Baby Arabia makes its world premiere at 6.30 on Wednesday, September 1, as part of the 14th Thai Short Film & Video Festival. The screening will be preceded by a mini-concert by the band, starting around 5.30, at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.
It's the third documentary examining Islam in Thailand from the trio of filmmakers, Panu Aree, Kaweenipon Ketprasit and Kong Rithdee.
They previously did the 40-minute In Between in 2006, documenting the lives of four “moderate” Muslims in Bangkok. Next was 2008's feature The Convert, about a young Bangkok woman's conversion from Buddhism to Islam for marriage.
An 80-minute musical documentary, Baby Arabia examines how the band's infectiously rhythmic blend of Malay and Arab music is reconciled with the Muslim faith. The band's sprawling lineup includes accordion, guitars, keyboards, several singers and a battery of drums and percussion.
Here's more about the band in the synopsis:
The singer, a Thai woman robed in a sequined Malay dress, croons an Arabic number she’s heard as a child and learnt to sing by heart. Behind her, an accordionist pumps out haunting Middle-Eastern melodies to the tribal beat of the congas while a guitarist gently sends his instrument weeping.
The concert takes place at a rural mosque not so far from Bangkok, and the audience is made up of veiled women and stern-faced imams, Islamic devouts who allow themselves to be carried away by the tuneful waves and the humanising power of music.
Baby Arabia follows one of the oldest Thai-Muslim bands specialising in the subcultural genre of Arab-Malay music – the bouncy ethnic cross-pollination of Arabian melodies, Malay throbs, Thai luk-thung kicks, and a bit of Latin tempo.
We meet Geh, founder of the band who taught himself to play the accordion 35 year ago. Geh is joined by Umar, a former Koran teacher and now a guitarist with a knack for Egyptian numbers. Fronting their band is Jamilah, a husky-voiced, humble diva who teaches the Koran during the day and sings Arabic songs at night while wondering if the world of melody can be both faith-bound and joyously secular.
Baby Arabia plays cover versions of classical and contemporary Arab and Malay music (though the band members do not speak those languages) and they've been touring mosque fairs, circumcision rites and weddings at Muslim communities around Bangkok and the Central Region for three decades. Though some Islamic scholars question their brand of worldly merry-making, claiming that it's against the law of the religion, the humanising power of music and irresistible exuberance of their songs provide a definitive counter-argument.
You can watch a short clip of Jamilah posted by Panu on YouTube.
The documentary has been supported by the Pusan International Film Festival's Asian Cinema Fund and the Asian Network of Documentary, as well as the Culture Ministry's Strong Thailand fund.
The filmmakers say it's been selected for the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival.