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

Thursday, September 08, 2016


Celebrating kampong culture   
Redy Eko Prasetyo (left) has a knack for getting cooperation.
Embedded in that singular term are a cluster of rare skills in community development.
They include inspiring, encouraging, leading, initiating, promoting and coordinating.  But none of these would be worth a spit in the wind without trust.
 What’s in it for him? Is he trying to take over – maybe with a political career in mind, standing for mayor when the time is right?
“No way,” he said.  “When there are official functions I’m at the back behind the scenes.  I only want to encourage development of our  gotong royong (community self-help) culture.  I have no other ambition.”
So far the lanky 35-year old musician has worked with 17 communities in East Java to get their act together and set up festivals proudly celebrating indigenous arts, or as he says: “To reclaim the spirit of the kampong.
“There’s been a stigma attached to living in dense urban communities.  The people are poor so considered second class. They have hardships. Yet they are knowledgeable and determined to improve their lives and those of their children.
“Above all they are proud and want to keep their independence.  That’s important. But how can they do this?  The answer is: Celebrate!”
Prasetyo studied English literature at university with the expectation of fulfilling his parents’ hopes for a teacher son. However he has never fronted classrooms of kids.  Instead he stands before adults in darkened halls with a microphone.
He focussed on music, became a composer and is an accomplished player of the sitar and other instruments. Clips of his performances and TEDx (Technology, Education Design) conference appearances are on YouTube.
In 2010 he moved from Yogyakarta to Malang where he has a job managing Brawijaya University’s television station.  The young family needed to rent a house that was well positioned but also cheap.  They chose Cempluk.  The name also means a little oil lamp – appropriate because mains electricity came late.
The village’s fate mirrors much of what is happening in Indonesia’s unchecked urban sprawl and illustrates why food self-sufficiency is a fading dream.
Cempluk was once on the outskirts of the East Java city.  Every family had their own slice of arable land. In this elevated area (440 meters above sea level) the climate is benign and the soil rich.  Three crops a year were common.
The villagers toiled in the fields, fed their families, sold the surplus and lived a stable life.  That was until the arrival of the men in Mercedes with plans for suburbs new.
Factories were being built nearby.  Even a university.  Workers were coming and needed houses.  The villagers started to sell their heritage.  Soon they had more money than they’d ever seen.
They bought motorbikes, treated relatives to lavish holidays, renovated their homes – and one day realised all had gone – money, land and work. The social upheaval was complete when once proud freemen had to labor under other bosses, while the womenfolk became maids to the rich.
Prasetyo, 35, quietly set about blending into the community.  In Jakarta’s high rise apartments newcomers can remain – as their dwelling name suggests –apart.  They live as they please and seldom meet folk in the flats next door.
That’s not the situation in kampongs where fitting in is essential for harmony. The neighbors must be tolerated and privacy is rare.

Meeting Priyo Sunanto Sidhy. 57, was a bonus for Prasetyo, and it helped that the older man was a multi-skilled musician.  The polymath taught the ancient arts of wayang kulit (shadow puppets) the gamelan and Javanese dance.
Slowly other kampong abilities were revealed when the villagers came home from laboring on production lines and building sites. This man was an imaginative sculptor, that granny a brilliant cook of old-time snacks never sold in shopping malls, that girl a dancer with much grace.
Mask carving was another inherited skill unwanted in the factories but needed in the back-to-basics world imagined by Prasetyo and Sidhy. University students disenchanted with materialism heard of the movement and came to learn and assist
With so much talent available,  why not show off? And so street festivals were started and have now become famous as crowds flock from their sterile units and gated communities to savor the music and foods they remember from their childhood.
The DIY (Do It Yourself) shows also attract outside performers like Didik Nini Thowok from Yogyakarta, keen to keep the ancient arts alive and act as a drawcard.

Achmad Winarto, community leader in the nearby kampong of Celaket said the dancer  agreed to perform for no fee only if entry was free so the local kids could experience their birthright.
The cross gender artist famous for his dual-face mask performances in Indonesia and overseas festivals led a spontaneous flash mob routine across a dusty yard alongside an ancient banyan tree.
The mixed gender and age crowd discarded their inhibitions and twirled scarves while local youngsters played gamelan music – at times using blindfolds to show they weren’t just one-trick ponies.

“It’s so important to preserve our traditions,” said Winarto urging all not to be seduced by other entertainment.  He was too polite to use the word ‘Western’ but his listeners knew what he meant.
“We’ve had to do all this ourselves – nothing from the government.  But in the past three years we’ve retrieved much of our past to bequeath to the generations to come.
“We’ve formed Japung Nusantara (Network of kampongs across the Archipelago) to keep our culture alive.”                                                           

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 September 2016)

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