Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Music of Weaving

When I learned how to weave from Ompu Sihol thirty-one years ago, she introduced me to some of her music: a song or two with words relating to the weaving process and the mouth harp that she played when she was tired of weaving and needed a little diversion. During our travels to make the Rangsa ni Tonun film, I asked every elderly (former) weaver whom we met if she knew any weaving songs. My enquiries didn’t unearth a single melody, for whatever reason. This is another loss that can never be recovered. It makes my single scratchy recording of Ompu Sihol singing what we have come to call 'The Weaving Song' so very precious.

Threads of Life sent me for a brief two-day trip to Timor to meet up with some of their weaver groups so that I could see first-hand how they operate in the field. Their Timor field staff, a delightful Atoni man named Willy, was my guide and he introduced me to a great deal. His insights and stories made the experience especially rich. I was excited when he told me about the importance of rhythm in Timorese weaving and how it had become the basis of a music tradition.
Pounding Morinda
bark at the YPBB studio.
There are rhythms with an audio component such as when the Morinda citrifolia bark is pounded in the large stone or wooden mortars: thump, thump, thump when the dye is being prepared. There is the sound of the weft being beaten in, not just the sword against the newly-thrown weft, but also the reciprocal clack of the warp beam against the upright posts anchoring the loom. He mentioned others as well. I knew that I was hearing about the origins of music in the percussive sounds of simple wooden tools. Melodies and collective merriment were built around them, the task of the weaver being not the lonely job that it often is today, but something engaged in by a joyful community of artists also sharing the spirit of song.

When Jean Howe took me up to a visit I Wayan Karya, a charismatic Balinese who has revived the natural dye tradition in Seraya, an eastern part of Bali, I was inspired by my Timorese experience to once again enquire about the music of weaving, mentioning Ompu Sihol’s use of the mouth harp. He enthusiastically affirmed that the mouth harp had also been used in his village. His father was a great aficionado. Pak Karya clearly remembered the tunes that his father would play in the dark before turning over and going to sleep, and he mimicked them with fervour.

Pak Karya showed MJA Nashir how
indigo dye oxydizes and turns blue.
Because Pak Karya made red dye (which we had failed to find in the Batak area) and because Bali has a cotton gin identical, except in a few decorative embellishments, to the Batak variant, and because there are still spinners in Bali, I called my filmer, MJA Nashir, to join me in Bali in the hopes that we would be able to fill some of the remaining gaps in our film. When I went a seond time to visit Pak Karya, this time with Nashir, I brought two mouth harps with me. I had found them in a music shop in Ubud! (I stored one for Mas Nashir to bring back to the Batak region. We hadn’t been able to find one there.)

I Wayan Karya's mother and their
neighbour playing in two-part harmony
Pak Karya snatched the one with the pull-cord and immediately began to play it, laughing in glee. He set to with his knife to perfect parts of it so that it made a larger and sweeter sound. Then he passed it on to his ageing mother, who was also a skilled player. A visiting neighbour said she still had one and she cajoled a child to fetch it for her. Finally we had what Ompu Sihol had talked about: two people playing a two-part mouth harp melody. It transformed the mood around the looms to one of gaiety. I was so thankful that Mas Nashir was there to film it.
MJA Nashir filming the weaver in
Seraya as she sang.
I was inspired to enquire whether there were any weaving songs (left) in Seraya. At this point, I don’t even dare hope to find them, but to my surprise and elation, there was another neighbour who knew one. She installed herself in the loom and sang in dusky, wavering tones that were reminiscent of traditional Javanese song. Mas Nashir also taped this song while the eyes of the singer glistened with pride at the attention that she was receiving.  (TClick on the film to hear the music!)

I felt a return of the longing that frequently rises up in me: oh, to have several lifetimes! I would spend one of them wandering around the world looking for weaving songs.

