Thursday, 5 November 2015

Day 6: Singapore Writers Festival

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. During the Singapore Writers Festival, (SWF) which is on now, and runs through until November 8, daily posts will offer a flavour of events in the Lion City.

So: Day 6...

As part of SWF's focus on Indonesia, for which see also yesterday's post, the organisers have laid on an interesting and imaginative programme of live performances. Last night I caught Ubiet singing with Kroncong Tenggara.

Ubiet, kroncong, and Kroncong Tenggara were all new to me. I now know that kroncong is an Indonesian musical style named for one of the instruments it uses, the ukulele, that tenggara means South East, that the band Kroncong Tengarra plays kroncong from South East Asia, and that Ubiet is an absolutely wonderful kroncong singer.

If you want to see Ubiet performing with Kroncong Tenggara there are videos up on Youtube, for example  here, and here.

The blurb put out by SWF promised that kroncong is: "the product of many centuries of cultural experiments in the Indonesia archipelago. It is the music of the monsoons that brought to ... (Indonesian) waters not only ships and spices, but the guitar, the accordion, the Portuguese fado, the rhythms of the Ottoman..."

As promised, the 8 musicians of Krongcong Tenggara did indeed include those playing the guitar and the accordion - also a cello, hand drums, electric bass, and flutes and wind instruments of various types. As well as the required ukulele, the banjo is also, apparently, typically used  in krongcong - I learned the ukulele and the banjo are called cho and cha in Bahasa, but I'm not sure which is which! 

In advance of hearing the music, I had thought the SWF blurb had probably claimed too much, and that the music would probably sound like some sort of mash-up between gamelan and Western forms - but no.  References to gamelan were there, or so it seemed to me, but they were certainly not predominant. I couldn't understand a word of the songs, but I could definitely hear Arabic influences - some of them included wails that brought to the equator an echo of the dusty deserts of the Middle East. And Western influences were strong too.  I heard notes of jazz, and some of the music could have been playing on a Parisian street. As to fado: I was lucky enough to hear it sung in Lisbon last year, and Ubiet certainly brought to mind fado singers - even her gauzy, draped jacket had something about it of a fado singer's shawl, or so it seemed to me. Meanwhile, her hand movements and some of her dance moves wouldn't have looked out of place in Calcutta. 

Some of the songs were pure fun - one was called in English Papaya, Mango, Banana and Apple - when Ubiet announced it, in Bahasa, those in the room who could understand her broke into laughter, and they continued chuckling through the song. 

Other songs reflected Indonesia's maritime history: one was, I think, called in English Port, although I didn't quite catch Ubiet's commentary. Anyway, it had been commissioned by a port, and honoured sailors and sailing.

Ubiet also demonstrated the musical dynamics of Indonesian literature, by singing the words of Indonesian poets, both classical poets, who'd written traditional pantuns (quatrains), and contemporary ones, writing poems of less regular construction. 

All of the various poetical interpretations were arranged by band members, who also wrote many of the original songs we heard performed.

Not being able to understand the words did not detract a jot from my enjoyment of the evening.  If you get the chance to see Ubiet and Kroncong Tenggara live: go! Their multi-cultural music provides a wonderful example of how joyful it can be to break down boundaries: between people; between musical forms; between music and literature.