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)