Music a tie that binds for singer Ubiet
Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Singer Nyak Ina Raseuki, better known as Ubiet, left her hometown in Aceh 20 years, and so hardly sees her ethnic identity as a defining point of who she is today.
Yet, because of the conflict in the westernmost province, there are the inevitable if somewhat uncomfortable associations with the place she grew up in but left as a teenager.
"My parents are Acehnese, and I still have relatives who live there, so people ask questions. Whereas I've been living in Jakarta for so long, and I don't like to have anything to do with politics," said Ubiet, 38.
That is notwithstanding the remaining strong connection with her ancestral homeland that goes beyond sentimental childhood memories.
Ubiet earned her master's degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison from her research on seudati traditional arts. For her doctorate at the same university, she was studying Islamic music in Aceh when the political situation in the province deteriorated and she had to drop the subject.
"Acehnese traditional music is my strongest relationship with my hometown. It was very difficult for me to switch to another subject. But it is impossible for me to go there and do research," she said.
Many genre of traditional music continue to be performed by Acehnese, usually in villages.
"But because of the conflict, people can't even go to work, let alone play and sing music. If this war keeps going on, traditional music can become extinct."
Friendly yet blunt, Ubiet is a rare breed in the local music scene. She has a distinctive ornamented vocal range, able to go up and down freely, and a music that is an amalgamation of pop and Indonesian traditional music.
She started in pop back in the 1980s, singing for Splash Band. It was not until she was studying classical singing at the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ) that she stumbled onto traditional music.
"I got so sick of pop music, so I looked for something else," Ubiet said.
"Besides, classical or opera singing only uses resonance in the head, while I want to do techniques of diaphragm, nasal and head resonances."
She began to learn to produce voice through unconventional methods.
"I learn, especially from the sinden (traditional Javanese and Sundanese singers) and traditional music from Aceh and Bali. I listen to everything, including animals' voices. I want to develop all of the sounds," said Ubiet, whose nickname comes from the Acehnese for small, given her petite figure.
She even displays her musical talents on her answering machine.
After graduating from IKJ, Ubiet received a scholarship from the University of Wisconsin with a major in ethnomusicology. She is now working on a new doctorate in traditional music in Kerinci, Jambi.
During her study at Madison, she released an album in 2000 called Archipelagongs. Comprising 10 songs, it is about a journey across the Indonesian archipelago where pop music blends with traditional music.
The album was an effort to introduce the world beat genre, as well as an attempt to produce songs with good lyrics -- something rarely found in local songs.
"The lyrics are so trashy, sorry to say," she laughed.
"The music isn't distinctive whatsoever, it has no such thing as Indonesian style. If we took out the lyrics, we've got music that is similar to American or European pop music, only worse.. Ooh, it's bad. But don't write that down," she said, laughing again.
Indonesian musicians lack technique as they are reluctant to learn and gather many references to draw from, she added.
"It doesn't have to be in a formal institution like IKJ, but please get some education. Whether it's through courses, or private lessons, but learn music composition. Or just listen to a lot of things, to enrich our references. Just listen, and then find the influence, the idea..".
Indonesian musicians cannot catch up with the trend of pop music in the world, but they feel that they have produced some great works, even though, of course, these are only known in this country.
"We're lagging behind Africa, for instance. African musicians, like Senegal's Youssou Ndour, for instance, plays pop with modern instruments, but it is still played in an African style," she said.
"No wonder, there are many African musicians who are known all over the world.
"We have Indonesian music like keroncong (popular music with Portuguese influences) and dangdut (Arab/Indian influenced music), which can actually be included in the international world beat music scene. If only we can develop it."
People play dangdut and keroncong in the same time-honored style, which many consider outdated and stagnant.
"Whereas if it is arranged well, it can become a national asset."
Music like Ubiet sings on Archipelagongs, or when she collaborated with contemporary musician Tony Prabowo, has yet to find an avenue into the mainstream in this country.
In the meantime, she accepts more gigs abroad: Ubiet has sung on stages in the United States, Colombia, Morocco, England, Australia and South Korea.
Last year, she sang at the grand opening of Esplanades Theater on the Bay in Singapore, accompanied by a local Malay orchestra.
"I sing on stage here too, but usually at a small event because the audience is limited. Getting an audience of 200 to 300 is already good," said Ubiet, who co-founded the New Jakarta Ensemble which plays contemporary music.
She is planning to make another album, yet another attempt to push the world beat genre into the mainstream.
"Record labels are usually reluctant to distribute such genre, saying that it's not popular. Well, shouldn't we popularize it? Otherwise we will continue to lag behind other countries," said Ubiet, who is married to writer Nirwan Dewanto.
Right now, aside from working on her thesis, teaching world music at IKJ and singing, Ubiet is working as a director of Taman Musik Dian Indonesia music school for children.
Established early this year, it is aimed at sharpening musical sensibility of children aged two years to five years.
"My colleagues and I are worried because the music education in this country is not structured. Little kids are directly given musical instruments to learn, whereas this only works for children with high musicality. In most cases, children stop learning music because they have been forced to do so," Ubiet said.
At her school, children are introduced to the most basic musical elements, like tone and rhythm, through play.
There are also classes for children with Down's syndrome, providing them with musical therapy that will help them to be more independent and increase their motoric balance.
"Let's just hope that music education will get better," she smiled.