Monday, March 18, 2013

6. Suarasama

MJA Nashir has just completed a short video about the Theme Song for our film, Rangsa ni Tonun. Watching the video, it is impossible not to fall in love with the music and the way Suarasama, the renowned music group in Medan, has arranged and performed it.

The little ditty that Ompu ni Sihol sang for me in her cracked and quavering old voice the last time I saw her was magical for MJA Nashir. That he took the tape recording to the husband-wife team, Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu, the two founders of Suarasama, was a stroke of brilliance. That they have done so much with that little recording is a testament to their love of the melodies that used to be so much more prevalent in the Batak villages. Batak music in the villages is disappearing.

I first really spoke with Irwansyah and Rithaony in their home in Medan in 2010, also a meeting instigated by Mas Nashir. We had just completed our Pulang Kampung journey and the idea of the film, Rangsa ni Tonun, had not yet announced itself in my mind. That first conversation was as memorable as it was inspiring. 
My first meeting with Irwansyah and Rita in their beautiful home
My Indonesian was still so rusty that I had difficulties following it, but the gist of it brought me back to my passion for the study of Batak culture while I was a graduate student struggling with my dissertation. I had been struck by the coherence of the culture, how the same structures of thought express themselves through different cultural media. My dissertation was an exploration of concepts of time and space found in Batak literature, architecture and, of course textiles. And now here was Irwansyah explaining how he found the same thought structures in Batak music. I was tremendously excited. We talked about how it would be possible to bring these complicated but beautiful ideas over to the Batak youth and mused about doing it through performance that would intertwine the same themes through different media. I know that we had re-invented the source of ritual. That is what the great Batak rituals were about! They gave coherence and reason to all of life. Might these same ideas be the wellspring for the perpetuation of culture in the modern arena? What is ritual in the modern day? An opera or performance? Ritual without the participation of all, ritual as presentation? I still look back on that conversation with longing. The realization of what we talked about remains compelling. I hope that we will someday create the opportunity to do something with that seed. It would be a great honour for me to be able to work so creatively with this professional, dedicated and very gifted couple.

Suarasama’s work on Ompu ni Sihol’s ‘The Weaving Song’ took place primarily when I was in Holland, again under the guidance of MJA Nashir. I was fortunate to be able to attend one of their practices when I was back in North Sumatra – Nashir video-recorded that happy moment. Words cannot express how deeply satisfied and thrilled I was with Suarasama’s product.
Rehearsal of 'The Weaving Song'

I should not have been surprised. I don’t know them well, but I do know that Rithaony and Irwansyah comb the Batak area looking for melodies that are disappearing. They record this music and store it. One day they will be renowned and thanked for what they have managed to salvage. They guide students in ethnomusicology at the University of North Sumatra and do what they can to stimulate Batak youth to learn their musical tradition. Both are qualified ethnomusicologists and professional musicians. Rithaony used to sing for Opera Batak. Irwansyah encourages the making of indigenous instruments; the environment where we spoke on that memorable day was clad with his collection of musical trophies. The Suarasama team includes other top musicians. Together they make beautiful recordings that are known throughout the world. 

Ritha and Irwansyah in concert
Here are a few links to their music freely available on the internet:

And here are some things written about them in the media:

I have asked Suarasama to join us on the Boat Budaya and they have not turned me down. We are still discussing logistics and possibilities. I would be so honoured by their participation and I know that, if they are able to join us, they will be motivated, just as MJA Nashir and I, by their love of Batak culture. I hope that the Boat Budaya will also represent an opportunity to teach music to the youth on board and to inspire the Batak in the villages to honour their musical tradition. I look forward to the music (all acoustic) wafting on the breeze over the lake to all the little villages nestled against the shores. Music carries so well on the water. It will announce our arrival and our event better than anything else ever could. And oh, it would be such a pleasure to sail with these traditional sounds. I know that there will be dancing on board. Nobody will be able to help themselves from standing up and joining in.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

5. It's about Pride and Knowledge

In my official description of Back to the Villages / Pulang Kampung III, I write that an intangible outcome of the project for which we strive is the immeasurable good called ‘pride’. I cite William Ingram, one of the founders of Threads of Life in Bali, in his TEDx talk, “Where there is pride in identity, traditions get passed on from generation to generation.” In other words, we want to get to the generative heart of the maintenance and revival of Batak weaving.

