Monday, December 5, 2011, 00:00

United in song

By Rossie Indira

United in song Page 23 Main.jpg

It was a cathartic moment for Djati Jan Salim singing Ode to the Yellow Riverin solo baritone.

He was one in a choir of some Indonesian Chinese who wanted to purge their dark memories in pure music.

And for those who watched his choir, Xiao Yuan, performing alongside the Jakarta Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) at this years Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (JakartaArtTheater) International Festival, it was a greatly soothing and uplifting experience.

The joy of Salim, who is a successful businessman and a politician too, and many other Indonesian Chinese, was unbounded.

Not long ago, Chinese language and culture were considered an anathema in Indonesia.

For him and many others, singing served as a healing touch to the bloody and painful reminiscences of the despotic rule of former president Suharto.

Salim says he loves singing in Chinese and recalls how for decades Chinese Indonesians were persecuted for speaking their own language.

Many have switched to Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), though most of us still speak Mandarin some only at home, says Salim.

Most who presented the Indonesian premiere of Huang He Cantata and Piano Concerto are in their 60s, and had problems memorizing the lyrics.

It wasnt easy for us to sing Chinese repertoires, says Jenny Lim, a senior member of the choir which was founded in 2003. At our age, it was quite difficult.

Yes, it was difficult, but she like others on stage, overcame it all.

In fact, such a show was unthinkable during the New Order era of Suharto when everything Chinese was considered profane after more than 500,000 people had been killed in an anti-communist purge in the months that followed the massacres after a military coup in 1965.

For decades, we have been speaking only Indonesian. Mandarin is not our first language anymore. But now it was so much fun to be able to socialize with my fellow Chinese friends here and sing together, says Lim.

For Lim and others in the choir, the most important thing was to get the feeling of being reconnected to our ancestors in faraway land through songs and cantatas.

In the Huang He Cantata concert, Huang Jia Xing and Zheng Ji Shen performed Dialogue on the River Bank, where they played the roles of two exiled villagers who met on the banks of the Yellow River(Huang He) and lamented their tragic fates, but finally resolved to join the resistance forces.

For the Jakartapublic, a choir like this, performing Chinese repertoires in Mandarin is still rare. For about four decades, Indonesians of Chinese lineage suffered various forms and degrees of discrimination and tortures.

Chinese schools were closed down, Chinese language newspapers and periodicals banned, and worse, students had to change schools and join assimilation programs where they were forced to change their Chinese names.

Chinese New Year could not be celebrated publicly until President Abdurrahman Wahid lifted the ban. It was only in 2003 that President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared it a national holiday.

During Orde Baru (Suhartos New Order), everything Chinese was banned because that (China) was identified with communism, says Linda Christanty, a writer and journalist.

Our childrens generation suffered the most. They dont speak the language since most of them were born in the New Order era and were not allowed to study the Chinese language, says Salim.

The remnants of the stigma associated with communism remained in Indonesiaeven after Suharto was forced to step down in 1998 as the Asian financial crisis sparked economic and social chaos in the country.

But remarkably, the adversities scores of Indonesian Chinese went through have only strengthened their grit and made them a well-knit community ethnically, socially and culturally.

The INTI(Chinese Indonesian Association) a mass organization that was founded in 1999 with an avowed aim to not only build a platform to deepen the unity among Indonesian Chinese, but also to maximize the potential of these people to help in the countrys rebuilding to become a powerful nation is a tribute to their quiet courage and camaraderie.

Most of INTIs members are established and successful people all deeply rooted in their heritage. The founding members alumni of the Chinese schools that were forced to close down in 1965 realized that it is important to do something to regain their Chinese identity back.

Our goals are to unite Chinese communities here and to enjoy singing in our own language; to reconnect with our Chinese culture, says Gunawan Elham, one of the chairmen of Xiao Yuan Culture Group.

Our aim is also to help our Indonesian friends to learn about our Chinese language through songs, cantatas, and music, Elham adds.

The Xiao Yuan Culture Group is a part of this greater Chinese community, says Nathalie Dewi Tandyo, a member of the Jakarta Philharmonic Orchestras board of directors.

I have Chinese blood, but I speak only a little Mandarin, says Neneng Rahardja, president director of the Jakarta Philharmonic Orchestra.

Now I make sure that apart from learning English, my children also learn Mandarin properly and speak fluently. I want them to learn about their ancestors culture, too.

We allow non-Chinese choir groups to participate, but (make sure) they perform at least one Chinese song in their repertoire, says Gunawan Elham. And for Chinese choir groups, we make it obligatory for them to sing one Indonesian song as well.

Xiao Yuan Culture Group now conducts Xiao Yuan Choir Festival every year. We support cultural groups such as Xiao Yuan to produce more quality performances, says Bambang Subekti, director of Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (JakartaArtTheater).

GKJ welcomes high quality art and cultural groups to perform at our theater here. We have a lot of cooperation with Chinese communities here. I think Chinese culture has no boundaries.

Neneng Rahardja, director of Jakarta Philharmonic Orchestra agrees. Music is universal. There are no boundaries in music so it can weave harmonious relationships among people from different places without prejudice.

Actually, this is not the first time the JPO performed a Chinese repertoire. We did it once before in a very low-profile manner because the political situation at that time did not allow us to go big, says Nathalie D. Tandyo, a director of the Jakarta Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to Tandyo, this is the first time Huang Heis performed in its most complete format (incorporating choir as well as presenting it in as a piano concerto) in Indonesia.

What prompted JPO to perform Huang He Cantana Piano Concerto is the opportunity to present such Chinese masterpiece only in recent times, she explains, adding that the current political situation in Indonesiamakes it easier to present Chinese-based performances in a grand scale.

This concert will surely bring variety to Indonesias cultural scene, says Tandyo.

Not only variety, Tandyo surely means unity in diversity, too.