In Brazil, a country more used to the bikini than to the burka, Gisele Maria Rocha feels like a “tourist attraction” by wearing the niqab, which covers her from head to toe. A 42-years-old psychologist, excelling at the piano and in the guitar, she recently formed her own heavy metal band. “Islam is my religion and music my profession.” This is an interview, via email and Facebook, published in the Portuguese news magazine “Sábado”. (Read more…)
Who is Gisele Maria Rocha?
I am Brazilian, born in Sao Paulo, the city where I currently live. I am 42-years-old and I’ve studied psychology. My father was a lawyer and my mother was a teacher. I have siblings, but I do not like to mix business with personal life. Now, I fully dedicate myself to music, which has become my job. I am divorced and have children.
What came first: Islam or the music?
The music. I have been studying music since I was 8-years-old, and I only became a Muslim in 2009.
Before Islam, though, you belonged to another religious group. What was it?
I always studied a lot and have always been passionate about culture, literature and everything related to these matters. Among the subjects that arouse my interest are history and religion.
I’ve studied many religions as well as ancient religions and spiritualism. Before Islam, I was part of a community of practitioners of the ‘Old Religion’ or ‘Witchcraft’.
The concepts were really interesting and enriched me in terms of knowledge, but I disagreed with them when I began to wonder whether all those forces of nature and deities were not, after all, different aspects of the personality of one God. This also kept me away from Christianity.
Above all, because they expected me not to question the concept of ‘Trinity’. In Islam I rediscovered the concept of God’s Oneness.
Your Catholic mother rejoiced with your conversion to Islam because you’re no longer a “witch”…
Yes, my mother was pleased that I became a Muslim because, well, afterwards she was able to tell me things like, “God bless you” and I would not be angry. That was something she thought, because in fact I was never mad about those observations…
Why converting to Islam and how was your life before that?
Although I have a degree in Psychology, I have always worked with music. For a while, I thought that I would devote myself exclusively to psychology, but I believe that music is my mission.
I do not feel good when I’m away from it. I became a Muslim because I read the Koran. After a few months of a course in Arabic, I found the Koran on the Internet available for reading.
As I was studying the Arabic language, I decided to read the Quran after coming across a bilingual publication (Arabic-Portuguese). I did not know any Muslims. I had never been to a mosque before.
The Quran led me to Islam. I’ve always been a religious woman, even before Islam. I had faith in God. My family is Catholic. My brothers and I have chosen different directions.
My father was a very cultured, intelligent man who always sought of building more knowledge. So, one of the things he most admired was the large number of scientists, scholars, and sages who appeared during the Islamic expansion’s era.
At that time there were great breakthroughs in the fields of hydraulics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, the recovery of classical culture, and Muslims did all that.
The Renaissance in Europe happened only because a great number of Muslim Arab scholars rediscovered and rescued the classical Greco-Roman culture.
My father admired all this. Learning the Arabic language and, consequently, reading the Koran were probably related to my father’s interests. He passed away in 2009. Nonetheless, the fact that I became a Muslim had nothing to do with him.
Are there many Muslim converts in Brazil? How do you define the community?
There are many converts. It’s a growing community [about 25% between 2001 and 2011, as indicated in “Isto é” magazine]. There are several different statistics [a demographic census in 2010 recorded this year, 35,167 believers], but I do not care much about it.
The latest figures point to more than 1 million and a half Muslims in Brazil [according to a report from Globo Network]. There are many mosques [about 115]. In my town alone, there are four major mosques and a multitude of “mussalas” [prayer rooms]. The vast majority, as in the rest of the world is made up of Sunnis. I am Sunni.
Do you pray in segregated spaces away from the men?
We follow the tradition of separating men and women during prayers – and I think this is correct. When you go to pray to Allah, it is not the time to be distracted by other matters. It happens, yes. I’ve seen that in other religions, other religious cults.
