The Ignored Aceh Narrative

Arts as a Point of Entry

On July 21st, 2005, as Banda Aceh’s air burns us, a group of people with their disciplines and unique skills sit huddled tightly in a van heading for a refugee barrack at the Bandara Blang Bintang area, Aceh Besar.

by Irwansyah Harahap

They have tried to do something for the children of Aceh, recently afflicted by Tsunami. Along the way they witness tents scattered about and barracks nearly uniform coloring the beach atmosphere filled with pieces of debris.

Though seeming tired, they still kept their spirits high with the hope of quickly reaching their destination. They wish to play, sing, dance, and have fun together with children, as soon as possible.

At a glance, nothing distinct differentiates them from other NGO activities there. But what the Yayasan Titian Budaya (Sacred Bridge Foundation) does there in cooperation with UNESCO Jakarta has a quite contrasting target and dimension. They try to bridge the bitterness of life’s reality caused by natural disaster with the hope of the future through the language of culture. An interesting learning process occurs, especially when those involved try to interpret each other and understand what “culture” is, exactly.

More than that, each person “experiences” various inter-relational “trial” processes upon phenomenal designs, orientations, and realities that they face. Even more so when the achieved work scenario is in the form of something rooted within Aceh’s cultural journey herself. I, as one of the persons involved, wish to share this experience.

Aceh’s blurred lens

Unlike the resolution of political conflict with its unending effects upon social life, when the tsunami happened everyone tries to “help” the people of Aceh. Various patterns and shapes of aid are designed and implemented; starting from the physical and moving to encompass various life aspects.

“Reconstruction” suddenly becomes a popular jargon heard from various corners. Pamphlets from various local and even international institutions are regular everyday occurences at Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam. Life mobility in the city, paradoxically, are more dominated by physical and social reconstruction. Most Acehnese locals appear to just “sit there” and “watch”. A small number become elite players in the local bureaucracy, while most become working crew. Rationing of food, clothing, educational facilities even the assignment of tsunami leftover “cleaning service”, is needed.

But, as commented by a resident of the AURI-Walubi barracks near Blang Bintang, “Our souls feel empty. We appreciate all this help, but we wish to do something that we can do. But not one person asked us.”

Looking at Aceh at this moment it is almost unimaginable that this northernmost corner of Sumatra once had a civilization so renowned that it gave color all through the Nusantara. The “tanding” culture, which at a glance seemed macochitis almost disappears from the Acehnese cultural rhetoric. The “tanding” culture is common in Islamic culture not as something marked by “winning” or “losing”, but is an “arena” to test the validity of a value when introduced in social life.

The Aceh people, as like other Indonesian people, have long been “jailed” by a governance system that is very “ruler-centric”. Development is almost totally without any comprehensive consideration involving society’s social dimention. In other words, the national rulers often have a handicap of not recognizing, much less understanding, the people’s needs.

Why art?

Art is a door into an area called by the Sacred Bridge Foundation as a cultural and Psychotherapeutic Healing Program.

We involve various disciplines, beginning from anthropologists, psychologists, ethnomusicologist, art programmer, and a number of artisans to interpret this vision. Work design becomes our guideline in mapping needs in the field, and on paper all looks easy.

Not so in the field. It is not easy to form the “fitting” thesis to work on. The dialectics between our work design and real needs in the field requires a work program approach in the field where it is redesigned almost daily.

Anthropologists map the social needs of children in the barracks which differ from their previous life. Ethnomusicologists explore the various artistic approaches as the main activity. Artists interpret artistic language to fulfill not only practical things, but to also include therapeutic psychological elements. Art programmers design the patterns and formats of classes. Psychologists design psychological therapies, not only through general approach, but also attempting to identify the psycho-cultural aspects of the behavioral characteristics of the children involved.

