The World Through Music and Culture

RAFLI – The Voice of Hope in Aceh After the Tsunami

Rafli on tour after the tsunami. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)

Original broadcast on the BBC.

Rafli is one of the most popular singers in the province. His lyrics connect him to all elements of life in Aceh – – from the ongoing struggle between TNI and GAM, to Aceh’s devout brand of Islamic faith, and, now, the tsunami. As with so many other Acehnese, he, too, has been left a refugee since the deadly waves left so many homeless.

Even after losing the bass player from his group, Kande (“Candle”), along with his family home to the tsunami, Rafli is picking up the pieces and finding a new reason to play music. Rafli, who has sold more than a million albums in the past five years in his home province alone, feels he must now devote his talents to lifting people out of their despair and give people hope in the future. 

Rafli on tour after the tsunami. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

Rafli on tour after the tsunami. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)


TRANSCRIPT: (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds on-location.)

MARIA: Sitting on a metal-framed folding chair, dressed in a white button-down shirt and black songkok, Rafli lifts his right hand and looks back at the young male members of his group, Kande (“Candle”). With a sweep of his arm, the group answers back by marking the main beat on their rapa’i – a traditional wooden framed Acehnese drum. The 11 rapa’i of varying sizes and pitches surround him in a half-moon shape, along with an electric guitar and a double-headed geundrang drum. Each slapping boom resonates through the refugee camp in the heart of Banda Aceh, luring people to the large white plastic tarps laid out in front of Rafli and his group. Once the rapa’i become silent, Rafli stands up, and with microphone in hand, begins preaching to the crowd.

RAFLI SAYS: We cannot dwell in trauma for too long, Rafli says. We need to think of our future. We need to pray to Allah. We need to recite the Koran. Then we will find the answers.”

MARIA: Singer and musician, Rafli, is finding a new reason to bring strength and hope to the Acehnese people through music. One of Aceh’s superstars, Rafli is touring camps along the coast with his musical ensemble. Rafli feels traditional Acehnese music can help during unstable times.

RAFLI: Culture and the Muslim faith are very important to us. It is easy to lift people’s spirit with an Acehnese song. Even when we are children, our mothers sit in a swing with us and sing Acehnese. We hear this music from when we are born. It teaches us to be strong and to believe in Aceh.

MARIA: Rafli was born in the village of Sama Dua, South Aceh, 37 years ago. His introduction to music was when his primary school teacher handed him a rapa’i at the age of nine. Relaxing on the clean white tile floor of a house the band rehearses and sleeps, he talks about how his music of choice in the late 1980’s was much different than now.

RAFLI: was a rock star. and I wore tight jeans and jumped around on stage.

MARIA: Why come back to traditional music.

RAFLI: I was popular, but I just got bored with it. I didn’t feel there was anything in the music for the Acehnese people.

MARIA: After spending hours praying in a mosque one summer day in the year 2000, he realized that he needed to leave rock music and serve God and the Acehnese people.

Rafli on tour after the tsunami. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

Rafli on tour after the tsunami. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

MARIA: Now, since the tsunami, he travels from camp to camp to get people’s attention with the strength of the drum. Rafli follows the tradition of 16th century Sufi masters that roamed from village to village with rapa’i in hand spreading the teachings of Islam. Now, he feels the drum can help keep traditional Acehnese culture alive:

RAFLI: We need to teach our children traditional music. Because we have our soul in Acehnese music. In traditional music, we have message for the children. About who they are. About being Acehnese.

MARIA: Yusny Sabi, a professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Aceh is a fan of Rafli and believes his music can comfort during these unstable times:

SABI: The rhythm is Acehnese, the language is Acehnese and when we hear it. We are familiar with it. as if it is part of us. It is not like jazz… we grew up with it. It revives our spirit again. Our emotion. It is something with a meaning.

MARIA: In the camps, it also helps people find answers. The backdrop to Rafli’s concert is hundreds of tents now home to thousands of displaced Acehnese.

MARIA: At the concert, many cry as they sing along to a song that talks about how the living should devote themselves to Allah. 22-year-old Nelli from Melaboh was moved by what she heard:

NELLI: Rafli’s music helps me accept that death will come to all of us. When Allah feels it is our time, than we must understand it must be. Only Allah knows what is right for Aceh’s future.


AUDIO ENGINEER: Niall Macaulay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: