The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, March 06, 2007



Si Gale-gale sounds like a lonely backblocks farmer's fantasy – a rich harvest for any Freudian psychoanalyst to winnow. But this is culture, so read on with safety and don't hide the paper from the kids.

Once upon a time Datu Panggana went into the forest on the shore of Sumatra's Lake Toba where he discovered a small tree, minus branches. Being a bit of a sharp man with the axe he set to work and had soon transformed the trunk into, well, a trunk.

As you might have expected, this resembled a woman. Bao Partiga-tiga happened to be passing by. He was a dealer in materials and fashion accessories. The two lads thought it might be a fun thing to clothe the figure with the best gear available. Come nightfall and the fellows' fun was over, but the clothes and jewels could not be removed.

There's a cautionary tale here that might resonate with married men but we'll let it pass, along with the rest of the story. This involves the sap rising, the carving coming to life, marriage proposals and lots of other jolly woodland events, like cursing, magic spells, barren wives and nasty spirits.

If you haven't heard this tale before, worry not. Hardly any Indonesians have apart from the Batak who own the folklore. Their numbers would probably be challenged by New Zealanders who are not only familiar with the plot, but have also seen it performed on the streets of their national capital.

For during a week in windy Wellington a group of 10 Batak artists called Suarasama (one voice) danced the Si Gale-gale ritual in their black suits and red mitres looking much like a bothering of bishops. Props included a wooden-faced puppet standing at the end of a carved coffin and waggling his ochre fingers.

Their audiences were hundreds of curious Kiwis watching performances inside and outside the world-famous Te Papa National Museum of New Zealand.

The Bataks were there along with other Indonesian performers and composers from Java and Bali to take part in the 26th Asia Pacific Festival, a celebration of music and performance from around the region.

Festival artistic director Professor Jack Body from the NZ School of Music at Wellington's Victoria University agreed that the definition of 'Asia-Pacific' was a bit squishy.

"It doesn't go as far as India but it does include China," he said. "Indonesia has always been welcome but there have been political tensions. Indonesia joined in 1980 but membership lapsed even though the fee is only US $100 (Rp 900,000).

"You've been on-and-off members for some years. I suppose it's not easy to develop a national organization in a country as diverse as Indonesia and keeping all the different groups informed. I'm really sympathetic towards those difficulties."

Body's concerns aren't just academic. He spent two years teaching Western music at the Art Institute in Yogya and has been active since in pushing for Indonesian involvement in international events. He also helps organize teaching of the Javanese gamelan.

At one time he had access to buckets of money through the NZ-Asia Foundation. This was trying to improve relationships with neighbours and helping pay for artists air fares to the shaky isles, but that cash has almost evaporated.

This means the Festival has been afflicted with the curse of seeking sponsors. This year that onerous task was eased by the Ford Foundation helping four composers attend with the North Sumatra provincial government backing the Batak team.

"This is an opportunity to show that North Sumatra isn't just a place of natural disasters, but also has rich cultural traditions and art forms," said Rithaony Hutajulu who manages Suarasama with her husband Irwansyah Harahap. '

"It's also our chance to say thank you to the people and government of NZ who so generously helped us after the 2004 tsunami." Total aid topped NZ $ 90 million (Rp 600 billion) from a population of four million.

Suarasama was formed in 1995 by the US educated couple who both teach ethnomusicology in Medan.

The other Indonesian crowd-pleasers were wayang kulit (shadow puppet) shows overseen by the effervescent Dr Joko Susilo, originally from Solo and now an academic at Otago University in NZ's South Island.

Apart from the performances he and colleague Budi Putra, who teaches gamelan in Wellington, ran workshops explaining the art of making the puppets, and the stories behind their characters.

These were hands-on events with audiences famished for information. Why does this puppet have a long nose? Why is that one's face red? Not easy for anyone to grapple who has never visited Indonesia but expects a one-line answer.

The gamelan orchestra has been functioning at the School of Music for the past 25 years. All performers are Caucasian and they've made several trips to Java and Bali playing the complex instruments to their own compositions – making the gamelan as universal as the piano. (Last year a gamelan festival was held in Berlin.)

