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.
As explained in yesterday's post, as part of SWF's literary focus on Indonesia, staff at The Arts House have curated a series of live performances. Last night I caught Servants of the Word: Centhini, Pariyem, Translators, a work featuring three translators, one singer-songwriter-musician, three texts from two eras, and four languages - Javanese, Indonesian, English and French.
The tree translators were: Elizabeth Inandiak, from Javanese into French; Jennifer Lindsay, from Indonesian into English; Landung Simatupang, from Javanese into Indonesian.
Singer-songwriter-musician, Endah Laras, has an astonishing voice. She gave a wonderful performance, singing in Indonesian and Javanese, with echoes, in her words, it seemed to me, of Arabic, too. She is Javanese - she began learning Javanese dance, song, and music as a child from her mother, a dancer, and her father a puppet master. Some of the songs she'd written herself, others were mantras, or prayers, or children's songs, or lullabies. They incorporated elements from both wayang kulit - shadow puppetry - and also kroncong, which was discussed in yesterday's post.
The oldest of the three texts, Serat Centhini, (The Book of Centhini), is a vast and sometimes ribald Javanese poetic work dating from the early nineteenth century. Elizabeth Inandiak translated it into French, and her French version was subsequently translated into English as Centhini: Forty Nights and One of Rain - the second text.
Centhini is a maidservant. In the late 1970s Indonesian poet Linus Suryadi wrote another poem about a maidservant, recently translated into English by Jennifer Lindsay as Pariyem's Confession.
During the performance the three translators often spoke in unison, producing, in sound, a layering, or a layered, effect - it reminded me of fiddling with a radio dial, and hearing snippets of languages, none of which you understand, floating out of the set at you.
There was an extremely interesting Q & A after the performance, and one audience member asked about this layering effect, protesting that because of it, she hadn't been able to understand the words in any language. Jennifer Lindsay, who compiled Servants of the Word, replied that understanding the meaning was less the point, than listening to sounds - sounds moving into words, layers of sound. She compared the effect to gamelan music, which also contains layers of sound.
The Q & A also elucidated a section of the performance featuring children's songs. Endah Laras first sung a children's song, with accompanying hand movements, and then she invited audience members to share songs they remembered from their own childhoods, sung in their own languages. An Indonesian woman obliged, and then the last of the performers, Wiggie Lim, who otherwise had a walk-on part as a radio interviewer, shared a song in Mandarin about a tiger, also with accompanying actions - I couldn't understand the words, but I did recognise the tune: Brother John (Frere Jacques).
After the performance, one audience member asked about the point of the children's songs. Endah Laras explained that she'd sung an ancient Javanese song, taught to her by her grandmother; that the hand movements threw shadows which looked like a deer; that the sounds of the song mimicked the sounds of a deer eating - myam, myam. (Or something like it, this is my attempt to render Endah imitating a deer eating).
Elizabeth Lindsay then pointed out that it is through children's songs that children learn the sounds of their own language, and that it is as they listen to one sound following another sound that they gain a sense of song.