Maldivian Indie musician Aathi talks guitars, songwriting and performing in the Maldives.
All legs and elegance, Mariyam Athif climbed up to the deck of Seagull Café House, put together like a piece of art herself, head to toe bohemian chic crossed with a little bit of 'Icouldn'tcarelessI'mbeautifulanyway'.
Waving at me, she said hello and apologized for the few minutes she ran late, while I extended my arm for a handshake and introductions. Making sure the handshake didn't give away my uncontainable excitement of meeting her, I offered her the seat across me, and we began our little chat.
Aathi, Mariyam Athif, she's known by a few monikers, so I jumped straight into what to call her, to which she replied with a rather melodious laugh,
“The thing is, my legal name is Mariyam Athif. However my maiden name is Aathizaa and everyone in my family calls me by that name as well. It is a combination of both my Dad and Mom's names; Athif and Zaahira. The name 'Aathi' actually comes from that. Most of my friends usually refer to me simply as Aathi.”
Eldest daughter of well known musician 'Xray" Athif, it is common knowledge that Aathi comes from a very musical family. To be an 'Athif' pursuing a career in music seems only natural, as some of Aathi's siblings are immensely talented with music.
“Well my Dad is from Malé. And my Mom is from G.Dh. Nadehla. As you know my Dad plays music, but my Mom likes to make things, bake things and create things. So I guess you could say I carry both their influences.”
“Currently I am reading Arundhati Roy’s ‘Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. But lately I’ve been somewhat obsessed with Orhan Pamuk after reading his ‘My Name is Red’ and ‘Snow’ ”
It occurs to me at this point, that Aathi projects her brand of confidence not on purpose, but as an inherent ability. The ease with which she laughs, much like her lyrics that have become a cult favorite in Maldives, may be a reflection of the kind of easy going personality she is, and far from a ratings-savvy performance put on for anyone else.
“It probably has to be during the practice sessions for the inter-school singing competition. I must have been around 11 years old then. I participated as a student from Iskandar School.”
“It was the norm, back in those days, to sing Hindi songs. I don't think I had much of a decision about my song choices either. I too sang Hindi melodies with Dhivehi lyrics.”
Her matter-of-fact tone in her answers made me think that perhaps she didn't consider her singing competition memories to be a highlight of her love for music. Unwittingly, however, I conjure her to speak more about her younger self and the kind of music she used to listen to then
“Back then, we had very limited access to music compared to nowadays.
One of the main sources was the TV program called 'Spotlight'. I liked a lot of songs that were featured on the show. Another source was from a record store on Fareedhee Magu called 'Soundtrack'. They had very affordable tapes that consisted the top songs of those days. And I got some of the music from my Dad as well; he introduced me to ‘Led Zeppelin’ and ‘Queen’.
I think it made me value the music even more because back then music was so difficult to get.”
“I actually have a long story for that. Around the time when I was finishing my studies at Iskandar School, there was a trend in Malé with keyboards. A lot of parents wanted their children to play the keyboard. I can’t recall whether my parents wanted me to play it or it was me who wanted myself to play it, but anyway I got a keyboard. Unfortunately, I just couldn't learn to play the keyboard.
However, a couple of years later, I was very interested in playing the guitar. And I kept on asking my Dad to get me one. But he was apprehended to buy me one since I didn't learn to play the keyboard. He eventually got me a guitar and for a while I had no idea what to do with it. I have a relative, Fasy, who played music professionally. He gave me a book called 'The Ultimate Guitar Handbook' and someone else gave me a videotape that had guitar lessons.
I somehow managed to learn some chords and strum them as well, but I had no idea what they were for. Those days we had these songbooks and I was going through one when I noticed there were letters above every line of the lyrics. The letters looked familiar and it struck me that they might be referring to the chords that I had learnt. So I tested one of the songs from the book; played the chords and tried singing over them, and it worked! And that was when I realized I could play songs myself.”
Between the sparkle in her eyes and her enthusiasm in explaining to me the process of how she began playing music, it was evident just how much she loved playing songs on her guitar. I decided to go out on a limb and ask her if this apparent love had ever prompted her to name any of her guitars.
“I actually did! My previous guitar was called 'Guitar George' and he is supposed to know all the chords. It's actually a line from a 'Dire Straits' song: 'Check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords'.
My current guitar is called Fe Luna Jikan. 'Fe' means Faith in Spanish. And Luna of course refers to the moon. And finally Jikan, a name once given to the singer Leonard Cohen. It means 'Time'. So my current guitar is called Faith, Moon And Time.”
“When I was attending high school at SEC, I remember playing with a band they had there. I must have been around 17 or 18 years old and I only knew a limited number of songs that I could play on my guitar. One of these songs was 'Love will keep us alive' by Eagles. I remember playing this song with the band.”
