JAKARTA (JP): Just what do you talk about with a man of such diverse talents and interests as Remy Sylado?
Everything. He speaks intelligently about theater and poetry. He can givea scholarly analysis about Indonesian music, then he will switch to a deep discussion on theology. Next, it's film, sociology, history, you name it. Sylado speaks eloquently on a wide range of topics, from Sitti Nurbaya to The Beatles. The man is clearly a walking encyclopedia of arts and humanities.
And that encyclopedia would record his rich, artistic life's work: countless poems, dozens of novels, hundreds of paintings, several music recordings and numerous stage plays and television films he directed and acted in. Sylado is a cultural observer as well as an artist: he wrote newspaper columns, essays and criticism on the arts and philosophy, and he has published a number of textbooks on theater and music.
""He is a phenomenon,"" playwright Putu Wijaya said. ""He is extraordinary. I admire him because he can sing, he can write, he can act and he can even read Greek texts. I wonder how he does that.""
""People may get the impression Remy is playing around,"" renowned poet Sapardi Djoko Damono said, ""but he is really serious in his work, and perhaps he is not satisfied with just expressing himself in one field of art.""
This phenomenal man has now added to his long list of literary works: Ca-Bau-Kan, a novel published by Gramedia Popular Literature. Ca-Bau-Kan tells about the life of the ethnic-Chinese in Indonesia between 1918 and 1951. One prominent aspect of the story is the active role played by the ethnic-Chinese in Indonesia's movement against colonialism.
""I am interested in writing about the ethnic Chinese community because their story is barely told,"" Sylado said. He sees Indonesian novels only tell about native-Indonesians, never taking the time to tell the stories ofnonindigenous people. Sylado also had an ethnic-Chinese character in his previous novel, Kembang Jepun, which was published as a series in SurabayaPost but never as a book. He next plans to write about the Dutch in Indonesia during the colonial era.
""We always see the Dutch as mean, nasty colonialists. As an Indonesian author, I want to write about the Dutch as human beings, just like Ca-Bau-Kan looks at both the good and the bad sides of the ethnic-Chinese as humanbeings.""
For his latest novel, Sylado conducted research in Semarang, Jakarta and Bandung, interacting with the ethnic-Chinese community and getting close tothem. But he has had ethnic-Chinese acquaintances before, among them Tjoa Tjie Liang, his journalist mentor, and Bandung musician Tan Deseng. Sylado also began a crusade for the cause of ethnic-Chinese: he once wrote a furious article criticizing the ban on Teater Koma's production of Sam Pek Eng Tay.
""Our national motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). But there's too much unity and not much diversity. All unity, uniformity, when in fact we have the ethnic-Chinese living in the Indonesian community. I feel sorry for them for being so deprived and lacking courage and living infear,"" he said, pointing out that he wrote this latest novel during the NewOrder era.
The multidimensional persona known as Remy Sylado has come a long way since he was born in Ujungpandang, South Sulawesi, on July 12, 1945, as Yapi Panda Abdiel Tambayong. The son of Minahasan evangelist Johannes Tambayong, he never dreamed of becoming an artist, much less a multitalented one. Because of the agricultural environment he was living in, his aspiration was obvious.
""I wanted to be a farmer,"" Sylado said, ""but that never happened because I never had land, never had livestock."" However, during his early years, hewas always immersed in art, particularly music. Both his father and grandfather composed music, and although Sylado considers himself ""just a songwriter, not a composer like my father and grandfather"", he seemed destined to venture into the arts.
Yapi spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Catholic schools inSemarang, Central Java. There he further developed his interest in art, acting in school plays and taking part in and sometimes winning painting competitions. After graduating from high school in Solo, he enrolled at both the Art Academy and the Indonesian National Theater Academy in Solo.
He worked as a journalist for Tempo magazine and Sinar Indonesia in Semarang, and was an editor at several magazines, including Aktuil and Vista. He wrote many short stories and essays under several pseudonyms, andone of them -- a pronunciation of the musical notes 23761 -- became his official nom de plume.
""It's the opening notes of a Beatles song,"" Sylado said about the name, humming the tune of And I Love Her in musical notes -- re-mi-ti-la-do.
The Fab Four were able to inspire Sylado's moniker because of his great admiration for the group. ""The Beatles were pioneers in rock music, in every aspect, the music, the harmony, the lyrics,"" he said. ""They're the rebels who discovered a new model of entertaining music.""
Speaking about music, Sylado describes the nation's musicians as ""only being able to demonstrate what has become the fashion in America.""