This interdisciplinary work demands patience in listening to, interpreting, and fully understanding all aspects worked on by all parties involved. “If only Brother could arrive earlier, we can hit the Rebana, so that we could shoo away the sound of thunder which had just passed,” so shouts a child in welcoming the team at Muhamadiyah Orphanage, Blang Bintang, Aceh Besar.

The honesty, emotionally expressed through the child’s language, displays “culture” not only as what we can see and what we want to do, but also as a “need to share” all experiences of all people involved.

After reading the Al-Fatihah together, Syeh Lah Bangguna – a legendary Aceh artist – begins to sing a narrative opening song filled with messages of religion and life morality. Afterwards he sings a pantun repeatedly, followed together by the children.

“In heaven there are trees with lush, green leaves, with branches filled with baiduri diamonds; on two of its branches a swing, where gathers the Prophet’s followers…,” thus goes the song.

From an esoteric dimention, something repeated becomes the essence of ritual. When song is exchanged between Syeh Lah Bangguna and the children, it is obvious that interaction and competition has happened within time and space.

Children listen, mimick, response through song and dance. Sometimes recreating melodic patterns in reverse. At other opportunities, Syah Lah (as his close friends like to call him) once said, “Even though at the beginning the songs are the same, my lyrics differ from the others, each singer must be capable of creating their own pantuns.”

Unfortunately, this socio-cultural interaction pattern within Aceh arts have almost disappeared from everyday contemporary Aceh life. Various role models of values for physical or socio-cultural reconstruction all walk alone, as though “fighters” without “sparring partners”. As a result, how can a rhetoric of cultured civilization be maintained?

English Translation by Ferdi Zebua

*This article was originally published on Kompas, Saturday, August 6th, 2005 in Bahasa Indonesia.

Remembering Yazeed Djamin

Yazeed Djamin was born in Jakarta, 1952. He began to earn his piano lessons at the age of nine when he entered the YPM music school, and then studied composition and the piano with Sutarno Sutikno and Frans Haryadi at the Jakarta Institute of Arts. His virtuosity behind the keys had already begun to be heard at a young age when he won the Electone Festival championship in 1972 and 1974. At the period from 1974 to 1988 he continued his studies in composition and the piano at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, USA, where he also studied conducting.

In 1988 he was honored the Otto Ortman Award for composition (1975, 1976) and the Peabody Concerto Competition for piano performance. In 1988, he returned to Indonesia and established his role as a composer, conductor and pianist. He also initiated the Nusantara Chamber Orchestra on the same year, and later became composer-in-residence and supervisor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Malaysia in 1994. He was also awarded first prize at the International Music Festival in Sydney for his orchestral work of Nyi Ronggeng. Yazeed Djamin died in 2001 after a long bout of sickness but left all of us a noble legacy of accountable knowledge, sheer reputation, and a foundation for Indonesian music development.

Ondel-ondel, one of the Indonesian folk song; arrangement by Yazeed Djamin.

In remembrance of his remarkable contribution to musical development in Indonesia, here was the (last) interview with the master himself, conducted by Serrano Sianturi for Listen to the World, back in 2001…

As a musician with a strong background in Western classical music education, do you think of world music as having a strong influence in Western classical music?

It most certainly does. From ancient times, such as medieval church music and others similar to that there is very much an influence [of world music] on the development of Western classical music. And perhaps before their discovery of Asian and African music, I think the Europeans did not think that music could come from those regions, in the sense that at the time they didn’t think there was needed to mimic or adopt them as an element of their creative musical process, because they themselves already have their own playing techniques such as Hungarian Rhapsody, Romanian Rhapsody with their unique style and characteristics, or (Frederic) Chopin with his Mazurka and Polonaise, not to mention music from Russia, which after that you can say it’s been “over-used”. Thus, the 20th century began as a century of exploration for Western Composers, who look for new identities using musical elements, especially music from Asia; whether say from India, Indonesia, Japan or even from China.

