Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Eleventh Hour

(This blog was in the make for about a week....)

It almost always happens to me. Just before a project is due to be published or presented, I lose faith in its value and think that it should go in the round file. Such a moment descended upon me the day before leaving Jakarta. We had come to a difficult juncture in the editing of Rangsa ni Tonun and suddenly the film seemed like an impossibility. The text written down by Guru Sinangga ni Adji is a description of the steps in weaving a cloth, but it also has a poetic quality and plays with words, rhythms and analogies. It does not always follow the exact order in which a weaver carries out her task. Moreover, the way a weaver works varies from place to place and from weaver to weaver as well as from textile to textile. This poses an enormous challenge when editing the film. How much latitude can one take with the text? And are there errors in the guru’s recitation? Should we chop up the weaver’s work to coincide with the text? These questions lead to the inevitable: what are we doing with this filming project and why? What are our purposes and goals?

I began to question many things, but most of all, the style of the film. I think that Nashir has done well infusing the weaving description with a mythical quality. Should we have emphasized that mythical quality more and not focused on the details of the techniques? But how could we have accomplished this? I just do not know enough about film to even begin to articulate this. Our film is neither apples nor oranges, fish nor fowl. It leads me to want to explore comparable texts in other Asian cultures. (Chris Buckley has told me that such texts may be found elsewhere in Asia as well, and not just in the Batak region.) Have we stumbled into a problem of genre? Does this film require a rangsa genre? What form would that take?

On top of that, no matter how we slice it, the film is about translation of a text and of culture. We inch closer to the Batak culture of the past as we work on it, but the closer we get, the further away it seems to recede. The film appears to be an introduction rather than a conclusion. As the text reveals itself as more and more complex, the problem of translation moves increasingly to the forefront. How can plays on words, so distinctively rooted in ancient, foreign, past Batak culture, be turned into film? While I had rejected a verbal translation of the text because it would be so ponderous, now it seems easier to negotiate than a filmic translation.

And then there are all of the practical issues that we have run into. The film is undeniably a visual rendering of Batak weaving terminology. But even this goal is turning out to be increasingly daunting because so much has been lost. We tried valiantly to find people who could execute technical processes for us and we tried heroically to find weaving equipment. We reconstructed and refurbished but in the end, we can only approximate. What is lost is lost and cannot be revived. Too much time has already passed. Is approximation of a past the story that we want to be telling? All of the steps in making yarn and all of the steps in making red dye have been lost. The elderly women in Sianjur Mulamula could pantomime the activities but they are too old to perform them. The tradition is like sand slipping through the fingers. It lives only in their pantomime and memories, and they are women at the end of their lives. Anyone seeing that footage, who truly understands its significance, can only weep.

In addition, the woodworking skills required to make the instrument are gone. Even the trees and access to wood has disappeared. In this sense, our attempt to film Rangsa ni Topnun has been a lesson in the depth of social change that has taken place in the region, the extend of loss. We are making the film 100 years too late.

As I ponder all of this, and consider our resulting filmic translation of this old Batak text, I see that I have come to a crossroads. I am realizing that our own journey of discovery is a valuable story. The reasons why the filming of Rangsa ni Tonun is so difficult have great value. Nashir has coined the phrase “the last weaver” and we both know that his footage of laughing, pantomiming women in Sianjur Mulamula is as tragic as it is fun. The footage is precious and may someday be recognized as such and in demand. It depicts the last weavers talking about a tradition that ends with them. Even if it ‘revives’ and transforms into a recognized art form, it will never be what it was. Is this the real story that we should be telling? Through our film we became aware of the loss of culture. There should have been a camera filming us filming Rangsa. That story behind Rangsa is at least as important as the message of Rangsa and, let’s face it, far more timely. Is our filming of Rangsa ni Tonun just the first step in a longer filmic journey? Just don't tell me that another book about Batak weaving is beckoning me to sit down and write it…

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Porsea to Yogya

On Sunday 13 February, I presented my talk about the Back to the Villages project to the Fiber Face 3 audience. Just when I began to describe the presentation of a copy of Legacy in cloth to Ompu Okta, she and her husband walked into the room and I introduced them to the audience. She walked up to the front of the room to join me and we stood there, arm in arm, just as we stood in the first photographs that MJA Nashir took of us back in her village last June. I pointed out that she loved her craft and felt fulfilled and satisfied as a weaver, except for one thing: she had no pupils. This saddened her a great deal because she knew that it meant the end of her tradition and of her own skills.

