Fri, 11 Mar 2005

The spirit of music

National Music Day passed quietly on Wednesday. Even the current fervor of warped nationalism could not save national anthem composer W.R. Supratman's anniversary -- designated in 2003 by President Megawati Soekarnoputri as a national day of commemoration -- from insignificance.

This national day passed off the same way Supratman passed away in 1937 -- in muted obscurity.

There were no televised events during National Music Day. No special commemorations. Neither were any sought. At best, a few radio shows made passing references to the event, but the news of the day continued to be dominated by absurd warmongering and protests over the fuel price hikes.

Many more tangible, life threatening issues require people's attention rather than worthless chatter over music.

Yet without music, how empty our lives would be. Music and art are integral parts of our very existence. They are as staple as rice, as uplifting as the morning sun and as comforting as an evening prayer.

What would "downtime" be without either a tune, a cold drink or a good book.

From the first year of elementary school, the songs of nationhood and independence ring permanently in every Indonesian's ear. We may temporarily forget them, the tunes replaced by the latest Top 10 pop hits, but the significance of Indonesia Raya (Indonesia the Great), Maju Tak Gentar (Fearlessly Onward), Padamu Negeri (For My Country), to name a few, resonate down the generations.

Still, most of us confuse who wrote what, the names of their composers are as familiar as distant cousins -- Supratman, Cornel Simanjuntak, Ismail Marzuki, Ibu Sud, and Kusbini.

Their generation of composers helped define the nation's identity. Their successors, the likes of Pak and Ibu Kasur and A.T. Mahmud, helped shape young Indonesians with nursery rhymes that taught universal values but with a distinctly local flavor -- such as Naik Delman (Riding a Horse Carriage), Aku Anak Gembala (I'm a Little Shepherd), and Becak (Trishaw).

Their creations subtly molded us into being Indonesian. They will do the same with our children. The song remains the same from grandfather to grandchild.

The purity and beauty of these songs comes from the honesty out of which they were created. Their composers weren't thinking of gold discs or hit singles.

The importance of song is comparable to that of literature. These creations are mirrors of their times, and resonate with what we should be. The best songs, whether a simple nursery rhyme or a complex aria, are instruments of eternal truth because they play the chords of our mortal souls.

That is why in times of political oppression the writer and composer usually find themselves in the same jail cell as the politician.

Today, Indonesian composers and musicians face new dilemmas. Many have been handsomely rewarded for bringing melody to everyday life and reaped the rewards of market success. Several have gone on to proudly represent our country abroad as ambassadors of culture. Most, however, have had to reconcile their art to commercial reality. Others are simply in the business because it is a fast track to fame and fortune.

As one musician lamented: "One likes to believe in the freedom of music. But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity".

Therein lies the significance of National Music Day. To remind us that while music in essence is entertainment, it can still provide "value" beyond the simple sequence of notes.

It's also that one brief time in our life that we might ponder for a moment the contribution our noted composers have given to us. The song and struggle are ended, but their melody and spirit linger on.