay costumes, and a typical lyric goes: 'Let us find a way to know our God, Feel the tortures of hell fire.'

Last month they won the industry prize for the best vocal group in Malaysia, and a special award category for Islamic music has been created. 'It's now a must for every record company in Malaysia to have a nasyid group on its books,' said Mr Farihin, who modestly attributes his success to divine intervention.


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