Island Beats: The Story of Bodu Beru

As the sun sinks over the horizon, burning ambers from fires are seen dancing across the island shoreline, flickering in the tropical breeze, as if the elements have come together for a final dance before night falls. Then, the sound of rhythmic drumming is carried in the wind. All across the island, and over the sea, it’s heard far and wide. Haunting, yet beautiful, it beckons you to go seek it out, like sirens in a cove, to get closer, to come nearer, and to become one with the tone of the drums. As the beats get louder, a voice joins in, hypnotic and alluring. A song is sung, of hardship, bravery or romance, emotion unsuppressed, wild and free. These are the island beats, this is Bodu Beru.

Maldivian history is shrouded in mystery; much of it is unknown and undocumented. Many of the stories of old are carried in tales such as those sung in the songs and chants of Bodu Beru. Even though it does not stand as historical accounts, it still gives us a taste of raw Maldivian culture. Mysticism, romance, songs of valor or an account of a day’s work, storytelling has always been an integral part of Maldivian society. It keeps the community alive in terms of the societal bonds it creates within a community, bringing the village together, and it also functions as a tool that enables Maldivians to be in touch with their roots and origins.

Bodu Beru is believed to have been introduced to the Maldives around the 11th century A.D. The music itself has its origins from East Africa, and this is evident in both the style of rhythmic drumming and the chanting. As sea farers, the Maldives was in contact with nations in the far reaches of the world through trade and commerce, and many empires met with the Maldivian kings and queens of old as they passed this gateway separating the African continent with the Eastern lands of the orient. This continuous interaction with the outside world has created a blend of different cultures that we now know as being Maldivian.

The main instrument used in Bodu Beru is the drum itself. Bodu Beru (Big Drum) is made using the wood from the coconut palms and goat hide. The shape is designed so that one end of the drum is larger, giving out a deeper bass pitch which serves as the underlying beat. The other end of the drum is smaller, with a higher pitch which supports and gives depth to the bass drum. The sound of the drum itself is adjusted and tuned with the tightening of the hide, and the complete beat of the songs are created through combining assigned roles of each drummer to fill in different patterns in the rhythm. There can be up to 15 people in a performance, including a lead singer and 3 to 4 drummers. The beats can range from a simple ‘Hiki Tholhi, Bun Tholhi’, as often described by the locals, to an extremely complex rhythm inclusive of drum solos performed by the lead drummer. The lead singer is backed by a number of secondary vocals, such as in a choir, but unlike a choir, these backup vocals aren’t serene or angelic, instead they are rugged and wild as the oceans around us. All Bodu Beru songs carry a signature pattern, where there is a slow start which builds up to a quick paced, crescendo. At this point, some of the dancers go wild, as the beats are often believed to be trance-inducing in nature, and the whole performance then truly becomes an amazing spectacle, where even the most timid cannot help but tap their feet to the sound of the drum.

Today, Bodu Beru is the most popular form of traditional music in the country, where it is cherished and enjoyed in all corners of the Maldives. It has found its way and assimilated well into the modern Maldivian societies. Whether it is a festival, a weekend performance or a birthday party, it is loved by all. During Ramadan, highly competitive Bodu Beru competitions are held in the capital city, where performers come from all over the country and showcase their talents with more and more modern twists integrated to the art form. Bodu Beru certainly has earned its place in the hearts of Maldivians and it looks like this art form is here to stay for many more generations to come.

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