He deftly strummed the strings of a gambus (lute) producing high-pitched tones, inviting warm applause from the audience. Then his typically sweet voice began pervading the room, singing verses with a Malay rhythm and in the language of Gorontalo.
Despite the pouring rain outside, the performer with shoulder-length hair was cheered on by hundreds of school and college students attending “Gemar Membaca Rajin Menulis”, a program to encourage reading and writing activities organized by the Gorontalo provincial language office in early November.
Risno Ahaya, 55, the gambus player and poetry singer, is indeed the pride of Gorontalo. He has frequently been invited to entertain participants in government programs or seminars during intervals, especially when there are official guests from other regions.
Before staging a show, the blind artist usually first asks about the theme of the relevant program and the people present. So his rhyming verses will be created spontaneously and sung while on stage, ranging in content from advice on morals and love to satire.
As a traditional artist of Gorontalo oral literature, he has become a legend. From 1982 to 1984, he emerged as the champion lute player in contests held by the national broadcasting station Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) of Gorontalo.
Risno claims he has been a self-taught rhymester and lute player since childhood. He feels grateful for being famous because, along with his old instrument, he has been invited by government agencies and event organizers to perform in Jakarta, Ambon, Central Sulawesi and Sumatra.
The musician is also known as a skilled narrator of Tanggomo, Gorontalo’s epic oral poetry containing moral teachings, legends and regional history, which he presents to mellifluous tunes.
One of the poetic tales is Kasimu Motoro, the horrible story of a diehard gambler neglecting his family and torturing his wife when no food is served, finally forcing his desperate spouse to serve up the meat of their own child. Many people in Gorontalo even believe it is a true story.
“It’s the great skill of Tanggomo narrators like Risno Ahaya that makes such tales so mesmerizing and dramatic, leading to popular credulity,” said Nani Tuloli, a regional literature professor of Gorontalo State University, who made oral poetry her research subject in her dissertation presented to the University of Indonesia in 1990.
Uniquely, according to Tuloli, stories like Kasimu Motoro, comprising over 400 lines, are learned by rote and narrated in varied verses without losing their rhymes. She also described Tanggomo as Gorontalo’s traditional journalism as it often contains facts and information. Risno’s talent is also being studied by several scholars in the province.
Sadly, however, with the long lapse of time, Risno cannot remember many of the verses that originally made him popular. “I can’t fully recall the poetry, it’s been a long time since I last rendered it,” he said.
Risno really relies on his gambus and captivating voice to earn a living. Every day he walks along city roads, sometimes with the help of local people, offering his services from door to door as a street artist.
The father of four prefers doing this activity to support his family rather than begging, although now and then he has to go home empty-handed. “Even as I just stand outside a house, the people indoors say they don’t need poetry singing,” he softly lamented.
Formerly he was a regular entertainer in traditional markets, most frequently in Telaga, a market located between the city outskirts and Gorontalo regency, not far from his home. He used to borrow the loudspeakers of medicinal vendors for his shows.
He has had to cease his market activity for three years now as the medicine sellers were unwilling to lend their speakers anymore. “The vendors were annoyed because onlookers seemed more attracted by my songs than the drugs they were touting,” he related.
Without any public address system, his aging voice is easily overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the markets. “If only I could buy a loudspeaker set, I would certainly be free to resume my market performances,” he spoke of his dream.
Yet Risno can barely afford to buy lute strings, which he often replaces with ordinary wire, let alone a loudspeaker. This is not to mention his family’s daily needs.
Invitations from officials and event organizers alone, according to him, cannot be fully relied upon to support his family life. He has even had the bitter experience of being invited to a party and receiving nothing as a reward except thundering applause, leaving him frustrated.
“This is my only skill. I will keep playing my gambus and singing poetry with all my might. Anyway, I’ve got to meet the needs of my wife and children,” added Risno, stroking his old and increasingly fragile lute.