“Akulah para pencarimu ya Allah / Akulah yang merindukanmu ya rabbi / Hanya di jalanmu ya Allah / Tempat ‘ku pasrahkan hidupku.” (I am your seeker, o Allah / I am the one who misses you, o rabbi / Only in your path, o Allah / The place where I surrender my life.)
Long before he became a politician and served as deputy mayor of Palu, Sigit Purnomo Syamsuddin Said sang these lyrics. But who is he? His full name sounds unfamiliar, but his nickname Pasha is much more familiar to the ears of Indonesian music lovers. He sings in the song “Para PencariMu” (Your seekers) with his boyband Ungu.
Released in 2007, “Para PencariMu” is one of many religious-themed songs that are marketed every time the holy month of Ramadan arrives. Ungu and his religious albums are part of what we can call the “Ramadan bubble”.
In business, a bubble occurs when a certain commodity explodes in the market, its price soars until it becomes unreasonable and finally, the bubble bursts and disappears.
The Ramadan bubble follows the same logic, it is a seasonal bubble that appears once a year, especially in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. When the holy month arrives, people or businesses suddenly compete to brand themselves as religious figures. All products must be polished with the Ramadan narrative as a marketing gimmick. The TV soap opera Para Pencari Tuhan (Seekers of God), for example, is screened only every Ramadan and has survived for up to 15 seasons now.
Like other bubbles, this Ramadan bubble will eventually burst and stop being discussed or traded when Idul Fitri arrives. After the post-Ramadan celebration, everything returns to normal.
Likewise, with Ungu, post-Ramadan, the band takes off the Muslim attire of baju koko (neckless shirts) and turbans they wore for a month — Ungu returns to its nature as a pop band with music and lyrics about romance.
Ungu is one of many examples. Boyband Gigi released its first religious album, Raihlah Kemenangan (Reach Victory), in 2004, which was a self-fulfilled prophecy as it earned huge success. Since then, Gigi has routinely released a religious album or single on Ramadan.
More recently, Base Jam, a very successful boyband in the 1990s era who parted ways but finally reunited, has tried its luck by releasing a new single titled “Kusambut Ramadan” (I welcome Ramadan).
Nothing is peculiar about musicians known for their “pop commerce” genre suddenly shifting to religious songs. In the (music) industry, profit is everything.
The musicians compose and perform religious songs simply for revenue as the market is exceptionally big (236 million or 86.88 percent of the Indonesian population is Muslim). The returns from selling religious music are really tempting.
Just for the record, in 1999, Haddad Alwi and Sulis sold some 1.30 million copies of the Cinta Rasul 1 album. The huge market potential explained why rock star Ahmad Albar released the dangdut-themed (music genre inspired by Arabic and Indian music) song “Zakia” when dangdut was booming in the 1980s.
Haddad and Sulis have long focused on and achieved fame by making religious songs. There are many musicians who fill this captive market. They compose and perform religious-themed songs throughout the year, without having to wait for Ramadan.
Old cracks Bimbo and king of dangdut Rhoma Irama and his Soneta Group have consistently sung religious-themed songs. Another prominent group of this generation is the all-female Nasida Ria, which focuses on qasida (Muslim-themed music or poetry), rooted in Arabian culture.
Founded by HM Zain, a Quran teacher, in Semarang in 1975, all the nine members of the group were Zain’s students. Initially, the group played only tambourines, but later they added an organ, bass, violin, guitar and flute as accompaniment instruments.
Nasida Ria can be called a modern qasida group because it sings Indonesian, not Arabic, lyrics in order to reach most of its targeted market. The choice of Indonesian makes it easier for the majority of Muslims in the country to understand its songs.
The group also adopts the element of dangdut not only to widen its market but also to help it convey religious messages. In this regard, Nasida Ria followed in the footstep of Rhoma and his Soneta who use dangdut as a medium of Islamic propagation.
Mythology expert Joseph Campbell said humans built temples, mosques or churches by prioritizing the acoustic aspect of the houses of worship. This is because humans are imitating acoustics in a cave, where the first generation of humans felt spiritual longing. Of course, humans will not be able to capture the acoustic standards of a cave exactly. What they can do is build a simplified imitation.
So, whatever the form, whether commercial pop music a la Ungu or Gigi, or the traditional form of qasida music, it cannot be denied that music is an attempt to simplify this. We are human beings who long for spiritual experiences. It is natural that most Muslims in Indonesia easily accept songs like Ungu’s “SurgaMu” (Your Heaven).
Regardless of the motives or intentions of musicians when composing religious songs, they deserve appreciation. Their songs can be a catharsis for Muslims in the country to cultivate faith and treat their spiritual longings.
After two decades, it seems that religious-themed music in Indonesia will always be present. The Ramadan bubble will still occur once a year in a month full of blessings.
Now, let’s hope and pray that religious music can strengthen our bodies, souls and minds.
PS: This op-ed previously featured on The Jakarta Post.