The Jakarta Post
Six years ago, a group of professionals who once sang their hearts out as campus choir members had a small reunion and decided to create a community where they could sing for fun.
Little did they know that the community, which they later named the Archipelago Singers, would go on to win international recognition as one of the best adult choirs in the world.
'We came from various campuses: the Padjajaran University [Unpad], the Parahyangan University [Unpar], etc. All of us were active in our campus choirs during our student days,' founder Gustaf Sijabat said.
'After we graduated and got jobs, we often hung around and thought it would be great if we created a community to channel our singing hobby.'
The name, the Archipelago Singers, was inspired by the fact that the members come from various backgrounds, ethnicities and religions from all over Indonesia, according to Gustaf.
'It took only one month to finally establish the choir. I guess it is a lot easier to build a community based on a hobby,' he said.
To say that the Archipelago Singers is a hobby-based community is an understatement. Members do not treat singing as a hobby but as a passion, which is embodied in Gustaf.
Gustaf participated in a campus choir when he enrolled in the Padjajaran University's economic faculty in 1997. Six years later he graduated and found work in a foreign-exchange company.
'I could only stand an office job for just one year. In 2004, I returned to my passion, singing, and since then I have chosen vocal coaching as my profession,' he said.
Gustaf's passion found its resonance within the Archipelago Singers. Like a virus, his dedication and passion to the art of choir singing slowly infected his fellow members, who consist of professionals coming from various fields ranging from doctors to lawyers.
'We were not really serious in the beginning ['¦] After several practice sessions we decided to have small concerts by inviting our colleagues and coworkers. Their positive response then drove us to try to participate in choir competitions. And guess what? Our results in competitions were also impressive and this has really pushed us to be more serious,' he said.
In 2012, after just four years, the Archipelago Singers tested their quality by participating in the 49th International Choir Competition in Spittal an der Drau in Austria and in the Ninth International Choir Competition in Miltenberg in Germany.
In both competitions, the Archipelago Singers won the first prize in the folklore category and was named runner-up for the classical composition category.
The results from Austria and Germany were not disappointing, considering the fact that the Archipelago Singers is comprised of regular working people who only sing part-time. The Archipelago Singers only practice during weekends, particularly on Sundays, from 1 to 4 p.m., in any place large enough for them, as a choir, to assemble.
'After the positive results in Germany and Austria, we then became more serious as we realized our true potential,' Gustaf said.
To participate in tougher competitions, the Archipelago Singers realized they needed more members.
'We began opening auditions to recruit new members beyond our own circles and networks,' conductor Ega O. Azarya said.
The Archipelago Singers now consist of 70 singers with 50 of them consistently active and considered the core of the group, up from only 22 in 2008,
With more members, the Archipelago Singers competed in the 60th International Choral Contest Habaneras and Polyphony and in the 32nd Cantonigros International Music Festival in Spain, again winning in the folklore and the classical composition categories.
Ega, a seasoned conductor for the Unpar choir team, said the accomplishment had cemented their current reputation as one of the most impressive new choirs in Indonesia.
Both Gustaf and Ega said that the choir had yet to receive sufficient acknowledgement from Indonesia's government.
For example, Gustaf said that so far, if the choir wanted to participate in international competitions, its members had to work on their own to get sponsorship and financing.
'When we are abroad, we often visit Indonesian embassies. We do not ask for money or financing. We only ask for their moral support by gathering Indonesians living there to see us perform but then again, they might have something more important to do than taking care of a choir group,' he added.
Despite of the lack of acknowledgement from the government, Gustaf said that the Archipelago Singers would continue to sing and to compete.
Like other choirs around the world, the Archipelago Singers also have an ambition to win the European Gran Prix, the most prestigious choir competition in the world today.
'The European Gran Prix competition is definitely in our mind [...] Our target is to participate in that competition somewhere between 2018 and 2020,' Ega said.
'Indonesia has been a feared force in the world of choir competitions in the last few years. A lot of our competitors told us that every time the flag of Indonesia appears in the participants list, they felt that the competition just got a lot tougher,' he said.
'There is something unique about the Indonesian voice. We, as a nation, have a unique voice that is so bright and so beautiful whenever we sing classical European songs from the Renaissance era. This is our main strength.'