Sun, 06 Aug 2000

Rita Effendy can speak for herself, thank you

By Bruce Emond

JAKARTA (JP): Time for a whispered "uh-oh". A few minutes late, singer Rita Effendy arrived with her manager and an old school friend in tow. While it is not exactly an interviewer's nightmare, it is an almost assured prescription for less than spontaneous answers.

Prettier and slimmer than she appears on TV, Rita flipped open a pack of cigarettes and lit one, looking a little bemused at the incongruous sight of my pen and notepad in the overstated elegance of Hotel Mulia's lobby lounge.

She is, as her manager Bambang Stio quickly reminded me, purely a singer who does not stray from what she does best. Unlike some, she is not dabbling in songs for a few extra rupiah or parlaying a so-so voice into the goal of a career in acting.

Point taken. Still, despite Bambang's well-meaning interruptions (the friend was, thankfully, silent throughout), Rita can hold her own in the opinion department. She ordered a hot chocolate and scooted over from a sofa to the chair before telling all about how her career started.

"I first took part in a singing contest when I was about 10 in the third grade of elementary school. I won and I then participated in lots of other festivals," the 31-year-old Bandung native said.

"But my parents tell me that I was already singing when I was about three years old, that I would sing in the bathroom."

At first it was fun, and then it got serious. When she was a teenager, she realized she could make a living from singing for her supper.

Time-out for a little managerial input.

"I was a singer myself, and I first saw Rita in about 1987 when we were taking part in a festival in Bogor," Bambang said. "I could tell she was talented. She had a very good range even then."

Before she joined forces with Bambang, Rita was part of Elfa's Singers, the quartet of pop singers squired by Elfa Seciora. Many of its former members, including Yana Julio (Rita described him as one of her best friends in show business), went on to successful careers.

Rita acknowledged that she learned a lot from Bung Elfa.

"Most of all, he taught me about discipline, about needing to get enough sleep, to be ready for a performance. He gave me a lot of attention. I don't have any formal training but being with Bung Elfa was an education."

She went out on her own in 1995 with her debut album Telah Terbiasa (Nothing Unusual); she has since released three others, most recently this year's Perempuan (Woman).

Does she miss being part of a group?

"It's about responsibility," she said, apologizing for lighting up yet another cigarette. "With the group, I had my responsibilities to the others and to myself, but now it is all about doing what is right for me, for my career.

"But, yes, I took a lot of good things from being part of Elfa's -- the responsibility, the enjoyment, the togetherness."

She is undoubtedly talented, but it seems that she needs a forceful figure, a Svengali of sorts, to push her to make the best of all she has. She acknowledged the importance of her family (she is married) and her friends in giving her advice.

"Yes, I also need people like Bung Elfa and Mas Bambang to help me," Rita said. "Mas Bambang always makes me sing difficult songs -- there are no easy songs for me. We fight a lot but we understand each other."

Bambang's control (both of them called it "influence") extends to picking out her costumes for videos and stage shows to make sure she looks her best (her biggest "flaw" appears to be a pair of overlapping teeth).

Rita said it all came down to trust. "I believe in his choices because he knows my character."

Perempuan travels the same pop road of the past, but Rita makes a few select detours into disco, soul and what she and Bambang emphasized was "Melayu" music, not, heaven forbid, a venture into mainstream dangdut.

"Before, we thought of Rita's market as the upper levels. But we have a population of more than 200 million people so it's important to try and reach out to all," Bambang said. "We can go general and try some different things without losing Rita's specification."

Her rich, full voice would seem to be best enjoyed live. She has frequently performed with conductor Addie MS and his Twilite Orchestra in a collaboration which began in 1993. Rita also won the grand prize for her performance of Biarlah Kusimpan Dalam Hati (Let Me Keep it in My Heart) at the Asia Song Festival in Manila in May 2000, pocketing the pleasing sum of US$10,000.

The latter is obviously a highlight of her career, although the reception, or lack thereof, when she returned home is a sore point.

There was no parade around the capital, no audience with the President, only a hastily arranged gathering of friends at the Jakarta airport when she stepped off the plane from Manila.

While Bambang termed the lack of appreciation from the country's government officials "disappointing", Rita did not mince words.

"Frankly, I was hurt. I went abroad proud to be bearing the name of Indonesia, and did something which put it in a good light," she said. "We were asked all the time about what was going on in Indonesia, about the unrest, and we would tell them, 'oh no, Indonesia is safe, it's only happening in a few areas'."

"We told them that Indonesia was not as bad as it looked."

A mantel full of trophies may be flattering to the ego, but it does not necessarily carry over into fame abroad. Several Indonesian singers -- AB Three and Ruth Sahanaya, among them -- have won prizes at foreign festivals, but none have made it with international careers. The only Indonesian singer with an internationally recognized name, Anggun C. Sasmi, moved to France when she was a teenager.

Rita said international success was a goal but not everything.

"In a festival, you want to compare yourself to other artists from abroad, to see if you can compete with them. But it's also about doing Indonesia proud," she said. "It was always Rita Effendy from Indonesia, not me as an individual. It was the country that was recognized."

She said winning festivals in Asia could be a stepping stone to regional success, noting that Filipino producers were interested in recording an album with her.

"But to really go international, I guess you have to live overseas, like Anggun has done. For me, right now, I am happy to put out a new album every year and see where that leads."

The problem was that the arts get short shrift in Indonesia, she added, her eyes flashing anger.

"What annoys me is the reception that our athletes get when they win something, but entertainers are ignored. That is not fair."

Yes, Rita Effendy can speak for herself, thank you.