“Yes. After I finished my studies at SEC, I played with Fezu from 2000-2001. And my experience with her was a sort of mini bootcamp to the professional music industry. We practiced a lot. And I mean a lot. I also got to learn plenty of disciplinary aspects to being a working musician. I still admire Fezu for how capable she is. I have so many pleasant memories of that time of my life. As for the gigs, we played at CBC (City Billiards Club). And we had a larger event at NCSE (Youth Center). I really enjoyed getting to play for an audience.”
"Yes I have, when I was in Malaysia for my studies, I had the opportunity to play at some cafés and pubs there. Like I said before, I am related to Fasy, and he was living and playing in Malaysia at the time, so I just kind of tagged along when he went gigging. At some of these places there’d be a lot of bands playing at the same night."
"I loved being at these venues because I got to meet a lot of experienced musicians there, and I was both thrilled and really scared when they allowed me to play a song or two. And I might have been the youngest there. Probably why a lot of musicians there encouraged me a lot and helped with my performances. And I really loved that.”
As she reminisced about her time in Malaysia, I could tell just how much she enjoyed playing at the venues. The gigs and the people she met undoubtedly inspired her to pursue her love for music, making me curious about its impact as she began playing music professionally.
“Yes. When I was back in the Maldives, after finishing my studies, I used to play the Christmas/New Year's shows and other random gigs with the '70's Poster Band'."
"After my time with '70's Poster Band', I was with a reggae band called 'Palm Fever'. I played with them for around 2 years between 2004 and 2006. And during this time, the band must have had around 2-5 gigs per week. I actually joined the band as a replacement for one of the members.”
"Resort music isn't for everyone. It involves a lot of traveling. Up, down or being bound. You may have to go to the airport and wait for hours to catch a flight. And on the way back, the transport may drop you at another resort, where you simply hangout until someone else picks you up. So if I played for only three hours, a lot of the time was spent on plenty of other factors. And at that age, maybe I had the energy to do it. But I don't wish to do it anymore. I think people who continuously do it are very brave, but it's just not for me.”
As she described how tumultuous she found being a resort musician to be, I understood that Aathi was a one-of-a-kind artist in Maldives. An artist solely focused on the art. A musician uniquely inspired by music. Intrigued, I scaled my interest towards her next well known venture.
“Before duckrabbit, there was a brief period during which I recruited two young guys and tried the resort circuit again. I must have been 27 years of age and they had just turned 20. They were such metalheads and I was such a softy compared to them, but we formed our band 'Beatle Juice'. We played some random gigs at the resorts, but the resort thing unfortunately didn’t workout for us. But I enjoyed my time with them a lot and they are such lovely people."
"After that came my time with duckrabbit. It was so chaotic yet so much fun. All of them had so many creative opinions and we sometimes ended up voting on things because of it. We’ll get together often and either play a lot or just talk a lot. They just were a crazy creative bunch and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
“Well, we made an appearance in 2008 on the TVM show 'Music Yard' and afterwards, they gave us recordings of the songs we performed. The recordings were of a usable quality, so we had something to work with. We added two or three more songs into the mix and that was the album. The songs in that album are ones that I had written from the age of 22 to 28.”
Getting to perhaps one of the most recognized times of Aathi's music career, I shifted topic to her original Dhivehi songs. And the specific moment when she realized she wanted to do it.
“I had a German friend visiting me here in Malé and he had heard my music. He curiously asked me why I haven't written any songs in Dhivehi. And that's how the thought popped into my head.
I started dabbling in it and thought it was a very nice thing to do because only a tiny fraction of the world's population speak our language."
Sadly, I found it rather hard in the beginning as I wasn't the most well read in Dhivehi. I wasn't getting any good Dhivehi books to read so I decided to write instead. I kept a journal in Dhivehi for a few months before I felt confident enough to write a song.”
“I think the song 'Mariyam Bageechaa'. Because it is a very still song and it's very concentrated. It explains something in really few words. And I’ve always wanted to do that.”
As we drew our interview to a close, I wanted to know where Aathi saw herself in the future with her musical ability and her love for it.
“I have no idea actually. I think about it a lot. Not playing at resorts means I won't get to play music a lot. But on the other hand it means that if I want to play somewhere, I will probably have to organize it. Which is equally difficult. I have been attempting to organize something this year. Unfortunately I haven't been able to get everybody together, because of our busy lives, mine included. Hopefully I can pull it off one of these days.”
“I do indeed. I am currently venturing into something a little different from music. I run a website, www.lonumedhu.com, it’s about food, and it allows me to cook things, eat things and write about food related topics, as well as work with other food loving people. Additionally, I also work as the editor of ‘Hotel Insider’ magazine.”