Last June feels like a light year away. I was new in Indonesia, then, having not been here in such a long time. The state of crisis in the Batak weaving arts was just beginning to seep into my awareness. Since then a vision and a discourse about the perpetuation of this threatened art have begun to take shape.

Fiber Face 3 plays an immense role in that process. It has presented a forum in which to tell the general public about what has been lost and the urgency of the crisis. It has presented a space in which to show beautiful textiles, the likes of which most people here – and specifically the Batak youth – no longer have an opportunity to see (because the heritage has been sold off and exported). Importantly, Ompu Okta is also here demonstrating the complexity of her skill and her extraordinary proficiency as an old-style weaver. (An “old style weaver” to my mind is one who takes so much pride in her work that she also takes the time and uses all of her capacities to make a beautiful product. Most weavers who work for the market receive so little payment for their work that they do not enjoy this luxury.) And finally, Ompu Okta is teaching visitors how to weave. Not only do we have her loom set up but also a second loom with the red warp that Ompu Okta made for the purposes of our film. This opportunity to teach her craft is vastly different from a “normal” situation in the village, but it fits the times and is an attempt to recruit students/apprentices in the wider world.

Ompu Okta has had hundreds of students at Fiber Face 3 in Yogyakarta where
much emphasis has been placed on the continuation of culture.
My very last slide was of the 90 year old weaver in Palipi pointing her finger. I told my audience that she was pointing it at them. You. Us. It is our responsibility, I said. If we do not choose to assume this responsibility, the art will be lost forever. It can’t be learned from a book; it has to be learned through apprenticeship. Culture cannot skip a generation; culture survives through transmission from generation to generation.

At the end of my lecture, a young woman from South Sumatra came up to me and said that she had been moved by my lecture. She is studying the art and science of textiles at a large, accredited institution but until hearing my lecture, had been unsure of the direction she wanted to take. Now she knew that she had a tradition to guard and a foundation on which to build: her own! She is 19, impressionable, full of promise, full of hope. Her words were the greatest expression of appreciation that I could ever receive for delivering a lecture.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Filming Rangsa ni Tonun

Schedule in North Sumatra, January 2011

18 – Depart Amsterdam

19 – Arrive Medan; picked up by Pak Jerry in the airport and visited his house; picked up Mas Nashir and visited Irwansyah Harahap and Rithja Hutajulu at their home in Medan; drove to Tabo Cottages on Samosir Island

20 – Drove to Muara, visiting Ompu Okta en route to greet the new grandson; evening planning meeting with Restuala Namora Pakpahan and Goodman Ompusunggu.

21 – filming in Muara of Si Boru Hasagian and the textiles of Raja Ihat Manisia. Attempt to make pipisan. Cotton floating in the water.

22 – filming in Muara – re-take of Si Boru Hasagian and the textiles of Raja Ihat Manisia. Sigira, salaon, and the failure of the pipisan.

23 –Filming of sigira, and the shifting of the warp from the warping beam to the loom. Departure from Muara to Balige. Visit Sebastian Hutabarat and his family.

24 – Filming of the use of the sorha with Ompu Okta in Uluan. Return to Balige in the evening to examine the pipisan with Sebastian Hutabarat. Night at Universitas DEL.

25 – Filming Ompu Okta’s use of the iraniran. Visit to Ompu Okta’s home village. Packed looms for Yogyakarta. Mas Nashir and Pak Jerry return to Medan. I stay behind at Universitas DEL in Laguboti.

26  – Day of writing blogs, washing clothes, recovering from a cold, and gathering my thoughts at Universitas DEL.

27 – Meet Ompu Lambok and receive the textiles that I commissioned from her for Fiber Face 3. Meeting with Nelson

28 – To Balige to fetch pipisan. To Dolok Sanggul and Baakkara with Nelson Lumbantoruan. In the evening to Medan.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Facing Fiber Face – 1 February

A page in the calendar has flipped over. It is now February and Phase I, the filming of Rangsa ni Tonun is finished (at least for now. Mas Nashir wants to make improvements – especially with the footage on spinning and the cotton gin after the first screening). Jakarta is Phase II and Yogyakarta is Phase III. In Jakarta, we will be editing the film and in Yogyakarta, at the grand opening of Fiber Face 3, it will have its first public screening.

