Seven years ago on December 26, 2004, a giant 9.1 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, which killed an estimated 230,000 people. Around half of them were from the northern Sumatran province of Aceh.
Since then, Aceh has been struggling to rebuild — not only economically, but also culturally. Aceh's rebel struggle for independence ended in the devastation of the tsunami. Indonesia now holds it firmly, but has granted it a special status within the country.
The attachment to certain cultural traditions reflects Aceh's proud history as one of the earliest kingdoms in South East Asia to convert to Islam. There is a musical form reflecting its rich past known as body percussion.
Muhammad Imam Faudi drops to his knees, joining nine other men in a row on a tile floor. Their bodies sway together as they beat on their chests and snap their fingers. Each slap is accompanied by the rapa'i, a wooden framed Acehnese drum. The percussive sound is coordinated with energetic twists and turns.
Faudi dedicates his performances to the memory of his late brother, who was a senior member of this singing and dancing troupe, called Sanggar Seulaweut. Faudi's brother drowned in the tsunami seven years ago.
"We make dance to improve our spirit," says Faudi. "After tsunami, nobody can play this dance. We want play again to make our culture recover after tsunami."
Another member of the group is 20-year-old Badral Rifqi. He says recovering Acehnese culture is definitely important. But he'd like to see it spread as well.
"We want to introduce our culture to people around the world," explains Rifqi. "Acehnese culture is very unique, very very unique."
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the music and dance performed by Sanggar Seulaweut is influenced by the region's Islamic heritage. That is, the brand of Islam long practiced in Aceh, says 24-year-old Hermansyah, who goes by one name.
"Our dance and songs, in ancient times, it's used to spread Islam in Aceh," explains Hermansyah. "That is why in our dance or in our songs you can find some Arabic sentences, or even some Islamic thought the pillars of Islam, like some advice or Islamic education."
Dr. Yusny Saby, a professor at the State Institute of Islamic Studies in Aceh, says, Islam has really helped soothe people after the tsunami to keep their minds off the tragedy. "Islam is a really kind of inclusive religion, I would say, accommodating all kinds of good behavior of human beings, including dancing and beating drums, of course with good purposes," describes Saby.
By good purposes, he means that there are some restrictions in this devout province. Only a certain type of music is allowed, for instance. And in general, men and women are forbidden from being on the same stage. But Sanggar Seulaweut's contemporary Genta or Creation dances are exceptions. Men and women do perform together, though never touch.
The performers may soon realize their goal of spreading Acehnese culture. Sanggar Seulaweut performed in Turkey earlier this year, and already has offers to tour elsewhere outside of Aceh in 2012.
Synchronized drumming is at the hear to the peh badan, the unique style of body percussion in Banda Aceh. (Photo: Niall Macaulay)
Members of Sanggar Seulaweut rehearse at the State Institute for Islamic Studies in Banda Aceh. (Photo: Niall Macaulay)
Female dancers join in a Genta, or Creation, performance. (Photo: Niall Macaulay)
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