Why did you decide to wear the niqab? An Egyptian activist, Mona Eltahawy, had once rejected the niqab, explaining: “I can not accept that the closer I am to God the less God sees me.” What’s your opinion?
Well, I respect her opinion, but I do not believe that God cannot see through a simple piece of cloth… In the Koran there is no description of the most suitable clothes for us to use.
It is also wrong to think that we should copy the clothes that were used during the times of Prophet Muhammad, since he and his contemporaries did not wear the clothes we wear today, whether male or female.
The niqab is my choice. It simply started because I volunteered to help a Brazilian friend to overcome her fear of using it when she returned to Brazil after living a few years in Egypt. I decided to dress like her. I felt good, and I began to learn how to use the niqab.
This was the result of much thought. When I bought my first niqab, I made sure that I would take it seriously. Since then, I use it always with great respect.
What is the real meaning of “modesty” in Islamic attire? In a country like Brazil, more associated to the bikini than to the burqa, aren’t you drawing unwanted attention to yourself by using the niqab?
Yes, that is true to some extent, but at the same time, I do not like to wear short clothes. The niqab is my personal choice, and I will use you until the end of my days, Insha’Allah [hopefully].
Have you ever felt harassed?
Something strange things happen to me and I can not exactly explain why. I must be so exotic that I’ve broken the barrier of prejudice. I have become something of a tourist attraction because people in general want to talk to me.
I rarely witness any kind of prejudice against me. I also believe in the individual factor as an important component that modifies one’s relationship with the world that surrounds us. I believe that we receive from the world what we give to it.
As I am always helpful and friendly to everyone, as I am very talkative, people tend to be closer to me. In the few cases in which I was a victim of prejudice I realised that I am not the problem, but those who have prejudices. On stage, for instance, I always get the most positive and the finest of reactions. My experiences are all positive.
I remember the day I was walking in front of the famous Rock Gallery in Sao Paulo. Three rocker girls came out and embraced me, happy to meet an “Egyptian woman”! They took lots of pictures with me, but they couldn’t stop talking and they’re gone before I could even introduce myself as a Muslim, yes, but Brazilian. It was funny.
Sorry to insist, but isn’t a paradox wearing seventh century-clothes while your music and instruments represent a vanguard of modernity?
Well, as I explained before, my clothing does not come from Islam’s early days. I also do not think that metal and the guitar are the cutting edge of modernity.
Music, great music, which is my focus, is timeless and universal. This mixture of several elements is something that fascinates me, and it’s also present in my country’s culture.
Do you really feel comfortable covering from head to toe in a country like Brazil?
The secret lies in the fact that my clothes are large and extremely agile. The materials I wear are traditionally very light and airy. Thus, my clothes are much more comfortable than tight jeans and T-shirts and tight blouses.
Regarding music, when did you start to play, and why heavy metal?
I started studying classical piano when I was 8-years-old. I have always had strong links with classical music to this day. I went for the guitar some time after I started studying piano.
At age 11, I turned to the electric guitar. Heavy metal is the style closest to classical music. It’s not easy playing heavy metal. I study music for 6 hours a day, every day.
Some radical Muslims, in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, for instance, say music is haram, prohibited in Islam. What’s your opinion?
Well, first and foremost, I’m a Muslim who follows traditional Islam, so I have nothing to do with radicals, such as the Taliban and the Wahhabis. Second, and frankly, I do not care what people think about it. I am not afraid.
What’s the story of your guitar?
The Polka, my guitar, is based on Karl Sandoval Polka Dot V, one of the main guitars of Randy Rhoads [1956-1982], the musician that I love the most and who influenced me more. But it’s not a Randy Guitar replica. It is different in several technical aspects.
Randy’s guitar is black with white polka dots. Mine is black with pink polka dots. My guitar is one of the greatest tributes to Randy Rhoads.
My sneakers came much later. A friend told me: “I know you are a Muslim, but I’ll give you as a Christmas present”; the sneakers go well with my guitar.
