Tomal Hossain ’17 is on a trek to study the role of music in Muslim-majority communities.


Tomal Hossain ’17 was in a small village in Malaysia, en route to Penang, when he met a most unusual band.

The village was Teluk Intan, and the band was Kumpulan Sima’ Getaran Hati, a pseudo-pop group that performs only Islamic music—and whose oldest member is a septuagenarian. In a small house, the band rehearsed a couple of songs for Hossain’s benefit.

“I was then taken to someone’s home for a formal dinner in which everyone ate Malay food, except for me, as I was provided with homemade chicken cutlet, coleslaw and French fries in honor of my Americanness,” he says. Next he interviewed the band, press-conference style, and enjoyed a “breathtaking, engine-powered canoe ride at the local river.”

The band’s leader explained to him that its lyrics consist entirely of excerpts from religious texts and the words of scholars—and that the rhythm and lyrics must, in Hossain’s words, “be able to touch one’s soul, solidly gaining control over one’s heart or feelings.” That’s no small task, but, as Hossain writes on his blog, the band “almost always makes at least one audience member at their events cry.”

Fuad Ko and Adeep Nahar, two of the musicians he’s interviewed.

Teluk Intan was one stop on Hossain’s yearlong trek to study the role of music in Muslim-
majority communities. With the help of a Watson Fellowship, the Los Angeles native plans to visit 11 countries total, in Asia, Africa and Europe. So far his journey has taken him to, among other places, a jazz festival on Penang Island, Malaysia; a traditional wedding of the Minangkabau, a matrilineal ethnic group indigenous to West Sumatra, Indonesia; and an open-mic night in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

In Indonesia, it took Hossain by surprise to find that many religious leaders approve of music consumption—a contrast with what he saw growing up in the “comparatively puritanical” Bangladeshi diaspora of Los Angeles.

“I’ve really been amazed at just how frank people have been with me,” he adds. “People have told me all sorts of things about their personal lives and deeply held convictions that I don’t think I would really have the courage to say on camera to someone I’ve only known for five minutes.”

What does he do when he’s not meeting musicians, recording interviews and planning out his journey? “As part of my morning ritual, which includes breathing exercises, meditation, singing and coding,” he says, “I have kept up a regular habit of composing.”

After this Watson year, Hossain hopes to teach and perform music. His ultimate goal: to raise awareness of musical genres that are in decline or subject to censorship.