Sun, 25 Nov 2001

Anita Sarawak Happy to be home again

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Singer/entertainer Anita Sarawak greeted a group of reporters recently.

Anita who?

If you grew up in the 1970s or early 1980s, you are probably familiar with the Singapore-born entertainer. She was very popular back then not only in Singapore, but also in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Remember her hit Tragedi Buah Apel (Apple's Tragedy)? I grew up listening to that too, you know.

The reason Southeast Asia hasn't heard from the 49-year-old singer for so long is because Anita has been performing at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas for the past 18 years.

"I just resigned because I was totally bored and tired of performing there almost every night," said Anita in Malay.

She was in town recently to prepare for her performance at the New Year's Eve Gala Dinner to be held at the Hotel Mulia Senayan in Central Jakarta.

During the performance, Anita will be backed by noted musician and composer Erwin Gutawa, as well as Widya Kristianty's 25-piece big band.

Although she holds American citizenship, Anita has moved back to Singapore, where she just signed a contract with Media Corp. to do a variety show.

"At the same time Hotel Mulia contacted me to perform here. I always hoped to come back to Indonesia," said Anita, who was accompanied by her fourth husband, American businessman Martin Cox.

Although it has been 10 years since her last visit, Indonesia is not new to her. She has been listening to records by Indonesian singers since she was a child.

"I love old Indonesian songs, especially Bengawan Solo (a famous traditional keroncong song). You know, people say to me that I can sing any song, but I perform best when I sing Bengawan Solo," she said.

"Even in Vegas," she added.

Her ties to this country became even closer in 1981, when Anita married the late Indonesian singer Broery Pesolima, although the couple eventually divorced.

Anita's career began when she was 16 years old when she performed at the National Theater in Singapore. She recorded several albums and often collaborated with artists from Motown Records.

Then about 20 years ago, she began to feel that her career had stagnated, even though she was an extremely popular entertainer in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

So she flew to Vegas and tried her luck at Caesar's Palace, best known as the venue for championship boxing matches.

"I encountered a lot of hurdles, but I was able to make it because I worked harder than any American artist. No one could stay for 18 years like I did," said Anita, whose real name is Ithnaini Mohd Taib.

Anita knows some 6,000 songs by heart, a condition for her work at Caesar's Palace.

During her time there, she also recorded two English-language albums that failed to sell.

Despite making good money and becoming acquainted with people like Evander Holyfield she eventually lost enthusiasm for Las Vegas and her job. She first met her current husband while he was there to watch a Holyfield bout.

"I've changed a lot. My life is not a matter of dollars and cents anymore. I want a peaceful life. I'm married to this wonderful man who has embraced Islam. And he said it's time for me to return to my tanah air (homeland)," Anita said, looking at her husband sitting by her side during the interview.

The change includes giving up her signature glitzy costumes and heavy makeup.

"No more sexy costumes! I never even wear makeup anymore, except for moisturizer and lipstick, even on stage," said Anita, who looks younger than her age with her short, bleached hair.

Anita said she wanted to make a record of Malay songs for her old fans, most of whom now have children and grandchildren.

"Many people think I can't speak Malay anymore. How could that be? My favorite food is still terasi (fermented shrimp paste), nasi lemak (traditional Malay dish) and lembur kuring (Sundanese seafood)," she laughed.

She also hopes to appear in movies. But no romantic or glamorous roles, please, because she feels it wouldn't be appropriate for her age.

"I want to contribute something, not just by performing on stage. Within four or five years, maybe I'll hang up the microphone."

Asked how she has managed to remain a popular entertainer, she said the secret was treating people nicely.

"I'm not arrogant. I don't like to hurt people's feelings and I am always careful. Don't be proud. If people want to interview you when you're tired and everything, just say sorry and be polite. They will understand."