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

Friday, October 02, 2015


Vigilance in verse  


There’s a buffalo thief abroad. Be on guard. We need a plan.  It must be good. Best recruit a seer who can spirit a tiger.

Those lyrics in Minangkabau were sung and played by New Zealand ethnomusicologist Dr Megan Collins as part of her initiation into the mysteries of West Sumatran music.  They were composed as an exercise in imagining a potential threat.

A tuneful community alert.  A song instead of a siren.

Government orders, official posters and stern pronouncements about dangers by grim men in uniforms have their place, but nothing comes within a chord of a memorable ditty.

In 1907 an earthquake and tsunami killed thousands who rushed to the beach in Simeulue Island [150 kilometers off the west coast of Aceh] to collect fish when the ocean retreated. The survivors wrote and recited the song, which became part of the local folklore.

“Spreading important safety messages through music storylines continues,” Collins said.

“It was effective when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit.  Only seven islanders from a population of 78,000 on Simeulue perished.”

Elsewhere more than 250,000 coastal dwellers in 14 countries were swept away.  The heaviest death toll was in Aceh where about 170,000 died.

Even earlier, memories of the gigantic 1883 Krakatau volcanic explosion in Sunda Strait, which killed an estimated 36,000, have also been preserved in verse.

Collins is an expert on the music of the rabab pasisia selatan.  She says the instrument looks like a baroque violin, though purists who think only a Stradivarius is worth caressing with a horse-hair bow might label it a folk fiddle.

Which isn’t far wrong.  “It’s the people’s instrument,” Collins said.  “It’s made in the villages by craftsmen.  The music is usually heard at weddings and other community events, often accompanied by a flute and a singer.

The rabab’s ancestor may have been the European violin carried by Portuguese or Dutch sailors centuries ago. Collins, who has studied organology, the science of musical instruments, says its provenance is still unproven.

Perhaps a nostalgic minstrel mariner off a three-masted Dutch fluyt and fiddled to remind him of another land. A Minangkabau person was drawn to friendship by the music, which happens in a perfect universe, and was gifted the violin.

Of course it could have been acquired through robbery, not romance, but we digress.

For more than two years in the 1990s Collins studied the music of the Minangkabau at the Indonesian Arts Institute in the West Sumatran capital of Padangpanjang.  Her doctoral fieldwork with masters of the art was in Pesisir Selatan village on the coast.

The rabab is not played like the violin with the musician standing or sitting, but by squatting cross-legged.  It can’t be held hands free under the chin.  It’s a four-string fiddle though only two are played; one lies slack while the other has mystical powers which some claim to be curative.

The instrument is often played by dukun the traditional healers and spirit mediums
Collins modestly claims she has still to reach the level where she can understand the instrument’s supposed magic qualities.

In the meantime Collins’ skills can entice and enchant Kiwis who hear her CDs, play in concerts or on national radio where she’s performed in six one-hour programs featuring the sounds of Sumatra. 

Collins was raised in a musical family that traces its ancestors back to mid 19th century migrations from Ireland, England and Scotland.  As a child she was “a closet bagpipe fan girl” but instead learned the piano and violin.

Now her mission is to “exoticize music, to get rid of its orientalism” so it speaks to all whatever their ethnicity or national allegiance.

And Indonesians can enjoy her talents too when she tours Java in mid 2016 with the Wellington-based Gamelan Padhang Moncar playing in Yogya, Solo and Malang.

Collins, 43, now manages the gamelan, a role entrusted to her by Professor Jack Body who died earlier this year.  He led the orchestra on a tour of Java in 1993 when Collins was one of the players.

“That kicked off my enthusiasm for Indonesia,” she said. “I won a Darmasiswa Indonesian Government scholarship.  Java was too crowded which didn’t suit a Kiwi country girl, so I went to Padangpanjang. 

“Apart from a few tourists passing through I was the only foreigner.  I lived with a local family so became immersed in the language and culture.” 

Her initiation included rubbing her fingers with limes over an open fire to make her hands supple. She is now fluent in Indonesian and Minangkabau, which she prides herself on speaking with the accent of a native speaker.

Don’t assume all this is esoteric stuff for oldies and academics.  Sumatra’s sounds survive because they’ve adapted, embracing pop and dangdut the throbbing amalgam of Middle Eastern and Indian music.

“Minangkabau music isn’t rare, it’s popular,” Collins said. “It’s played on television and radio and uploaded to YouTube.  A song about a  flash flood that took out a major highway has been viewed more than 50,000 times.

“Siril Asmara’s VCD Sum-Bar Mananggih [West Sumatra Weeps] about other natural disasters following the 2004 tsunami sold 15,000 copies in 2013.  Composing and playing music can have a cathartic effect.”

Collins is now cooperating with NZ geomorphologist Dr Noel Trustrum and Indonesian scientists to produce a multi-media book on preparing for emergencies; it’s based on the principle that local oral wisdom trumps imported knowledge.

Trustrum has worked on aid projects in Indonesia including Aceh and recently published a book of photos and essays about the restoration of Banda Aceh and the resilience of its people.

“Messages can be locally generated, changed and moved between genres,” Collins said.  “They are an amazing way to create awareness and remember the tragedies of the past.

“Think of the Western children’s song Twinkle, twinkle little star. We all know the tune.  Now swap lyrics or create new ones. The rabab is ideal for this because it’s a story-telling instrument.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 2 October 2015)

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