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The sound of music from an orphanage

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, October 20, 2017  /  08:49 am
The sound of music from an orphanage

Night of music: Musician Nita Aartsen (right) performs during the launch of Songs from the Heart of Kupang in Jakarta. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Singaporean composer Clement Chow was joined on piano by Indonesian jazz singer Nita Aartsen at Paviliun 28 in South Jakarta on Saturday in a concert that had the intimacy of a living room.

They belted out six songs, including “Timor” that highlighted the beauty of Indonesia. Nita sang “Bunga Melati di Tanah Jawa” (Jasmine in Java), “Burung Cendrawasih di Tanah Papua” (Bird of Paradise in Papua), “Nusantara”(Archipelago), “Negeriku” (My Country) and “Tercinta” (Beloved).

“Timor” is the first track of an album, entitled Songs from the Heart of Kupang that the two musicians launched that day.

The album, which comprises 10 tracks written and composed by Nita and Chow, featured the voices of children of the Roslin Orphanage in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). The children did not attend the concert.

“It is not school holidays yet,” said Nita, who is a renowned Latin-jazz virtuoso pianist with over 20 years experience.

Meanwhile, Chow has become one of the most recognizable producers in Singapore since winning the national talent show in 1982 with his group, the Dissonant Affair.

All proceeds from the sale of Songs from the Heart of Kupang would go to Roslin to support its education and livelihood programs, said David Chong, the governor of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), which participated in the production through The Kupang Project program.

Founded last year, the project allows Singaporean and Indonesian communities to collaborate and empower the residents and caregivers of Roslin through art-based activities and skills — such as drawing, singing and dancing — to boost their confidence.

“If you listen to the songs, you will agree that the kids exhibit confidence and positivity,” Chong said, adding that the album would also mark 50 years of bilateral ties between the two countries.

The Roslin orphanage, which is about 10 minutes from Eltari Airport, currently takes care of 120 children, who are mostly under 10 years old.

It was founded by married couple Budi and Peggy Soehardi in 1999. Budi is a retired pilot with over 39 years experience of flying for major airlines, such as Garuda Indonesia, Korean Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Scoot Airlines. His wife, Peggy, was a stewardess with Garuda Indonesia.

For good cause: Singaporean composer Clement Chow (right) joins in the show, singing 'Brighter Days' during the album launch in Jakarta.For good cause: Singaporean composer Clement Chow (right) joins in the show, singing 'Brighter Days' during the album launch in Jakarta. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

As their foster father, Budi, 60, knew his children could sing, but he never imagined that they would get a chance to showcase their skills in a recording studio, especially when he looked back at the history of where they came from.

Back in 1999, while having dinner at home in Singapore, he watched a news program about the plight of refugees fleeing from East to West Timor. He lost his appetite when he thought about them living without proper sanitation and wearing rags.

These awful conditions were caused by a wave of violence that emerged in East Timor after its residents voted for independence from Indonesia in an UN-organized referendum in August 1999. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 250,000 people fled after an anti-independence militia went on a rampage, destroying property and intimidating the population.

Budi then canceled his plan to go overseas for a month-long family vacation. He then began to search for assistance. Helped by his friends and volunteers, he managed to deliver 40 tons of food, medicines and toiletries to refugee camps.

Learning that that number of child victims had soared, he had the idea to open an orphanage that opened its doors in December 1999. The size of the orphanage is 11,150 m2 with eight buildings.

Today, his adopted children also include those who are abandoned by their parents.

Budi uses his salary to maintain the orphanage and to provide free education for the children.

“This year, five of our children graduated from various schools — medicine, computer science, agriculture and engineering,” he said, adding that five others would also graduate next year.

In 2009, Budi was named as one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes for his humanitarian work.

For him, Songs from the Heart of Kupang is special. “This music production has given our children a chance to be heard and express themselves,” he said.

The making of the album — which involved 28 musicians from Indonesia, Singapore and Europe — was a year in the making during which Nita also taught at least 60 children to sing. However, the voices of only 20 children were recorded.

The album’s production took place at nine studios, including Studio 78 in Jakarta, Virus Indigo Studios in Singapore, Tian Studios in France and Studio Dave in the Netherlands.

“The way they sang was very joyful. They were so musical,” she said.    

She said despite their ability to sing, the children could not speak English, a challenge she faced during training sessions because eight of the 10 songs on the album are in English. Therefore, she invited English teachers from Singapore to help out.

Another challenge she faced was to make the children sing in harmony because they were used to sing individually.

The album would help to develop Kupang as well as the children’s character, Nita said. “He really wants his children to be independent.”