KUALA LUMPUR: The five casually dressed members of a little-known nasheed group walked nervously into the recording studio to audition for Warner Music 23 years ago.
They had no clue they were about to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Largely ignored outside the Muslim world, nasheed is an Islamic song accompanied by percussion instruments, with messages from the Quran, Islamic teachings and history. Traditionally, other more modern musical instruments are not featured in a nasheed.
The idea of a nasheed group being signed by one of the world’s largest labels was unheard of back then, group member Che Amran, tells FMT excitedly, as they prepare for a buka puasa performance at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Auditioning them that day was Warner executive Tony Fernandes, who famously went on to found Malaysia-based AirAsia.
They sang an original song, “Assolatu Wassalam”, then waited for the verdict in the silence that followed.
Che Amran remembers it well.
“Tony shouted ‘This is what I want!’, and before we knew it we were signed to Warner Music.”
The group adopted the name Raihan, from Arabic for Fragrance of Heaven, and was on its way to becoming the face of contemporary nasheed.
The five members, Azhari Ahmad, Nazrey Johani, Che Amran Idris, Abu Bakar Md Yatim and Amran Ibrahim were quite unprepared for stardom.
Their first album, “Puji-Pujian”, took Malaysia by storm in October 1996 and is still the highest selling record by any Malaysian artiste.
Traditionally, nasheed has a strong Middle East influence, from the instruments to the tunes.
“We did it with pop and rock melodies, which was different, but the message was still Quranic,” said Che Amran.
Reflecting on the past, Che Amran, popularly known as Che Am, said they never dreamed of becoming so big so fast.
“We were just a local group performing at small events. Suddenly we had the resources of a huge international label behind us.”
Concert tours followed the success of “Puji-Pujian” and they represented Malaysia at the 1997 Commonwealth Summit Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“The BBC broadcast us performing in front of the Commonwealth leaders including Queen Elizabeth, said Che Amran. “That’s how the rest of the Muslim world came to know about us.
“We met Prince Charles and he joked with us that he would like to see a collaboration between us and the World’s top girl group at the time, the Spice Girls.”
Of course, that collaboration never came about. But others did, with international artistes including Yusuf Islam (former pop star Cat Stevens) in the song “God is the Light”, as well as Indonesian artistes Sheila on 7 and Kris Dayanti.
Raihan have toured every continent except Antarctica, inspiring nasheed groups in their wake.
“After we toured South Africa, groups called Raihan 2 and Raihan Girl emerged there,” said Che Amran.
Raihan have now sold 3.5 million albums worldwide and received numerous awards.
Georgetown University in Washington D C included them in their Top 500 Most Influential Muslims in Arts and Culture.
In 2019, Raihan is now down to three permanent members, following Azhari’s death in 2001 and Nazrey’s exit in 2015 to do missionary work.
Raihan continues to do what they do best.
“Even though our last album was released in 2010, we recently collaborated with Aliff Satar. He grew up listening to us and is a fan.
“We have recorded a new version of our song ‘Sesungguhnya’ for the new generation and we’re trending again with over four million views in one week.”
For ambitious singers, YouTube even has karaoke versions which the diners at the restaurant had evidently been practising with as they sang along with the group.
Che Am, Abu Bakar and Amran, have hardly aged and are a big hit with the crowd who lined up to take selfies with them.
The group say they value all the success they’ve had, but the achievement they are most proud of is sparking the global growth of contemporary nasheed.
Their soothing harmonies, with just gentle drums, and sometimes a soft flute and acoustic guitar have calmed and relaxed millions of fans worldwide.
“We are happy to have so many fans around the world, including non-Muslims.
“It makes us glad that artistes no longer feel shy to sing praises to Allah.”