The Fiber Face event has generated much good energy. In addition to the opportunity to make the Rangsa ni Tonun film, the opening has compounded so many of the joys of producing the film – primarily the opportunity to be with the two Ompus Okta.

Both of them have been invited as special guests to the opening of Fiber Face 3. The female will proudly demonstrate her weaving skills and the male will orate, just as he did for the film. This is generating much excitement for them. They only warmed slowly to the idea – they had to receive permission from their ever careful and protective children, and they had to be sure the conditions were all right – but now they are committed to coming. They checked out the websites of Babaran Sagara Gunung and myself and read MJA Nashir’s chapters of Berkelana dengan Sandra. Ompu Okta doli even went to an internet cafĂ© to do this. Oh, how times have changes since my first fieldwork when I had to travel all the way to Sibolga to get a long-distance telephone connection!

Ompu Okta doli is excited about walking down the famous Malioboro Road in Yogyakarta and Ompu Okta boru wants to see batik being made. I am pleased that we will be guests in Hannie Winotosastro’s guesthouse because Hannie is one of the biggest batik makers in Yogyakarta and the curious may also do batik in her workshop. The female Ompu Okta also wants to take a train. As a child, there was a plan to take a train, but it fell through. This may be her one and only opportunity so we have decided to return to Jakarta by train after their stay at the exhibition. In addition, she will receive the Fiber Face prize for textile excellence. We hope to make it an exciting and pleasing high point in her life.

The last time we visited (on the fateful day with the spinning wheel), she had wrapped her loom carefully in cloth and fixed everything so that the loom parts would not fall out and make it impossible to resume her work. She said she wanted me to bring the loom to Yogya to ensure its safety. I feel this responsibility very much and so it was incumbent on me to make sure that it was wrapped in a fail-safe way for traveling. In Porsea, I had purchased a pandan mat for Ompu Okta to sit on and we decided to wrap this around the loom. And then Pak Jerry, Mas Nashir and I went out to look for wrapping materials. I wanted some sturdy plastic to emulate shrink-wrapping, but my two companions introduced me to local ways. While I kept my eyes peeled for a plastic shop, they stopped the vehicle in front of what I thought was a heap of garbage! The old flattened cardboard of every size and colour, bound together with a rope was what they had been looking for! They insisted that this was appropriate wrapping material and I could scarcely refuse because it cost less than 1 euro. The plastic that we ended up using was the one in which the mat had been wrapped and the seller had been willing to relinquish to us. Back in the village, Jerry and Nashir wrapped the loom. Their concession to the times was in the use of a modern roll of wide plastic tape. When they were done, the Ompus Okta surveyed the strewn remains of the cardboard bundle with satisfaction and said they would sell it! Everybody was happy!

As a result of all of this, I am now on the PELNI ferry to Jakarta instead of an airplane. In fact, I am carrying two looms and I don’t let them out of my sight. The second is the one that we prepared while shooting the film. It will be available in Yogyakarta for guests to weave on (and me too! I l still long to weave beside Ompu Okta.)

Leaving Balawan Harbour near Medan

Being pulled out into the famous, busy /Strait of Malacca
Before I left, I was assisting with the travel arrangements for Ompu Okta. Fiber Face 3 will pay for their journey. The Ompus Okta really would have preferred to travel with Mas Nashir and myself to Java, but we have a stop to make in Jakarta. While I still have to work out their travel from the village to Medan, on the day of their flight, Pak Jerry will pick up them and the two musicians (Marsius and his brother Sarikawan), bring them to the airport on time, and help them with check-in and the purchase of the airport tax. As Pak Jerry brought me to the ferry yesterday, we walked though the whole scenario. He is pleased to be of service and we know that we can rely on him fully. He is brilliant with details and keeps everything firmly on track. I could leave Medan with my mind at ease. I want the Ompus Okta to have a good time with no worries.

The Musical Accompaniment to Rangsa ni Tonun

On the last day before leaving Medan, I made the long trek from my hotel to the home of Irwansyah and Rithaony Hutajulu. This is where MJA Nashir stays when he is in Medan. He is a great admirer of this musical couple, their tremendous artistic potential and their accomplishments. He assists them where and when he can with his computer skills. In this way, he has been able to come in close touch with them and has gotten to know the members of their musical group, called Suarasama.