S. Niessen standing with
I Wayan Karya in his beautiful
shop filled with natural dyed
After our musical interlude, Pak Karya said that our visit had convinced him to henceforth also dish up music for the tourists visiting his weaving centre. His bright new sign is already standing monumentally on the side of the road, his tidy little shop is built and gracefully proffers hand-woven, natural-dyed cloth, and there is a covered-over area made of bamboo where his weavers sit together to produce the textiles for his shop and demonstrate their skills. His natural dye workshop is situated higher up the hill, behind the wall encircling his compound. The wall is the first element of a planned guesthouse. Pak Karya is dedicated to reviving the traditional weaving of his culture and is turning it into his full-time business.

Before we left, we saw a group of small boys entranced by the mouth-harp music being played. One of them grabbed the simple piece of bamboo when the woman laid it down and tried it himself. They all began to mimic its distinctive vibrations. I have hopes that the attention that we gave to the songs of weaving may indeed contribute to their revival in Seraya. A more fulfilling consequence of our visit could scarcely be imagined.

Living Threads - 17 March

In transit now in Singapore, on my way back to The Netherlands, I think of my first meeting with Pung and Frog in the dye studio of the research foundation arm (YPBB) of Threads of Life. They were showing me how to make red dye using the roots of the Morinda citrifolia tree because I had never had the opportunity to see it done in the Batak area. The Batak stopped using that natural dye decades ago.

Ingredients in one of the red dye recipes

Frog working on a Morinda dye bath in the YPBB studio
Pung and Frog are seasoned field workers. They love to go into the villages and speak with the weavers. They are quiet and both are good listeners, respectful of local dynamics, styles and traditions. They like to get close enough to the weavers to become the recipients of stories about their youth. Often it takes awhile before a dye recipe bubbles up in their memory. (We noticed this with Ompu Okta. It emerges gradually. They need to have the opportunity and the encouragement to re-open memories of past weaving practices.) Rarely do Frog and Pung need to teach a dye recipe because they are unable to recover/uncover the local one. And, out of respect for local traditions, they never share a recipe if it has been given to them in confidence.
Pung’s and Frog’s knowledge is rich and varied. They know the trees and plants, the composition of the soils and the waters and the chemical reactions when all the components come together. With their knowledge, they could fill tracts and tomes and contribute so richly to the academic library on Indonesian weaving (including dyeing) traditions. But “writing up findings” is not their thing. Their first love is being in the field, experimenting with the recipes they learn about, assisting the weavers and making beautiful natural colours. They showed me the results of their failed experiments with a laugh. How much work it took to learn the basic proportions needed for a good dye and the factors that influence the variations!

Ever the academic, I felt regretful that this information and their stories were not being pegged down in writing and disseminated. But there is another side to it all. I am also aware that they are preserving knowledge in a different way. When I think about it, I believe it to be a more valuable way. The West would not need or have museums if indigenous worlds were not disappearing. Many of the activities of ethnographic museum flow from the understanding that it is important and possible to “preserve” indigenous traditions in storerooms and documentation systems, the academic formaldehyde for posterity, so that when the traditions disappear forever, there is at least a record of them. Pung and Frog, on the other hand, are reviving traditions. The dye recipes that they have discovered are not being pickled and described for a rarified Western audience, they are being cultivated once again in their cultures of origin. Dissemination happens when a mother teaches them to her daughter. They are dynamic traditions susceptible to change and renewal. I recall haviong felt a little confused when I realized that the successes of YPBB were taking the urgency out of the necessity to record everything for posterity.

I am an anthropologist who has been shaped by museums and steeped in their history – yet I was curiously elated when I realized that Pung and Frog were making part of the museum endeavour redundant. How brilliantly liberating! If cultural dye traditions were to live as vibrantly as Balinese orchestras in the face of modernity, if they were available for researchers to visit at any time, if indigenous traditions were not threatened but there was room for them and respect for them in the world…it is difficult to even contemplate… the world would be transformed into a living museum and the otherwise redundant buildings called “museums” could perhaps adopt a different interactive role in support of indigenous traditions. How invigorating, satisfying...