What is most prominent is perhaps because (Claude) Debussy heard Balinese music during the Expo Music, then (Olivier) Messiaen also through his piano piece which I have played once, named “Canteyodyaja”, it really is an Indian music which he composed. Contribution from Asian music is most definitely very large on the development of (Western) classical music, yes.

When people talk about ethnic music, in general they immediately associate it with traditional musical instruments; but now you are forming the Indonesian Philharmonic Orchestra, which of course is oriented toward Western approaches and Western musical instruments, but then you want to elevate Indonesian music onto the world level. Can you explain further?

Yes, that’s very true. If I choose the instruments that I use, it is because how wonderful these Western musical instruments are, and they are very varied; many have voices which are just like traditional musical instruments. Except perhaps for the sound of gendang, which then forces us to find a gendang player. But if I have to use other instruments, what creates a gap for me is the difference in intonation. We can use the essence of Indonesian music in an orchestra, so that we do not need to involve players of traditional instruments, because not all orchestras of the world have those instruments. For an example, there was this one time I brought those instruments to Singapore and it was almost hopelessly hard to find a gendang player just to play Ronggeng. And we wound up looking for a Melayu player who didn’t understand anything.

Physical shapes of Bongo, Gendang (one of its shapes), and Conga. Source: gonbops; indoindotraditionalmusic.blogspot; musik-produktiv.

Let’s put it this way: alternatives for those instruments can be found using Western musical instruments. For example by using the conga, or the bongo, and then learning how they play them, until how finally everyone can play. If it was up to me, if we want to become great, we must learn [to be able] to use Indonesian musical material, then transfer them to the orchestra; digest the chords, arrange, construct, I really think we can be on the same level as works from abroad.

Okay then, well while there’s this piano lying around here doing nothing, can you explain the difference in character between the various music, such as what exactly is Light Classical? And what is Baroque, or the Blues, what are they like? Or even Indonesian music?

As for Light Classic, you can say that its something like “Rhapsody in Blue” from (George) Gershwin, or “Summertime” can also be called Light Classic, since it also came from the opera Porgy and Bess; and then there’s the “Warsaw Concerto”, that’s one famous song that was made for film music. All those are Light Classic which were made on the 20th century, where most of those composers at this time don’t play in that context anymore. They now play like this…. (Yazeed plays a sample of 20th century composition)… even a cat can play like that!

Hahaha! I think even I am stupider than a cat!

As for Blues, here’s an easy example, “Summertime” (Yazeed plays Summertime); that’s an example of music using the Blues musical scale. This is Made in America!

And next, “Rhapsody in Blue”, with its very famous theme (Yazeed plays the theme from “Rhapsody in Blue”).

And from the (Johann Sebastian) Bach era; well in classical music we have been talking about things which they would say is taboo, if you don’t play by the rules like how Bach played, then you’re not playing piano. So they say…

Especially within German traditions which consider such music to be their music, and must be played the way Bach played. And then (Ludwig van) Beethoven with his unique trait that goes from loud, then immediately soft. For example… (Yazeed plays a composition by Beethoven) A grandma who was trying to put a thread through a needle, would be immediately startled! Because that is his signature, piano-forte-piano-forte.

And then comes the Impressionist era, a transition, just like my favorite paintings which are the works of Monet; And that was the era of (Joseph-Maurice) Ravel, (Claude) Debussy, (Eric) Satie, for example… (Yazeed plays some compositions from the Impressionist era) things which use Whole tone scale.

Details of Claude Monet’s painting entitled “Nympheas”. Source: intothetravel

Then Classical, the era of (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart (Yazeed plays a Mozart piece) with his unique playing style. To learn classical music, you have to study in school, no way around it; because the way of playing each school of music are each different.

And here, in Indonesia, we have a limited scale. (Yazeed plays the pentatonic scale) What can you make with so few notes? But with cleverness in orchestration, this scale can become very wide (Yazeed demonstrates a development of pentatonic scale), but still with its unique color.