The concert was already underway in Malang when the VIP guests arrived an hour late with a large entourage. A contemporary masked dance was performing and dazzling the 400-strong crowd. The VIPs paid no attention, instead posing for photos and making themselves comfortable.
Musician Mustafa Daood watched from afar in discomfort. He’d seen similar instances before and decided it was time to speak out. An hour later on stage with his band Debu (Dust) and some twirling dancers, he found the front row empty and fruit dishes untouched. But he still told everyone exactly what he thought of the VIPs and the Dawai Nusantara (archipelago strings) Music Festival audience shouted approval.
Later Daood told me, “Officials say they honour creativity yet they treat artists with contempt. It happens often. It’s wrong. It has to change.”
“I seldom perform in formal concerts because official protocols take over. These people are all about rules.”
Daood said other artists kept quiet fearing they’d lose work. “But I have advantages I can and will exploit.” These advantages include a base far away in Jakarta, being famous locally and internationally on stage and TV. Manic masters of ceremonies holler, “He’s from the USA!”
“That was 18 years ago,” the long-haired musician told the crowd in fluent Indonesian while his 13-member band tuned their instruments, “We’re you.”
Mustafa Daood has a 2011 citizenship certificate that took five years to obtain, Islam on his ID card and an umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca) on his CV.
Debu is often billed as a Muslim high-voltage band thumping out Arabic-Indian-Western synthesis. Daood says the group’s genre is, “spiritual music played so people go away feeling good.” Pressed to deepen a shallow statement he added, “So they can find tranquility of the heart, experience the essence of life.”
Daood, aged 36, has certainly quaffed well from that flagon. Born in Oregon to nomadic parents following Sufi (Islamic mysticism) teachings, he was home-schooled and never attended university.
The 70-strong commune (Daood prefers the term “community”) was led by his poet father Shaykh Fattah who converted to Islam in his thirties, following the twelfth century Rufa’i teachings developed in Kosovo.
The group moved around the United States, then to the Dominican Republic where Daood learned Spanish. Their next stop was Jakarta in 1999 because they thought the republic had the most tolerant form of Islam. However, it was not the best time, the country was in turmoil after President Soeharto resigned and interfaith strife was brewing.
From there, they moved from the capital to Makassar in South Sulawesi to open a pesantren (Islamic boarding school), and then back to Jakarta where the remnants now live. The others have returned to the United States or moved elsewhere.
Debu gained traction for its unusual make-up, vigorous performances and original compositions. Frontman Daood is a multi-talented instrumentalist and singer. They’ve toured the archipelago and overseas, produced numerous albums and have been featured on television.
The band’s success leans on its apparent Islamic credentials, but Daood confessed: “I’m not much of a Muslim.” Would he convert to Christianity if he found it personally more appealing? “Yes. Sufis work on inspiration. We know when it’s time to move. We are learning how to escape the world without leaving the world. We don’t try to convert.”
Another interpretation one can make is that the lifestyle is shiftless, and its practitioners bums. Daood laughs. “You’re not too wrong. Sufis are crazy.”
Daood is, to be polite, unconventional. In the Beatles era he’d have been a hippy, and a John Lennon lookalike. In Indonesia, he’s less easy to pigeonhole. His personal life is knotty. He says he’s been wed 12 times and once had three wives under the same roof. From these unions he has eight children; some are performing with Debu.
Daood’s couplings, particularly his four-month marriage to local singer Penelope Love, aroused tabloid fever. How does his constant message of mutual respect and inoffensive behavior fit in? “I love women and always tell them that this is how I am. They know what I’m like. Musicians are complex. Nothing is everlasting.”
Conservatives might consider this a libertine lifestyle but Daood says he has no regrets and seems undamaged by publicity about his relationships. In 2006, a family-values celebrity preacher tumbled off his television throne when exposed for polygamy, which is legal in Indonesia although contentious.
Daood states, “He was a hypocrite. I’m not a religious leader; I’m open about what I do.” Recently he put down his gambus (Arabian lute) to develop a 250-hectare theme park in Bogor where models of the world’s most famous mosques will be built.
The project is so big he says it’s deterred a potential billionaire businessman investor, but it has found other backers. He claims he rejected an invitation to meet the Gerindra Party boss when told what he had to wear. (Daood’s everyday garb is sarong, sloppy shirt and bare feet).
Other quirks include not watching TV news and having no interest in politics. “Fundamentalists haven’t traveled or learned about other interpretations of the faith. Don’t make a big deal out of difference. Love what you have. Hidup suka-suka (life is fun).”
He reckons the Sufi philosophy that God takes care of people to be true, rattling off tales of sudden financial support by well-wishers. “I’m totally grateful for what we have in this beautiful country,” he said. “Indonesia was built on passion, not money. That’s what we need to recover.”