I have to admit that one of the things that moves me the most in this world is when I see someone awakened by pride. Perhaps this is my single, most powerful memory of Pulang Kampung I. I watched weavers look at the corpus of Batak textiles and become confronted and moved by the beauty of their own weaving tradition. I get goose bumps even just thinking about it. Weaving today gives no status and no glory in Indonesian society, and it generates next to no income. Weavers, while they know how difficult and complex their art is, feel no pride in their skills. They are more likely to feel shame. To be a weaver indicates that you have no education and no money.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the marketing of Batak textiles. If marketed cleverly, the weavers would be able to derive sufficient income from their skills, perhaps even a good income. But the uneducated poor in the society are not in a position to discover and create a good market.

I am not the one to find new markets or to exhort Batak weavers about what they should and should not do.  What I can do is share the results of my anthropological work together with my sense of admiration for their traditions. I am eternally sad that weavers feel little pride in their work. This is why I want to give them recognition. I want to see their faces bloom in smiles and their energy soar. 
Nai Arta, Silindung Valley,
Photo by MJA Nashir, 2010
I love her smile. She has woven so diligently throughout the years.

When that happens, the rest will happen by itself: young people will take up the art; schools and universities will know that indigenous techniques are also worth teaching; consumers will pay more for the products of weavers and weavers will try harder to make beautiful cloths. They will take it upon themselves to explore marketing avenues and options; textile artists will go international with their innovative pieces.

I know that pride is closely related to knowledge. To know about Batak textiles is to love them. Our film, Rangsa ni Tonun, offers the audience a tiny bit of insight into the complexity of backstrap weaving. It also offers a tiny bit of insight into the Batak literary tradition because it is based on a text committed to paper in 1872 by a guru who was a traditional literary specialist. The Batak have no access to this text; I found it in the archives of the VEM in Wuppertal, Germany. When it returns to North Sumatra in the form of our film (and yes, I will also hand out photocopies of the original text to all who would like a copy of it) it will be cause for celebration. Every villager who watches the film will learn that weavers a century ago were admired and their skills were understood as having come from a goddess. This little bit of knowledge is reason enough to feel immense pride.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

4. A Traveling Cinema

I originally conceived of Pulang Kampung III as a traveling cinema and a way to say thank you to the Batak villagers, and especially our ‘movie stars’, for their assistance in the production of our film, Rangsa ni Tonun.

In the case of Legacy in cloth, my book publication about Batak textiles, I gave away copies of the book. A book is accessible. You open it and turn the pages. Handing out videos of a film just wouldn’t be the same. Playing the film makes so much more sense. That idea opened up so many possibilities.

I remember my first fieldwork stints when electrical power was limited and televisions even more scarce. If someone in the village had a TV, he would throw open the windows of the house and the whole village would crowd around it to watch the TV along with the owner. Now, thirty years later, this is my inspiration for Pulang Kampung III. We will bring a screen, a projector, a computer, and a generator in the unlikely case that the latter might still be necessary. We will set up in the middle of the village and turn on the film. The rest will happen like magic. Local personalities and circumstances will render each performance unique and memorable.

I remember attending performances of Opera Batak. I would set off into the night with fellow villagers and arrive at the place where the Batak were staging their Opera. We would all hug our sarongs around our upper bodies to keep us warm in the chilly mountain air. It was a lovely social occasion, something unusual and exciting for a village. I imagine it to be something like the arrival of minstrels in medieval Europe. Presumably Christianity was spread in a similar way by the missionaries.

