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In Search Of An 'Ehcheh Kalheh'

Guest Writer to The Edition, 'glutenHaver', crafted this piece of writing to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the legendary BC Band's hit song, 'Ehcheh Kalheh'.

12 May 2020, MVT 11:06
"Absy’s voice, with its clarity and remoteness, imbues such poignancy into the words, in the odd moments I slip away from the song’s grasping groove, I find myself thinking about its meaning, and I start, inevitably, craving 'Ehcheh Kalheh'". - passionate words from a life-long fan, describing a song that holds particular significance to many, among' popular culture of Maldives' past. PHOTO: GLUTENHAVER
12 May 2020, MVT 11:06

In 1990, 'The 20th Century BC Band' presented ‘Ehcheh Kalheh’ to the world, live and for the first time.

In the video, four men are seen at the front of the stage, dressed almost with too overt an awareness of the times they inhabit and at one with the irresistible motion of the music they are playing.

Etcheh Kalheh by BC Band. VIDEO: YOUTUBE

There is Inaadh (Vocals, Bass), Absy (Vocals, Cowbell), Mannu (Vocals, Tambourine) and Mezzo Mode (Vocals, Rhythm) who, in a few years, would wean and go on to make some great music of his own. Behind them are Zahid (Founder, Lead Guitar), Madhee (Keyboard) and Ogarey (Drums).

The spine of the song is Inaadh’s buoyant bass, which lightly supports Absy’s austere singing – no tricks, no falsetto, no BS.

The lyrics are sparse, leaving it to some deft playing to rescue the song from the musical depths where earworms crawl, elevating it into a masterpiece.

The paucity of the verse complements how little they are asking for: Ehcheh Kalheh; one 'Hedhikaa' and a black tea - a reasonable request.

But this is art, and easy reconciliation is its nemesis, strife and disappointment its life force. Hence, getting a sub-par 'Fathuli Hakureh' was only to be expected. Absy’s voice, with its clarity and remoteness, imbues such poignancy into the words, in the odd moments I slip away from the song’s grasping groove, I find myself thinking about its meaning, and I start, inevitably, craving 'Ehcheh Kalheh'.

Of course, the term 'Ehcheh Kalheh' is now archaic – in disuse for decades, fast approaching meaninglessness; a phrase from a different economic and social landscape of the islands – representative of a time before civil service and bureaucracy annexed a large section of the workforce.

When a man could spend the morning breaking and chiselling coral stones for the walls of a new house, sitting under the shade of a motionless palm, arms coated by a film of sweat and white fines down to the heel of the cotton glove, casting an odd glance at the membranous calm of the lagoon in front of him.

And at a moment decided on by the rhythm and feel of the day rather than by a clock on the wall, get up and walk with the involuntariness of habit, barely registering the few words of banalities called out by passersby but returned with toothless smiles of varying facial tension, towards a 'Sai Hotaa' before noon to partake of a hot cup of tea.

During school holidays, I used to help my uncle in his café with the bookkeeping – your humble prodigy of numeracy – and around 11 in the morning, men would start to file in, more than four hours of labour already behind them, breakfast a fading memory, Fajr a distant Mesozoic.

As they left, I would get an account of what they had, and almost invariably it would be ‘Ehcheh Kalheh’. To me, a preadolescent of an already voracious appetite, this was incomprehensible and in my exasperation, I could have cried out:

"Are you sure, Easabe? You have plastered half the walls of your home this morning! Aren’t you hungry? Aren’t you famished?"

"Ehcheh Kalheh".

"Ahamadhube, you have been welding since 7! Have another 'Bajiyaa', have another 'Gulha'! For the Lord!"

"Ehcheh Kalheh".

"Moosabe you have wandered the 'Sinai' for forty years! You have fasted for forty days straight! I’m begging you!"

"Ehcheh Kalheh".

It had to have been unintelligible to me: theirs was an age of frugality at its twilight, mine is the age of excess – a fish roll that costs an arm, a 'Mas’roshi' that spans a whole pan. (Within weeks I would be gently let go for indulging in tea four, five times a day - on the house).

Perhaps these strong memories of an idyllic childhood, conjured up by the song, is why it has such a grip over me.

Or maybe, it stems from being part of a generation that came of age at a time when Maldivian culture was in total arrest in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. That too, caused no less by the blunt force of the event, sudden and remorseless, than by the waves of fanaticism and hatred that crept onto our shores in its wake.

The bleakness of the intervening years might be why I find myself reaching for a song performed before I was born; in my eagerness and yearning to be rooted in the rich cultural history of my country, an act of feeble resistance to the forces that try to homogenize or renounce it.

Looking for concrete causes explaining our affinity to art might be futile and even childish; and whatever they may be, every time I listen to the song, my feelings are that of intense melancholy and euphoria – wholly at peace with each other. I feel like the sole audience member seen in the lower half of the screen, that fluid silhouette in a steady flow, given over to the irrepressible urge to dance.

It has been more than three decades since the song was first played, and Zahid and Ogarey are no longer with us, but they have left us with a song which encapsulates a culture not necessarily superior but demonstrably more at ease.

Editor's Note: Hedhikaa is the Dhivehi term for short eats, both sweet and savoury varieties. Bajiyaa are samosa-like snacks, while Gulha are fried fish balls and Mas Roshi are pancakes stuffed with smoked tuna. Other than in the comfort of a Maldivian home, these little bites can be bought or enjoyed at 'Sai Hotaa's - local tea shops. Fathuli Hakureh, also known as Huni Hakuru is a sugary delicacy made with young coconut that's served wrapped in either Banana Leaves or that of Dhiggaa Tree. Lastly, Fajr means dawn in the Arabic language. And as the writer has explained, Ehcheh Kalheh is a colloquial term used to request for a single such mouth-watering morsel, to be washed down by one smooth, strong black tea.

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