Fri, 26 Aug 1994

Poet Emha draws crowd in first show after ban

By Lenah Susianty

JAKARTA (JP): Serious and relaxed. That is an appropriate description of Emha Ainun Najib's three-day poetry reading and Kiai Kanjeng music performance at the Graha Bakti Budaya, Taman Ismail Marzuki.

The performance, which finished on Wednesday, obliterated any notion that poetry reading is so serious that it can't be entertaining or attract many spectators.

The venue itself, which has around 900 seats, indicated that this was not an ordinary poetry reading. Besides Emha, only the flamboyant "peacock" poet W.S. Rendra has performed in the building. Other Indonesian poets modestly choose the smaller Teater Arena, with a capacity of 300.

However, it seems that Emha was aware of his power and was not grasping at something higher than his reach. From Aug. 22 to 24, the Graha Bakti Budaya was always full and the Rp 5,000 (US$2.30) tickets for the balcony were sold out.

Emha, who finally received permission to perform after a government ban imposed in May for presenting his controversial play entitled Pak Kanjeng in Surabaya, proved that he is not only a poet, but also an entertainer who knows how to present his works.

Sitting on the stage floor behind a small table along with black clad musicians of the Kiai Kanjeng music group, Emha, also in black, started the night by reading a poem called Doa minta kutukan (A prayer for curses).

"All are in vagueness now, we do not know anymore which is good and bad. We have received too many gifts from God, but we are blind, therefore to be safe now, we have to pray for curses," Emha recited.

The second poem Abacadabra illustrated that, despite the ban, Emha still speaks about social restlessness and reality. The poem reminds us of the recent closure of DeTik, Tempo and Editor, which discouraged other Indonesian newspapers and magazines from indulging in the government promoted openness.

He read, "Abacadabra , we lie with our face downward because there is no guarantee that the bullet is not for us. Abacadabra , we hide because freedom is still in discussion."

Kiai Kanjeng music

The accompaniment of the Kiai Kanjeng music group made Emha's poetry reading beautiful. Composers Djaduk Ferianto and Novi Budianto mixed Javanese gamelan with violin, synthesizer and percussion music.

The rich variety of the Kiai Kanjeng music, which offered not only a Javanese musical touch but also elements of Sumatran, Timorese, Balinese, Sundanese, Betawi and even jazz and rock music, responded harmoniously to everything Emha articulated.

During Abacadabra, for example, there were echoes of Middle- Eastern music when Emha sang verses of the Koran.

Emha, who sang surprisingly well, jokingly said that he might become a singer, "because there is no obligation to submit song lyrics to the authorities before a performance."

Djaduk and Novi, explored and then developed a new form of Javanese gamelan music they call Kiai Kanjeng to better enhance Emha's poems.

The name was taken from one of Emha's most controversial plays, Pak Kanjeng, which was banned in Surabaya early this year because the police said it was overtly critical of the government.

Unlike the conventional gamelan music which uses pelog and slendro, Kiai Kanjeng music has Middle Eastern music nuances which emphasize the minor keys. The exploration proved that gamelan can also offer a very interesting alternative to modern music.

The most lauded poem during his performances was Puisi seadanya mengenai kepala (A simple poem on the head). This allusion heavy piece drew applause and laughs every time Emha recited the witty verse, "the poet knew that his words would be applauded not because they were special but because of their allusions." It was not clear whether this was an improvisation or not.

The poem, which also includes verses like, "usually a head is only used for five years," reaffirmed Emha's position in society as a poet who speaks of social reality.

The five-year allusion refers to the period an official usually stays in office in Indonesia.

His poems might be not so special, he admitted at a cultural discussion taking place at the Graha Bakti Budaya on Tuesday. Esthetically, Emha said his poems are not qualified for public presentation, but he keeps writing them in order to communicate the existing spiritual restlessness and social concerns.

"Poets are obliged to accommodate ideas, absorb them and transfer them into poems," he said.

Emha Ainun Nadjib, a widower, featured 15 poems during the two-hour presentation including Cerita kanak-kanak dari dunia kucing (Tale of children from the cat's world), Tembok dan gelombang (Wall and waves) and Ham (Human rights).

Born in Jombang, East Java in 1953, Emha is currently known as an essayist, short story writer, playwright, columnist, religious person and also orang pintar (wise person). People seek answers to health, spiritual, love and marriage problems from him.

Emha's works have been collected into books such as 99 Untuk Tuhanku, Sesobek Buku Harian Indonesia, Indonesia bagian dari desa saya and Lautan Jilbab.