It was fun and easy to mull on the theme. I began to imagine the conversations that would ensue after the film was shown. Why not organize discussions after the film is played and focus the energy that it elicits? And Mas Nashir suggested that we should invite our film stars to strut their stuff at each location. Demonstrate the weaving techniques shown in the film. Yes! And show the results of their work in the exhibition of textiles that will be set up in each location. And if we were to bring our own food and have it cooked in the village, our visit would turn into a festival and involve everybody! Merriment, education, celebration, new meetings – and hopefully new awakenings. I don’t think that it happens very often at all that the villagers are put in the limelight and their talents appreciated.

The Boat Budaya was essential to this idea. The boats on Lake Toba are large and can accommodate alot of people and equipment. A boat voyage is fun, relaxing and healthy. Strains of music played on the boat will waft through the air and announce our arrival far and wide. So much easier and more aesthetic than careening through the villages in a vehicle with loud speakers to announce the event.

It has to be fun. We want to build positive and happy associations with local culture and especially textiles. Needless to say, it already feels like a shame if the voyage of the Boat Budaya is only a one-off affair….but the ideas that build on that thought will no doubt be the focus of a future blog.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

3. Beautiful Old Ulos will turn Back to the Villages III into a Celebration of the Batak Weaving Arts

A few blogs ago, I wrote about Stephanie Belfrage, the thoughtful Australian woman who decided to return her Indonesian batiks to Java. That sparked a short repatriation ceremony in which her batiks were gifted to Museum Batik in Pekalongan, a ceremony made possible through the efforts of the non-profit Pekalongan Heritage Community and especially Arif Dirhamzah.

What I didn’t mention in the blog was that Stephanie originally contacted me about her Batak textile collection and not her batik textile collection. Pulang Kampung III is, in part, my response  to her request to have the textiles go back to Tano Batak. They are to be housed permanently and well in Jakarta’s Museum Tekstil, but first, this summer, they will join the Back to the Villages III tour and sail around Lake Toba where they will delight and inspire all who see them.
I saw Stephanie's textiles for the first time in Jakarta with
Lasma Sitanggang, my Batak 'daughter'.

I commend the direction and staff of Jakarta’s Museum Tekstil for their decision to join us. If the people can’t make it to the museum, let the museum go to the people.  Museum Tekstil in Jakarta is an enthusiastically engaged institution that values not just the work of indigenous weavers, but also the weavers themselves. They do everything in their power to encourage the weaving arts in the archipelago. This time, they are taking it upon themselves to transport Stephanie’s textiles to North Sumatra and set up a makeshift exhibition in a different village on each day of the journey. It will be a lot of work, but they do not shy away from hard work.
Room devoted to weaving equipment in
Jakarta's Museum Tekstil

I hope and expect that the Back to the Villages exhibition series will be mutually inspiring. The staff of Museum Tekstil will get to know the Batak through their reactions to the textiles, and the Batak will be given the opportunity to reflect on the changes in their weaving arts. Stated more directly and clearly, they will be confronted by the disappearance of their woven heritage and it will undoubtedly give them pause.

I am thrilled with the two focuses of the upcoming Back to the Villages journey: film and textiles. What could be more synergetic? The film is about ancient textile techniques and there will be a textile exhibition to complement and support it. The addition of the textile exhibition has turned Back to the Villages III into a celebration of the Batak weaving arts.

Friday, March 01, 2013

2. Boat Budaya / Culture Craft

Back to the Villages III will take up the ancient tradition of water transportation to ferry the film, Rangsa ni Tonun, from place to place.

Historically, Batak weavers have been concentrated around Lake Toba. The largest Batak markets were also situated in natural bays along the shoreline. Before the mechanical age, the Batak used large dugout canoes to transport people, animals and goods from one market to the next and from one village to the next. The flat, smooth surface of the water (when the winds are calm) are inviting, especially when compared to the difficult mountainous terrain surrounding the lake.