Reciprocally, this couple has become familiar with Mas Nashir’s skills and have been privy to all the steps in the editing of the film. Nashir loves to show the results of a day’s edit or a recent shoot. Suarasama knows better than anyone else how he has been burning the midnight oil to make this film. They also appreciate the goals of the film. They covet knowledge about ancient Batak society and know how to value a text like Rangsa ni Tonun.

Living in their house, Mas Nashir has had ample opportunity to discuss the audio accompaniment and challenges to the film. By the time I arrived there, they had everything sorted out. When Irwansyah told me about the choices, I felt his pleasure at the selections and what he and Suarasama had made of the opportunity. He loves his work. The same smile of enjoyment is on his face when he plays music. I loved the fact that Rangsa ni Tonun is giving these people an opportunity to apply and even expand their repertory. For me Rangsa ni Tonun is not just about the recovery of the past, but a chance to build culture here and now and for the future. Art must always build on what has gone before. Like Nashir, Irwansyah and Rithaony are artists. (It would be so much fun to have a film about the text in the time when it used to be recited and then juxtapose that with our adventures with the text in the contemporary world.)

The music that they selected adds a new symbolic layer to Rangsa ni Tonun and enlivens the film. Each of the melodies is traditional and has been inserted with care according to its meaning. On the day when I was there, the members of Suarasama came out in full force, including:Marsius and his brother Sarikawan Sitohang, Ophir Yanto Sihombing and Syainul Irwan. It was the climax of the musical accompaniment for the film.

Sarikawan Sitohang put his heart in his music.
The film opens with Gondang Sitoluntuho / elekelek. This music accompanies the cotton drifting own from the Upper World. Usually it is played to accompany the arrival of guests at a Batak ritual event.

When the narration by Ompu Okta doli begins in the film, a gondang melody called Sibuka Pikiran is played. This encourages the listener to be open, to be receptive to the knowledge that will become available.

The Gondang Silage Buang follows. The name of the music refers to a woven straw mat and it alludes to a foundation, that on which other things can rest or be placed. It sets the mood and legitimizes what the narrator of the film, Ompu Okta doli, is saying.

In 1980, I made a very brief recording of Ompu Sihol playing the mouth harp (sagasaga). She explained that when a weaver was tired, she might retire briefly and play this little instrument to relax herself with a change of pace. She also explained that you really needed two people to play the melody, but she was the only one left who still knew how to play. We have decided to include this ancient recording in the film when the cotton is being fluffed using a bow. Incomplete as it is, it is still a rare recording of a musical tradition that has disappeared. It was tempting to insert a melody played using a musical bow, but in the end I think that we did the right thing by opting for Ompu Sihol’s mouth harp.

On our last day together in 1980, when we had our communal meal, Ompu Sihol sang a song for me and I recorded that as well. She said that weavers were courted while at their loom and they often sang teasing songs about their suitors. The young man courting them had to really want them badly enough if they were going to accept his attentions! This kind of song was sung while winding spun yarn (mangiran). Weavers used songs to help them keep count when winding yarn, a melodious way to measure. In the film, we use the scratchy, old recording of Ompu Sihol’s wavering voice as an introduction to the fully accompanied version that Irwansyah has composed based on that recording. It leads into Rithaony’s silver and crystal voice and all of Suarasama put their hearts into the piece. Without question this Weaving Song has to be the theme song of the film (see blog Iraniran: Symbolism and Song).

The next musical component of the film is a hasapi solo. The hasapi is a wooden guitar-like instrument with only two strings. There are various kinds of hasapi and Irwansyah has had some exquisite ones made for his use. The solo that he plays is improvised.

Towards the end of the Rangsa ni Tonun text we have a representative of the first Batak weaver, Boru Hasagian, standing in prayer at the edge of Lake Toba. This beautiful image is graced with a so-called andung melody. Andung is sad and haunting, and fits the meditative mood of this special moment. It is played by the brilliant Marsius Sitohang, probably the best Batak sulim (a kind of flute) player alive today.

As the film cycles around to end where it began, the Gondang Hasahatan Sitotio emerges. This melody is played at the end of every Batak ritual and ceremony. Every Batak recognizes it. It will be especially satisfying, therefore, for the Batak viewers of the film.