Curiously none of these events were followed up by tourism promotion. No brochures were distributed – not even posters showing the location of Lake Toba – or Indonesia. Organizers agreed this was an oversight.

Kiwis are great world travelers and the questions asked at the public events showed a genuine curiosity. This was unlike Australia where emotions tend to be grounded on fear and suspicion.

Commented Body: "We're too far away in NZ. No one is going to bother us down here. We want to know about other people. Indonesia is very important to us. Music transcends lines marking territories, theories and cultures."

Filipino academic and conductor Ramon Santos has been another long-term advocate of using music to banish boundaries. He said a meeting of the Asian Composers' League in the early 1970s made a startling discovery that helped start the festivals: "We suddenly realized that we all knew Mozart and we all knew Beethoven, but we didn't know what our colleagues were doing in neighboring countries. How come?

"Why not get together and absorb the different aesthetics of our cultures and traditions? Music helps bring people together."

Veteran Javanese composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur, who lists himself in the 'Western-educated' category because he trained in Paris, agreed. At this Festival he found himself fascinated with mouth music demonstrated by some participants. Their cyclical breathing skills allowed notes to be maintained for long periods.

Slamet, who works at the leading edge of experimental contemporary music helped start the Indonesian Composers' Association (AKI) in 1994. This now has 110 members. "In the past the accent used to be on the differences between East and West," he said.

"We've finished with that kind of thing. No more. Ideas of centralization and competition are out of date. We recognize the existence of difference. Composers have to get ideas from everywhere. Compositions need to be cross-cultural.

"There are only two types of music – good and bad." So how do you tell the difference? "Ah! No one knows."

And if they did they tended to keep criticism sotto voce. All invitations to be frank on the record were declined – and off the record comments were by most critical standards in the arts industry most restrained.

At times the conference workshops and debates - which ran parallel with the performances – tended to become as obscure as the music the experts from 23 countries study and make.

The solo performances demanded intense concentration – to enjoy the piece and spot the ending. Was the audio hum part of the work or an aberration? There was seldom a crashing finale - compositions might suddenly revive once the clapping started. Catchy, shower-humming tunes were out. These may have been the sounds of music but they certainly weren't The Sound of Music.

Not all were seeking the purity of mountain flutes played by goatherds. NZ composer Helen Bowater was in Yogya one New Year's Eve where she found inspiration in the celebrations with "jubilant crowds blowing countless varieties of hooters ingeniously created from recycled junk."

To the average visitor this the midnight soundscape bouncing down Yogya's Jalan Malioboro would have been one great raucous racket, but Bowater used her experience to create New Year Fanfare. This was played by the NZ Symphony Orchestra in a splendid timber-clad and acoustically perfect concert hall in central Wellington.

After the performance Bowater said that her time in Java as a gamelan player was "one of the most moving musical experiences of my life – it's such a creative place and people were so tolerant."

Other cross-cultural creations included Spinning Mountain, a collaboration between composers Gareth Farr (NZ) and I Wayan Gede Yudane from Bali. This full work will be performed in Wellington in March.

In between the notes were the esoteric debates. Does composition precede performance – or are they simultaneous creative events? Are value paradigms cross-cultural? Can European composers learn from their Asian counterparts, or is traffic just one-way?

Is music political? Or should it be seen as timeless and spiritual, far above the mire of worldly events? If you accept that religious teachings have inspired great compositions then it's logical (though not always emotionally sound or wise) to argue that politics can do the same. It's OK to accept John Lennon's Imagine as a generic cry for peace, but when that's made specific – as in Iraq – discord begins.

"This has been a Festival of delights," Brody told The Jakarta Post as delegates and performers snapped the locks on their instrument cases and headed for the airport in a sweat of hugs and handshakes. "It's been creative, entertaining, shocking and exciting.

"We had to sort through 450 scores from the region and chose the few that would best represent diversity and innovation.

"We wanted the composers and artists from Indonesia to project their country as a multi-ethnic and creative nation – and not just a cheap holiday in Bali or Java.

"The Indonesians have done just that and made a major contribution to the Festival. They've brought performances and ideas that have been far more beautiful and wonderful than I've ever heard before."

(First published in The SundayPost 4 March 07)


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