""Just name anybody in Indonesian pop music,"" he said, ""none of them are free from the fashion introduced by music from America. We only take over something already complete from the western world without going into or at least understanding it by studying the process of how it happened. We just Indonesianize it, but never really reinterpret it.""
Sylado takes a matter-of-fact attitude about Indonesian music. ""Since the16th century, our music has always been diatonic,"" he said, referring to the typical scales of western music. He said that because of Catholic missionaries and western influence in Indonesian musical education, Indonesians know diatonic music better than pentatonic music, the indigenous scales which are strong only in Java and Bali. ""We will just have to accept this fact,"" Sylado said, ""instead of trying to seek for our'identity', for an Indonesian national music, which is more of a political slogan. We cannot speak of returning to traditional values if we never actually left in the first place. Don't make up things that don't exist. Maybe our present tradition is our tradition.""
To this day, Sylado sees that Indonesians have not really mastered music like the Japanese, for example. ""We really can if we are serious,"" he said,""but when we study music, it shouldn't just be about the do-re-mi, but alsothe scientific knowledge of music.""
Sylado is clearly erudite in the subject of music, with his book Sociology of Indonesian Music and his stint teaching the history of music at Theater and Film College in Jakarta. But he is most remembered as the person who introduced Puisi Mbeling in the 1970s. Characterized by the cheeky, rebellious nature of the poem structure and wording -- mbeling is the Javanese word for naughty -- his work indicates he is as much the rebelof Indonesian poetry as The Beatles were of pop music.
""He is an important figure in Indonesian literature for initiating the idea of mbeling poetry in 1972 or 1973,"" Damono said. ""It greatly influenced the development of Indonesian literature. Many poets have been inspired by the mbeling idea; it broke the conventions of poetry that existed then.""
""He has done us a great service,"" Putu Wijaya said, ""by providing space in Aktuil magazine for the birth of mbeling poetry.""
And what does Sylado have to say about the current state of Indonesian poetry?
""Some of the young poets, like Afrizal Malna and Sitok Srengenge, deservepraise,"" he said. ""But what's saddening, I haven't gotten spiritual enrichment from most poems since the 1970s.""
But if we are to talk about the development of poetry, we have to talk about the willingness of publishers to publish them, Sylado said. ""If they don't see them as something that needs to be published, that's a disgrace to Indonesian culture. When publishers only want to publish what is commercial, that is a disaster.""
Sylado's poems have been published in the compilations Potret Mbeling andKerygma. He has another anthology coming out this year, which will includepoems from 1969 to 1999. ""The mbeling poems will be in this one (anthology),"" he said.
His current projects include some television plays adapted from literary works of ASEAN authors for state-television TVRI. And the three-time Citra nominee for Best Supporting Actor (at the now defunct Indonesian Film Festival) is returning to the big screen, acting in Slamet Rahardjo's yet-to-be-released film, Telegram, based on a Putu Wijaya story.
""I'm not interested in directing big-screen films,"" he said, ""because there are people more able than I. I can probably do it, but definitely notbetter than Slamet or Garin (Nugroho). I have no worries about acting in them, but I'd get queasy about taking the responsibility of directing a film.""
Sylado lives with his wife of 23 years, Maria Louise, in a house decorated with his paintings in East Jakarta. The couple have no children. At least once a month he travels to Bandung to meet with a regular group ofartists who gather at his home in Bandung.
With all of his accomplishments, is there anything he has not done?
""I haven't come up with thoughts that can contribute to the world,"" he said. He has written a number of papers on contextual theology, with local culture playing an important element in the discourse. He hopes the papers will be published and will be his contribution to the world, introducing anIndonesian's thoughts on the subject.
Now middle-aged and gray-haired, Sylado certainly doesn't look as fierce and haggard as he did in his younger, rebellious days. The long hair and thick, sinister beard have been replaced by a neater coif and a stubble of gray moustache. Certainly that frequent, friendly chuckle that accompanies his speech doesn't jibe with a man who once wrote in a 1975 essay, ""let's slaughter all those poet wannabes who are moronic, dumb bastards"", and wasbrought to trial in 1981 for insulting the vice governor of West Java.
""Oh, the way I'm offering contextual theology through local culture, that's a kind of rebellion too,"" he said, smiling that generous smile. ""I'mstill in my mbeling attitude.""
""He is not the type of artist that can immediately become popular becausehis ideas may be considered strange by people,"" Damono said. ""But a person like him is important in the realm of art because even though he himself isnot rewarded, other people will benefit from his 'strangeness' and will be able to move forward.