Taking Her Time
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Tue, 07/26/2011 12:13 PM |
Paquita Widjaja has cultivated a lifelong passion for the arts. She is heralding a fresh chapter in her life with a new album 16 years after her first.
Many of us secretly wish that we had been born with a silver spoon in our mouths, gifted the power of money to do what we want in life without the worry of paying the bills.
On that count, Paquita Widjaja may seem to be on easy street. The younger of two daughters of business tycoons Johnny and Martina Widjaja, she grew up in a privileged environment. She recorded two kiddie pop albums and was profiled in teen magazines as one of Jakarta’s young urbanites.
While her older sister Shinta Widjaja Kamdani has taken the reins of the family business empire, Paquita has pursued her own love of the arts. She studied at Parsons School of Design in New York City, and has worn many hats in the cultural sphere, including as a designer, actress in films and theater, producer and university lecturer. From her moneyed background, she is a socialite, but she is also an activist for social causes, most notably for HIV/AIDS education.
She moves in two, paradoxical worlds, recording a video for her new album with rock band Slank one day, appearing in the glossy pages of a high society magazine or accorded a prime front-row seat at a fashion show on another. She could choose to downplay her involvement in the latter, and emphasize her arts and activism side, but she does not.
Paquita says she is grateful for the opportunities afforded her.
“Come on, I love that life, too – look at this spread,” she exclaims, surveying the considerable array of dishes at a South Jakarta restaurant. “But we also have to enjoy what we do. By no means is it a sacrifice. To be honest with you, it’s a blessing that I get to do what I want to do ... Giving back is something that all of us should do.”
Recently divorced, the 41-year-old says she is “starting over” in a new cycle in her life, including launching a new album after having been focused on her family for many years. The album is titled Asa (Time) – quite apt considering it’s her return to the adult music scene after 16 years. Everything comes in its own time, she says.
“I’m lucky to be able to start over, and to be able to do music and all the things on my agenda. It’s not just about the divorce, but it’s also that my children are older and have their own activities. I used to think their dreams are my dreams, but now I know that their dreams are their dreams and mine are mine.”
The new album is a collection of covers from Indonesia’s heyday of pop ballads from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, from artists such Titiek Puspa, Guruh Soekarnoputra and Slank. It is a trip down memory lane for her, to record the songs she listened to as a young girl whose mother told her to prioritize her studies over her artistic dreams.
“You hear the lyrics and the melodies, which are very different from today’s music,” says Paquita, adding that she enjoyed the exchange that came from working with younger musicians.
“We have all those songs but we have arranged it in a very modern, chill-out Buddha Bar feel ... That was the idea of mixing something modern with something classic.”
She was only 25 when she put her heart, and some angst, into the yearlong process of writing the songs for her debut album, Yang Perdana (The First). It was ahead of its time in being almost entirely acoustic, Paquita says, and also “pretty dark” in its themes.
“I was very cynical about life in general. And I also never wrote about love,” she acknowledges. “I’m hoping that my next original album will talk a bit more about it – after all I’m much older. I don’t want to be dark, too. I’m trying to be a little more uplifting.”
One of the songs on that first album, “Dua Manusia” (Two People), begins as a simple song about a couple falling in love. But it then takes a more ominous turn, with lyrics telling of the consequences of people’s lust.
The song was actually about AIDS, Paquita says. The issue has been a deeply personal one since her student days in New York City. She had a gay neighbor who died of the virus; his straight roommate was then fired by his alarmed employer.
She educated herself about AIDS at a time when it was still cloaked in suspicion and fear. One of her professors who was known to be HIV-positive accidentally stabbed himself with a sharp pencil during class one day.
“For a good two minutes nobody helped him. Everybody just stared like, ‘I’m not touching that’. I was the only one who went to help him; mind you I was nervous, too. But I knew that HIV is not an airborne disease, you cannot get it from touching someone.”
That pragmatic approach to the disease has carried over to her education efforts with the Indonesian AIDS Foundation, which is headed by her mother. It has included advocating educating young people about its dangers, and how to prevent transmission through sexual intercourse and drug use.
“I had a hard time when I first came back. I was pursued by groups here, who said, ‘what are you doing promoting condoms to young people?’ Unfortunately, we cannot control young people – they are going to have sex so we have to give them information.”
There is still a lot of ignorance to clear up. She recently received a broadcast BlackBerry message warning that gay men, upset with the government, were prowling through Jakarta restaurants and infecting toothpicks with HIV for unassuming diners. “Can you imagine?” she says.
“I want people to understand this is not a sinful disease. It is a disease that is misjudged. It’s not just about gay people or people who are irresponsible, but also one of ignorance. And that leads to an epidemic of fright.”
In preparation for her album’s release, on July 28 she is holding an all-night music event at a Jakarta mall to raise funds for her AIDS education efforts in junior high and high schools. She will sing along with younger musician Alexa and DJs Anton Wirjono and Duncan Sheik. It is a “chilled-out event” for young people, a different approach to the gala fund-raising dinners organized by her mother and sister.
“It’s not a lecture, but a party. But at least the young people will be curious about HIV/AIDS.”
Countdown to Zero AIDS is also a throwback to mid-1980s and the early 1990s when public figures came together in the fight against AIDS in events such as Live AID. In the ensuing years, the AIDS cause has become a “fad” but the virus hasn’t gone away, she notes.
“It’s scary that here, or anywhere, we are not that aware about how we can transmit the disease. And right now in Indonesia it’s more and more about drugs, needles, than it is about sex,” Paquita says.
“People are having sex and using drugs younger and younger. Imagine if they become infected in their teen years, and then they become sick in their productive years. That is why we work with junior high schools and high schools.”
Her commitment to dealing with the problem seems built on that no-nonsense acknowledgement of human failings. That includes her own; at one point she says divorce was never in her plans but “people get lonely”.
“I’m not a saint,” she says. “I’ve dealt with issues, and I am dealing with issues now.”
She converted to Islam after studying the religion, and draws on its tenets and teachings in dealing with life’s challenges.
“I believe there are three things we should have a good relationship with, Allah, fellow human beings and nature, which is why I believe war is just a waste of everything that is supposed to be balanced in the world,” she says.
“In Islam, everything is taught to be in good balance; never too much of one thing while lacking others. And I crave balance.”
Paquita recently gave up a pack-a-day smoking habit at the urging of her children. But she says she has learned the most not from other people, but from situations.
“I was so sad at one point, and a friend said to me, don’t look up, look down, at those who have less than you,” she says.
“Just keep reminding yourself how blessed you are. Be grateful.”
Countdown to Zero AIDS will be held on Thursday, July 28. Cover charge
Rp 350,000; all proceeds to the Indonesian AIDS Foundation.