How do you define the lyrics of your songs? The trash metal band Slayer plays on satanic songs but its members are practicing Christians. Isn’t it hypocritical? At what extent can you dissociate religious convictions from artistic performances?
I do not think that Slayer’s members are hypocrites because they are Christians and their lyrics speak of satanic themes. Art has to be free.
Creativity cannot be limited by certain topics, or any other restrictions. As a composer, I always feel free to talk about whatever I want.
Music and lyrics are art. The themes are and will be varied. My band and I, we do not sell death. “To sell death” is an expression I’ve read in an article about Iron Maiden.
We avoid satanic themes, not for religious reasons, but because they do not attract us. I prefer life, even when we write songs centred on social criticism. I prefer the light, not the darkness.
What kind of band is Spectrus, and why did you leave it to form another one?
Spectrus was very important during the first wave of heavy metal bands in Brazil, which emerged in the 1980s – an era of true pioneering here, where nothing existed in terms of metal. Many bands back then played only in Brazil.
Some became world-famous, and others have become cult bands, like the Sarcophagus. Some of my brothers played in this band.
Spectrus had finished its career many years ago when Metal Soldiers Records from Portugal, released an album, Tribute to Spectrus, recorded by Prellude, a band here in Brazil.
The lead singer of Spectrus thought to reactivate the band, and invited me to this rebirth in 2012. At that time, I was devoted to psychology. I hadn’t played in six years, so I accepted their invitation.
I wish them all the luck in the world [one member follows the umbundu rite, another is a spiritualist and the third one is a Catholic], and I am grateful that I came back to play professionally.
Professional differences led me to leave. I’m now playing in a new band [Eden Seed]. We are focused on the songs of our first album. I cannot add more information until the album’s release [in 2016]. We hope to play all over the world, especially in Portugal – this would make me very happy.
Who are your favourite musicians besides Randy Rhoads?
Randy Rhoads is, and always will be, the Number One. It was the first musician who impressed me with the fusion of classical music and heavy metal. Indirectly, he changed my life. He is the musician who more deeply touches my soul, and this transcends musical instruments and styles.
Jimi Hendrix [1942-1970] is also a strong influencer, especially due to his energetic interpretation, and the freedom I feel in his music.
Paco de Lucía [1947-2014] is another major influence linked to my personal story. I have listened to him since I was a kid. I’m also connected to him due to our great passion for flamenco and my attraction to “arabesque” harmonies. Flamenco was strongly influenced by Arabic music, especially in Andalusia.
Yngwie Malmsteen [a Swedish multi-instrumentalist born in 1963] is another great influencer. This has to do with my love for classical music, especially baroque music, and for composers like Bach, Corelli, Handel, among others. I’m really eclectic.
As a Muslim, how do you look at the current refugee crisis, the failure of Islamic countries to free themselves from dictatorial regimes and their refusal to accept the separation of state and religion?
I look at the refugee crisis as a person, not as a Muslim. I see the global human society entering a predictable convulsion, because the way this society is organised is simply unsustainable and cannibal. The refugee crisis stems from the extreme exploitation of misery, violence and conflicts resulting from this exploitation.
One day, this was bound to happen. In my humble opinion, the link between state and religion in the Middle East Eastern countries is only useful for the supremacy of a select political group trying to perpetuate the power in their hands, because there is no country in the region with an Islamic government.
Their interpretation of Islam is always tailored to the needs of the rulers. Dictatorial regimes are excellent in providing the links between internal and external corruption mischief.
Do you see yourself as a conservative or progressive Muslim?
I follow traditional Islam: what has been determined by Allah, taught by Prophet Muhammad and thoroughly studied by the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, of which only four [Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi] survived to this day.
I am always trying to learn. I became a Muslim in 2009 and, today, I still consider myself only a student. This knowledge’s construction is critical to the understanding of Islam. This is what I follow.
A shorter version of this interview, now edited for clarification, was originally published in the Portuguese news magazine “Sábado”, on October 15, 2015