When the day was done, the sound had been professionally recorded by Avena Natondang (another member of Suarasama) and Mas Nashir had filmed the players, I went over to thank Irwansyah for the great privilege of having his participation in the film. I also expressed my admiration for the quality of the music and for how fitting it was to our needs. He and Ritha explained that it was rare that they received requests to do absolutely traditional music, although this is what all of the members of Suarasama love to do most. They had enjoyed the opportunity – and recovered an old melody as a result of the recording of Ompu Sihol. When they perform it in the future, they wish to announce it as a tribute to this excellent weaver who would have died in anonymity like hundreds and thousands of others, had it not been for our historically accidental meeting – part of the legacy of Sitor Situmorang who advised me, some 31 years ago, to look for a “traditional” weaver in Harian Boho….
Thirty-one years ago! At the time, she was the only one left in Harian Boho….The decline in the Batak weaving arts has accelerated in the intervening years. Nashir, Irwansyah, Rithaony, Suarasama…by re-constructing they are building anew a culture that will win respect, that will be loved, appreciated, admired.

Iraniran: Symbolism and Song

Working on the film, Rangsa ni Tonun, while simultaneously preparing for the exhibition ‘Fiber Face 3’ has yielded some satisfying, serendipitous overlap. The looms that we are bringing, the Ompus Okta, their heirloom textiles, the heirloom textiles from Muara – all will lend coherence to the opening of Fiber Face 3 because they also appear in the film. When they enter the “spotlight” section of the exhibition where the Batak textiles will be hanging, observant people will feel like they have walked into the ambience of the film.

The object of central symbolic importance is Ompu Sihol’s iraniran or reel. I brought it with me from The Netherlands because we hadn’t been able to find one in the Batak area (the one that we tried to make was big and clumsy). Ompu Sihol (my weaving teacher in Harian Boho in 1980) had shown me, more than 30 years ago, how to use it and the yarn that she had wrapped was still on it. We used it to re-shoot the iraniran component of the film. Ompu Okta said she had never used one before. (She told me that in Uluan the warp winder without a central peg had been used to wind newly-spun yarn. Such are the regional variations in Batak weaving techniques and equipment.) It took her awhile to get the hang of it, but eventually she could wrap flawlessly, though more carefully and slowly than Ompu Sihol who had mastered it and could do it quickly and without thinking.

Pak Jerry congratulates a satisfied Ompu Okta on her new yarn wrapping skill.
When Ompu Sihol demonstrated it for me, she had sung a weaving song and I had recorded it. At my request, Joop Bal in Oosterbeek had digitized the old cassette and I passed it on to Nashir. It had been my hope that we would find more such songs in the Batak area, but we did not. They have also disappeared. Nashir, in turn, played Ompu Sihol’s song for the ethnomusicologists in Medan, Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu who are collecting old melodies. He hoped that Ritha would be willing to learn the song and sing it while wrapping yarn for the film. What actually transpired was far more exciting.

We used Ompu Sihol’s old, crackly voice in the film while Ompu Okta winds yarn...and it leads into the Suarasama version. Irwansyah worked Ompu Sihol’s song into a new composition. It will be the theme song of the film. We are calling it The Weaving Song and it is dedicated to the memory of Ompu Sihol. Nashir is fond of pointing out that the iraniran symbolizes the essence of the film: it belonged to Ompu Sihol and it is used by Ompu Okta who plays the first Batak weaver. It represents the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next and it celebrates the vast weaving knowledge of the two most important weavers in the film.

The symbolic heart of the film: Ompu Okta using Ompu Sihol's iraniran.
On the last day of January, Irwansyah invited members of Suarasama to his home and, playing by ear, listening to Ritha sing the song and also listening to the recording of Ompu Sihol, they completed the joyful melody with its teasing words and added complex original Batak instrumentation (percussion, wind and strings). I watched and listened as the musicians presented different alternatives, discussed amongst themselves which would be better and why, settled on one, and then rehearsed it until it seemed to be part of their flesh and blood and they could play it with heart and soul. Another member of Suarasama recorded it professionally. Then Mas Nashir did a video recording of it. I hope that it becomes an add-on at the end of the film. The film, Rangsa ni Tonun, has revived not just an ancient text and some weaving techniques, but also some forgotten music.

Postscript: All of the players dressed up in Batak textiles for Nashir’s video recording of the song. I noticed that the shoulder cloth that Ritha was wearing had precisely the ikat that I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find for the exhibition. She was willing to allow me to include it in the exhibition, yet another overlap with the film.