Viona and prophetic story-telling

MAY 10 — For many Muslims here, the fasting month of Ramadan also brings with it memories of Jejak Rasul (The Footpath of Prophets), a religious documentary that used to be broadcast just before the breaking of fast.

The documentary series had its first season in 1996 and was wildly popular, not only because most Muslims tuned in to TV3 while waiting for the exact time to break their fast, but the concept itself then was revolutionary.

Jejak Rasul took Muslims across the Middle East and the birthplace of the religion to retrace the steps of the prophets and messengers in the faith in its first two seasons. 

The series was illuminating for adherents as it discussed these figures — their stories were mostly told as myths up till then — through the lens of history, archaeology and anthropology.

It was this spirit of dissecting the stories behind these prophets that drew me to a project by multi-talented artist Takahara Suiko under her Viona project: Where she would write one song for each of the 25 prophets, during Ramadan.

Takahara is mostly known for her seven-person band The Venopian Solitude (TVS). I am tempted to just label them “avant-garde”, but it is quite impossible to box the band under one label, and perhaps that was intentional.

TVS’ output tends to be theatrical and obsessive down to the last detail, as seen in their sophomore album Hikayat Gundik Berirama (Tales of the Melodic Concubine). Released last year, it was a concept album in four parts, that among others was a discourse on the value of one’s art.

But Takahara also publishes as Viona, a one-woman effort that works on quick, electronica-tinged songs, its straightforward nature akin to screenshots of memes or the zeitgeist.

As the country entered partial lockdown, Viona became Takahara’s outlet for social commentary. 

In her videos she would sometimes just be in the telekung prayer robe, her lyrics acerbic and unapologetic towards the country’s bumbling ministers, and the frustrating and maddening way that the country is being run.

In a streak of prolific productivity, Viona wrote, produced, and released 15 songs in the roughly one-month period between March 20 and April 21. (It was not as if she could run out of material to write about, to be honest).

Then Ramadan arrived. “My personal concern was, as cliché as it is, I didn’t want to bring about negativity while observing Ramadan,” she told Malay Mail in a brief email interview.

She returned to her old research with local production house Lokalab for the latter’s “25 Rasul” project in 2015. For that show, Takahara was featured in the song Janji with rapper Altimet for its soundtrack.

“Originally it was supposed to be a song about each juz of the Quran, but after reading one there were too many stories to focus on, so I decided to do the 25 prophets instead,” she said, referring to the 30 divisions of Quranic verses.

 

 

Viona has released six such stories:

1. Adam’s Shadow

The first track was a brazen statement by Viona, tackling the first human in the Abrahamic faith but with a twist: told from the perspective of archangel Iblis.

In the Quran, it is told that Iblis refused to bow down to Adam as commanded by Allah, causing his fall from grace. 

This track embodied the arrogance and maleficence, from the glitchy beat to pitch-shifted backing vocals, it is almost metal.

2. Idris’ Silhouette

This sweet ditty with just vocals over ukulele and a sprinkling of piano sounds more like a meta commentary.

Admitting that Idris was hardly-mentioned in the Quran, this track not only alludes to her personal attempt to understand this mysterious figure, but also humankind’s pursuit of Truth — a quality that was attributed to the prophet.

3. Nuh’s Animals

Yet another twist, chronicling Noah’s warning of the great flood which is mocked by his community, but from the perspective of the animals on the ark.

It also talks about reason and ego, and as the chorus modulates up in the last chorus, you can almost feel that this is a subversive commentary on the climate crisis, and anti-science attitude that hits so hard in the middle of this public health emergency.

4. Hud’s Proof

This, above all, is a song about a clash of faith and scepticism, set atop a melody that brings to mind the enigmatic sci-fi X-Files’ theme song.

I have a feeling that as she sings “where’s the proof, son?”, she was channeling the doubting Thomases as much as she was testing her own faith.

5. Saleh’s Camel

By her own admission, Saleh’s story is a roller-coaster mix of a miraculous she-camel, a murder attempt, and an earthquake which is divine punishment to top it all off. 

But for the most part, this song just mirrors the previous song’s theme rather than touch more on the other plot.

This song is a straight bop, set on top of a bouncy Afrobeat sound with delightful marimbas and whistles.

6. Ibrahim’s Hammer

As a major prophet in many religions, Abraham’s life was well-chronicled in several scriptures, but this track eschewed the events most would associate with him.

Instead, with a dark tone, it addresses what I presume to be a young Abraham smashing religious idols with the titular tool. This led to his argument with the king Nimrod, as told in both Islamic and Judaism traditions.

For now, it looks like this project is on hiatus, as Takahara is working on other collaborations and an EP with her band. “I do have plans to get back to and and power through, hoping I get to knock off two songs a day so I can catch up,” she offered.

There are still two more weeks until Aidilfitri, so there may be time for a couple more stories before the month ends. 

But even if she runs out of time, having the series continue next year would give a new meaning to the oft-quoted sentiment of missing Ramadan.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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