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A quest to revitalize West Kalimantan music in a decentralized Indonesia

Josa Lukman
Josa Lukman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, September 24, 2020  /  03:21 pm
A quest to revitalize West Kalimantan music in a decentralized Indonesia

Ready to jam: Musician and composer Nursalim Yadi Anugerah surrounded by 'kadedek' (Dayak mouth organ) works on a new piece of music with the Balaan Tumaan Ensemble. (-/Banyu Susanto)

An ethnomusicologist and composer from Kalimantan has been trying his best to revitalize the traditional music of West Kalimantan.

With much of Indonesia’s business activities and infrastructure development centered in the capital of Jakarta, concerns of a Jakarta-centric bias have been voiced in numerous fields, from commercial interests to the arts.

But do plans to move the capital to the island of Kalimantan mean decentralization is in sight?

For composer and musician Nursalim Yadi Anugerah, one of the challenges he has faced is the “artistic dryness” of his hometown of Pontianak, West Kalimantan, as director Garin Nugroho said to him during a collaboration for a project called Planet – Sebuah Lament.

“What I gathered from him [Garin] is that ‘dry’ referred to the artistic climate, as everything must be built on – not from the ground up, but rather connecting the old with the new,” Yadi said during a virtual discussion hosted by the Goethe-Institut.

“It’s like a mosaic of sorts due to its fragmented nature. Because of this, my generation is rebuilding the artistic scene, with new artists […] However, if you look at it more closely, it’s not as ‘dry’ as it appears. Everything is growing, but in their own way and pace.”

'ABADI' (2018) performed at the Queens Museum in New York, United States.'ABADI' (2018) performed at the Queens Museum in New York, United States. (-/Alexia Webster)

The main issue, Yadi continued, was that the city’s artistic scene was not often highlighted. He attributed this to the centralized viewpoint and approach – not only between Jakarta and other parts of the nation, but also between Pontianak and other regions – where cultural centers are often situated in major cities.

“Art education institutions also play a major role. The view of art as entertainment is common among the public, but the understanding of art as a work that can be appreciated and pondered can only flourish through the presence of educational institutions,” he explained.

Known for his blend of traditional Kalimantan music and eclectic avant-garde approach to composition, Yadi is one of the region’s up-and-coming stars. 

His 2018 album Selected Pieces from HNNUNG highlighted music from the indigenous Kayan people of West Kalimantan that is both emotional and spiritual. That same year, Yadi was honored with a first prize commission Orkest de Ereprijs at the International Young Composers Meeting in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands.

For the last six years, Yadi has also been active as a music director for the Balaan Tumaan Ensemble, a group of West Kalimantan musicians.

For Yadi, tradition is something that is passed down through the generations and ties people together. Tradition is also a space where local identity and wisdom can grow.

“I think the stigma that tradition is something ‘left behind’ is absurd, because that means classical music is also ‘left behind’. I’d say it is also related to how local or traditional people living outside large cultural centers cope with their dilemmas and issues, especially during the New Order era,” he said.

Many adherents of kepercayaan lokal (native faiths) faced repression during the era, when people were made to adhere to the five officially recognized religions. 

Along with having their beliefs marginalized, Yadi said, followers of native faiths were also indoctrinated to believe that traditional lifestyles were somehow archaic, such as that living in traditional houses was unsanitary or that tattoos were a sign of delinquency.

“These views are part of a pattern of viewing traditional communities as ‘backwards’. Because of this, the youth began distancing themselves with the view that they are more modern because of their exposure to education and technology.”

These changes have come gradually, such as how the traditional communal rumah panjang (longhouse) of West Kalimantan has become a mere symbol of culture, with its denizens moving to individual houses. This has resulted in a loss of other local traditions, like oral literature and arts.

However, when the New Order made way for the reformation era at the turn of the millennium, talks of decentralization came with increased regional autonomy.

According to Yadi, that became the impetus for the younger generation to have a renewed interest in learning their communities’ traditions, as part of the effort to strengthen local identities. This was also backed up by scientific knowledge, as researchers were interested in the lives of communities once considered taboo.

“This created another issue, as many of the elders who possessed this knowledge had passed away [...] The issue is multilayered with a long history.”

When discussing the use of exoticism to market traditional artworks, Yadi pointed to the traditional instrument called kadede. A teacher of his, a man from the Dayak Kebahan tribe, is the only man in Kalimantan able to create the instrument and play it expertly.

Because the teacher is the sole individual with these skills, when the regency in which he lives experienced a renaissance and his fame rose, a neighboring regency claimed the musical instrument came from its region, and so on.

Tradition, then, is sold as identity, as he puts it. However, he pointed out that the regencies were focused on attaining recognition, as opposed to centering their efforts on revitalizing the instrument.

“Every regency in West Kalimantan actively highlights their identity, associating them with different tribes. In the end, what is shown is merely the surface level,” Yadi said, though he conceded that representation was still important.

Tradition, he said, was commodified by selling exoticism, such as how the Dayak people are always portrayed as wearing hornbill feathers and clad with skulls.

As for his work with Balaan Tumaan, Yadi noted that the musicians had a mixture of urban and traditional cultures, and that everyone was trying to find their own identities.

“Tradition is not merely objective; we also use traditional instruments alongside Western instruments [...] What’s sold in the end are the instruments, exotic aspects showcasing how a particular ethnic group can perform alongside ‘universal’ culture like Western music.

“However, knowledge is also inherent. There are elements we need to research more as it is hard to come across archives and literature about the tradition. Because of this, the process of creating a work is also the same as researching the tradition, delving into the lives and learning about the traditional communities and translating them into a new context that is much more actual.”

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