Flat mirror-like surface of Lake Toba -- on a calm day!
Road traffic may have eclipsed water traffic in efficiency and speed, but it certainly doesn’t beat gliding over the surface of the water when it comes to pleasure. Of course we will be using a ‘kapal’, a large market or tourist boat. Nevertheless, our poster nostalgically depicts the romantic dugout (solu bolon) from a bygone age to emphasize the cultural mission of our journey. Alas, such dugouts are no longer being made or used. (Can they be revived?) No doubt, the market and tourist boats that currently glide across the water are more suited to our needs. They are large enough to accommodate dozens of people and huge freights and the decks are covered and protected from wind and weather.

This market boat, with fish drying on its roof,
is squeezing with difficulty through the narrow
channel separating Samosir Island from the
Even the great Missionary L. I. Nommensen used a boat to spread the gospel around Lake Toba in the 19th century. Archives reveal that he imported a special boat from Germany to use in North Sumatra. (Where, oh where, is that boat, or its remains, today?) Given that the narrative text of the Rangsa ni Tonun film was written down at Nommensen’s behest, it seems fitting to spread this remarkable specimen of indigenous culture by boat.

We settled on the epithet ‘boat budaya’ for our project for a variety of reasons. 'Budaya' is the Indonesian word for culture. The ‘boat budaya’ is a ‘culture craft’, a boat dedicated to cultural heritage. Boat is an English word but it may as well be Indonesian as it is used so often colloquially. And doesn’t it just pop out nicely?

Might there have been Indonesian alternatives? We tried several on for size.

'Biduk Budaya' mouths nicely, but we rejected ‘biduk’ because it is too arcane. We need accessibility and immediate recognition!

'Perahu' is a fairly neutral word for boat, but a ‘Perahu Budaya’ has no charisma. ‘Kapal Budaya’ is just as flat, however accurate it may be. We need magic!

'Bahtera Budaya' has a nice ring to it. 'Bahtera' is at home in both Christian and Islamic environments. A good translation is ‘ark’. A formidable candidate, it just doesn’t enunciate as nicely as Boat Budaya. And we need a festival feeling of freedom!

The blend of cultures in Boat Budaya is a plus and not a negative in my books. The mixture designates a project that is being set up by a multicultural duo (the Javanese-Indonesian Nashir and the Canadian-Dutch Niessen) and well represents some of the bounty that can be harvested from successful cooperation between North and South.

We need the Boat Budaya!

A variety of small boats in Silalahi on the shore of a mysterious Lake Toba.
(Photo by MJA Nashir)

1. Announcing Back to the Villages / Pulang Kampung III

MJA Nashir's poster for Back to the Villages III

In 2010 I brought my book Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia to the weavers in North Sumatra, so that they would have a record of their weaving heritage.  This was the first Back to the Villages Project.

The results of the journey were so spectacular that I swore to do it again, whenever I had published anew about Batak culture. I made good on my promise. In 2011 I brought copies of my exhibition catalogue, written for our exhibition in Jakarta’s Erasmus Huis to North Sumatra. It was intended especially for the people who figured in the exhibition. The catalogue was entitled Pulang Kampung / Back to the Villages, and it was about the original repatriation project in 2010. MJA Nashir accompanied me on this journey and we distributed copies of his book, Berkelana dengan Sandra, Menyusuri Ulos Batak at the same time. MJA Nashir was the photographer on the original journey and the book was his wonderfully detailed account of the journey. This second Back to the Villages project was relatively small and low key.

In the same year that we conducted Back to the Villages 2, MJA Nashir and I set to work on a film about Batak weaving techniques entitled Rangsa ni Tonun. That film is finally finished and now the time is ripe to conduct our third Back to the Villages project. During this journey, we want to travel as much as possible by boat to the villages around Lake Toba showing our film in a different village every day as soon as the sun goes down.

MJA Nashir has just finished designing the poster for this repatriation project. If we manage to find sufficient funding, the voyage will take place at the end of August and the beginning of September. This time our plans are bigger than ever and we are tailoring the project to focus on the most important facet of the two previous journeys, viz. inspiring pride in the villagers through the sympathetic presentation of their own cultural heritage.

We will use this website and a page that we are building on Facebook as our mouthpieces for the project.  Stay tuned!