By Chenelle Fernando
“Flowers on Both Ears” is the new kid on the block, comprising Shafni and Isaac who have so far been performing individually around Colombo for several years now. Their work is a contrast to the mundane, given their ability to draw inspiration from a worldview based on their Islamic faith.
Shafni is a writer, poet, and rapper from Colombo and is currently working on a reforestation project in Haputale.
Isaac, based in New Zealand, is a professional jazz musician who has spent a majority of the past decade here in Sri Lanka working on numerous music projects including Colombo Chamber Music Society, Colombo Kinesthetics 00200, and notably the initiation of the experimental music night Big Ears.
While it remains clear that the duo stems from two different genres, with Shafni being a rapper and Isaac working around jazz and experimental music, their collective work is suggestive of soulful pop informed by their love for God, nature, and spiritual learnings. The duo released their debut EP in March and featured other artists in the region, including Paloma, (India/Sri Lanka), Moumita (Bangladesh), and Sarani (guitarist from The Soul in Sri Lanka).
Considering the unfortunate events around the time the EP was released, Shafni stated: “We made the album available for free as a gesture to show solidarity. And people have time during the lockdown (curfew) to checkout music and art, so our EP is a tiny raindrop in the torrential downpour of online releases happening right now.”
As indicated by Shafni, Flowers On Both Ears is their most recent project which was initiated in the second half of 2018, although the duo has been playing collaboratively since 2010 on numerous projects such as Amoral Compass and Tomcat and Magnum, to name a couple.
It goes without saying that the band’s name is hard to miss. When inquired, Shafni indicated: “In various cultures, a flower on your ear (left or right) could signify a bunch of different things including relationship status. We also like the visual resonance between flowers and ears and some new research suggests flowers might function like ears in plants as well. More than anything else, we like the sonic and semantic feel of the phrase.”
The band’s music is reflective of an attempt to thematically connect with tradition and forms of Islamic love poetry, making love songs a concept for the project. The current EP, written for UMA, is based on Galle and the southern hills of Sri Lanka.
Delving deeper into its meaning, Shafni stated: “Our songs would be an example of Ishq-e Majāzi. Although our songs ache for the sacred, they are still entangled in the profane, but our lyrics attempt to subvert binaries such as the sacred and profane though recourse to an Islamically grounded creation-spirituality.”
Shafni said that he and Isaac are great admirers of all great spiritual traditions inclusive of Hinduism and Buddhism, “we see ourselves primarily situated in the spiritual universe of Islam. I think it’s important to really delve into and follow a single tradition sincerely while studying and nourishing yourself with others, otherwise you can fall into the trap of spiritual tourism and just dabbling”.
Intriguingly, Shafni averred that the intersection of language, eroticism, and the sacred is most evident in Islamic love poetry, stating: “The sensuous and numinous coincide in its imagery and lyricism. Many Sufi poets adopted forms such the Mathnawi, Ghazal, or Nasib (an Arabic literary form, usually an erotic or amatory prelude to a long form poem called a Qaṣīdah) as a medium. Our connection with poetic forms such as the Nasib is mostly in terms of themes, imagery, and content rather than strict adherence to form.”
Needless to say, this form of music is indeed rare in our country. As indicated by the duo, the reason for this is attributed to the Islamic spirit being largely overlooked by modern Muslims, and thus aesthetic contributions by modern Muslims to the world are lacking. When inquired into the duo’s reason for testing these waters, they answered that it was to satisfy the need to make art and music that contributes to and establishes a conversation with traditions and aesthetics-based Islamic spirituality.
“I wouldn’t describe our work as Islamic or as spiritual per se (even though we primarily draw from the Islamic tradition; to a lesser degree, we also draw from Hindu philosophy and mythology.”
“Nor are we saying that our work can even remotely compare to the traditions and works of giants we have mentioned, whom our work is to some degree inspired by,” explained Shafni, and averred that the duo attempts to incorporate Islamic views and ideas into the content of secular idioms though which they operate. “I don’t know how successful we have been so far, to use profound and cliched metaphor; it’s a journey for sure.”
The EP is available for free download on Bandcamp and Soundcloud: