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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Going potty about Lombok

In the international aid business not all projects are worth the money and effort.

Like rockets some are launched in a great show of publicity but never reach the predicted heights. They burn out prematurely, dampened by confrontations with reality in the hard school of social engineering.

Others fizzle out in culture conflicts; messages are misread, expectations vanish and promises turn to ash in the crucible of corruption.

It might have been that way 20 years ago in Lombok when a New Zealand aid program set about reforming the traditional crafts of the Sasak potters, but this project seems to have been successful beyond hope.

“At first many villagers feared this was an exercise in Christianisation,” said Rohmiati, the manager of the Lombok Pottery Centre. (Lombok, the island adjacent to Bali, is mainly Muslim.)

“There was also some resentment because outsiders were getting involved. However after almost a year the locals slowly started accepting the ideas and applying changes.

“The potters were helped with designs, manufacture and marketing. An administration center was set up. The pottery became famous overseas and the women and their families have got the benefits of better health and sanitation.

“Just look at their houses. There’s the proof. They used to use the river for ablutions. Now they have toilets. They used to have bamboo walls, dirt floors and thatch roofs. Not now. They’ve spent their profits to better their lives. ”

The entrance to Banyumulek, 20 minutes south of Mataram, looks more like a drive into a resort with its avenue of pots. The houses are brick and tile or iron. The village has an aura of basic prosperity – not flash, just comfortable.

Some display their craft in little shops, seeking retail sale. Others have purpose-built workshops and storerooms behind their homes ready to supply big orders.

Yet the “glory days”, as Rohmiati calls the 1990s, have gone. Then up to 100 containers of pots were leaving Lombok for overseas every year. Now they’ll be lucky to fill one container in four months, and there are no busses of culture tourists keen to fill their backpacks with the rugged, russet-hued earthenware.

Rohmiati blames the church burnings during the 2000 religious riots – or, as some claim, political feuds using religion to stoke hatred – for the downturn in visitors. She said the global economic slump had caused the loss of overseas markets.

Or maybe the business just needs to be refreshed after two decades of selling the same things, with marketing given a boost. Perhaps other countries have pinched the style and are undercutting prices. The staff say more trade research is required.

Certainly the huggable pots are rich and beautiful, all hand made and fired in the open using rice straw and coconut husks. The designs, like the tones, are subtle. The grey clay is mined locally. Although a few concessions to modernity have been made, the basic tools and techniques being used now by 214 craftswomen in three villages are much like those centuries ago.

How long? No one knows for sure. One version has the skills being brought from Central Java 500 years ago when the Majapahit kingdom began to disintegrate and the Hindus moved east.

Another credits Sunan Prapen who brought Islam to the island, and may have included pottery in his basket of skills. This being Indonesia, there’s also a myth of the goddess Dewi Anjani being involved.

Potting is still female work, and this made it an attractive project for NZ aid, where empowering women, particularly the poor and single mums, has long been a national goal. Of the 20 staff at the center only five are men, employed to do the heavy lifting and packing, for some fat-bellied pots stand up to a meter.

The first adviser was NZ artist and craft expert Jean McKinnon who stayed with the project for more than three years. The overseas aid has finished and the local women now own the business.

The main office and showroom in Mataram includes a large packing shed and warehouse. Here thousands of glistening, multi-colored pots rest on racks ready for export should the orders start flowing again.

Originally the pots were purely functional, made as kitchen and cookware and hawked from door to door. Now most are decorative and have been embellished with designs making them fit to feature in Western lounges and gardens.

The women are no longer artisans, but artists.

The clay is mixed with fine river sand and the pots are built using rolls of the damp mixture, coiling the material by hand. The only tools are bamboo sticks, coconut husks, wire and sometimes kick-wheels.

Although some craftswomen have bought electric wheels these have not been successful; the power supply is too limited and unreliable. Unlike Western potteries there are no thermometers or other technology used to tell when the pot is too dry or too wet, ready to fire or cool. The potters just know, such are their skills.

For some designs tamarind seeds are crushed and soaked. The mix is sprayed on the pots to create a patterned effect. The artefacts are then dried in the sun for about half a day.

It’s the sort of work that fits in with domestic duties. When the kids are at school a few hours potting in the backyard doesn’t just fill time – it also makes money.

The health of the women working the clay seems to be unaffected, but there are concerns about inhaling smoke and ash from the firing.

“They continue to fire the pots close to the houses and we are getting reports of chest infections,” said Rohmiati’s colleague Ni Kitut Adi Widyati who has been with the project since its inception.

“We think they should move the firing to an open area far away, but they’re reluctant.

“We are grateful to the NZ government because it looked after our home industries and helped make them successful. Now we need to get fresh designs and get back into the international market.

“We’re still selling to Italy and the US but have to expand.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 January 2010)

(Pic caption: Handle with care: Rohmiati (left) and Ni Kitut Adi Widyati.)


Monday, January 18, 2010

Jimmy Sumampouw


Jimmy Sumampouw
Don’t let the music stop

If brooding Mount Lokon had chosen the end of October to erupt, few in the surrounding North Sulawesi villages would have noticed.

For the youth-made explosions would have smothered any subterranean roars and growls, bangs and clangs as Tomohon’s battle of the bands (officially known as the ‘Tomohon Band Festival’) set out to prove noise beats nuance.

Keeping it all together and darting between the serpentine cabling and strobe lighting was the plump but agile figure of coordinator Jimmy Sumampouw, 24.

The first half of the two-day event in the hills one hour’s drive from Manado was staged under a rippling blue polycarbonate roof. It may well have been straight before the zillion watt sound system was turned on and tweaked to peak.

The four judges with trophies and prizes of up to Rp 5 million (US $ 500) to award wisely made their decisions beyond the sonic blast zone – a distance of what appeared to be several kilometers. The air was shimmering like a mirage, distorted through beat, not heat, so the gap may have been a little less.

The adjudicators awarded points for harmony, teamwork, skills and performance, with bonuses if the lads had written their own work. Although the area is known throughout Indonesia for its gender equality, there were no all-girl groups.

The event attracted 31 bands. Others had to be turned away because the committee couldn’t cope with more competitors from around the province. Said the jubilant committee chair Piet Arabata, a nuggetty music lover of another generation: “That proves it’s a success. We’ll go ahead in Tomohon next year.”

The local black-booted public order squad along with police in yellow Hi-Vis vests came along, maybe to dissuade anyone without acne from entering. They were greatly under-employed and spent much time sucking smokes, pondering their presence.

Despite the cowboy hats, short skirts, long hair and other signs of the supposedly wayward young, the crowd was appreciative, not rowdy. Noise doesn’t necessarily mean naughtiness, and music doesn’t always lead to mayhem

The banners and other advertising made this event significantly different from similar shows in other parts of Indonesia; there was no tobacco sponsorship.

“The audiences and performers are young – we didn’t want to encourage them to start smoking”, said Jimmy. Though only 24 he looked like an intruder from another era among the performers trying to grow beards and breasts. .

“So we didn’t seek support from cigarette companies - or the churches,” (North Sulawesi is a strong Christian province and denominations compete for souls through music.)“We got our backing from local government.

“We want to help develop the young generation’s interests and talent in music. We don’t have a drug problem in Tomohon, though there are some alcohol issues.

“We want young people to have other activities. This way we are getting in first, anticipating problems before they arise, keeping the kids off the street.”

Jimmy is a local lad who’s made it good in the Big Durian and the prodigal son came home to run this year’s event. He’s the drummer in the eight-piece Jakarta band Miracle that plays golden oldies and Top 40s in cafes and five-star hotels.

After leaving high school with little training, no tertiary education and no plans to do anything other than play music, he makes his living as a full-time music pro.

“Getting into the Jakarta scene was a little bit difficult,” he said, downplaying the hurdles he had to overcome. “There were a lot of challenges.”

Although a raw lad from the provinces he already had family in the capital so didn’t have to scratch for lodgings and regular feeds while building contacts and proving his abilities.

Having talent helped significantly. He can play every major instrument in a contemporary band and can understand music notation – skills that draw respect.

They also took him to Australia this year for an international ‘Ultimate Drummers’ workshop in Melbourne where he was able to click sticks and whisk skins with overseas talent.

He also had the backing of his parents. This isn’t the sort of story where distressed parents burn their offspring’s drum kit and demand they follow dad into brain surgery.

Jimmy’s father was an engineer with an overseas company based in Sulawesi and although he had to make his living in an office he loved to sing and play the guitar.

Another influence was his musician uncle Ventje Watupongoh who has long run an informal music school in Tomohon. Here he gave valuable advice to his smart nephew:

“When you’re on stage you must act as though you are the king of music. But when you’re off stage you must act with humility.”

The lesson seems to have struck the right chord. Jimmy doesn’t play the big man from the city among the people he left behind when he went west to seek fame and fortune five years ago.

Nor does he try to dissuade the bright young hopefuls who want to follow the pied piper. “I mustn‘t deny their spirit,” he said.

“I tell them that if they treat music as a hobby or fun, well, that’s OK, but don’t leave home. Don’t go to Jakarta – it’s tough. But if they are really serious, work hard and have got the talent then give it a go.

“The Minahasa people from North Sulawesi seem to have the ability to fit in anywhere, to adjust and make friends easily. That helps a lot.

“Whatever else you decide to play you should first learn the piano. You must believe in yourself and have confidence, but that doesn’t mean being arrogant.

“I’m a strong nationalist but I have no objection to Western music which has dominated this music festival. In many cases the performers have taken local compositions and given them a Western treatment. That’s fine.

“Music is universal – it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Tomohon (a city of only 80,000) seems to have a lot of creative talent. We welcome people from everywhere. (The final night of the festival clashed with a concert featuring bamboo instruments. Some churches have brass bands and classical music is taught locally.)

“Through the Internet musicians have access to all genres of music. There have been many good musicians at the festival, but they lack teamwork,

“Never stop practising – play every day. Music has no end. Music never stops.“

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 January 2010)