On the day that I left Bali (16 March), Frog and Pung left as well. They were heading for the Batak area carrying with them a bag of Morinda citrifolia root, their arsenal of knowledge and their sensitivity to culture. How I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall as they work among the Batak. I am impatient to see their results, but they tell me the process is slow and I will have to wait for years. Impatience has no role in this process. If and when they succeed, Batak dye recipes will again be firmly rooted in a few communities, and the weavers will have Threads of Life as their market outlet making their efforts financially worth their while.

...As I post this blog from my office in The Netherlands (in the meantime, I have arrived back home) I have just received a message from Goodman Ompusunggu on Facebook telling me that the weavers in Muara have met Frog and Pung and are excitedly participating in a workshop with them. There is plenty of energy around this renewal of their weaving tradition....How I wish I could be the proverbial fly on the wall....

...A week later, now. Jean Howe has sent me an email telling me about the findings and successes of Frog and Pung. Not surprisingly, the Batak have their own unique recipes with regional variations, and apparently the Morinda root in the Batak area is of high quality. There is great anticipation that soon a natural-dyed Batak textiles will enter the collection of Threads of Life.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Closer to Threads of Life

In March 2009, I gave the first copy of Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia to Threads of Life. At the time, I had not yet met them. I had only heard about their work and read about them on their website. I was excited about their cause and felt that my book, while academic, was written in the spirit of their own very practical work keeping Indonesian weaving traditions alive. I wanted to use the public occasion of my book launch to highlight what they do. It is now two years later. I have now met Threads of Life and learned first hand about what they do.

It has all been sparked by Legacy in cloth. They found that the book offered potential as a foundation for working in the Batak area. Until now, they have always worked in Eastern Indonesia. When I was in the Batak region last October/November, some members of the YPBB Foundation, the research arm of Threads of Life, joined me. They wanted to pinpoint places where they could begin to work.

The men in the photograph, from left to right, are Daud, Pung, Nashir and Frog.
The women are former weavers in Sianjur MulaMula

I enjoyed Jean Howe's company alot during those travels. (Photo MJA Nashir)
Phase two of our collaborative plan is happening now, in Bali. I am being given the opportunity to explore what they do and how they do it. The visit is touching me in the very marrow of my anthropological soul. In the first place it is fun to renew my acquaintance with Pung, Frog and Jean Howe, who visited North Sumatra. They shared openly and alot at that time. Now I am seeing them on their home turf. Threads of Life is a beehive of activity. What they do is careful, thoughtful, and complex. I am discovering that I have been given an opportunity to be privy to what I will not hesitate to call one of the most extraordinary experiments in the textile world. My respect and admiration for this organization grows with each passing day.
I have seen their natural dye laboratory/studio, poked my way through their shop, gone behind the scenes in their offices to see their data banks, day-to-day operations and textile stores, and visited field sites in Timor and Bali. All the while, I have been able to talk with them endlessly about what they do and why they do it that way.

Examining one of Ompu Okta's mother's textiles in the Threads of Life office.
Frog is to the left, Jean Howe is pointing thoughtfully to the beadwork in the cloth,
and Pung is to the right. These three had joined me in North Sumatra in November.
Central to their work, and the reason why I find their work excellent, is their sensitivity to the cultures in which they operate and their intense awareness (and learning) of the role that textiles play in those cultures. The revival of textiles often (if not inevitably) resides at the heart of cultural revival. Jean Howe told me yesterday that cultural revival was perhaps their most important goal when they started their business more than a decade ago. And this is what clearly excites the members. Pung, Frog and Sujata, the dye team, have told me many tales about the discovery of natural dye recipes. They do not enter a new area with the tried and true recipes that they know, but facilitate the remembrance of the local recipes and colours. This is a sensitive process that may take years. During the process, the team works like a partner, noting (what is remembered of) the recipe, going back to the lab to try it out, returning to the people to compare results, assisting and troubleshooting aided by their knowledge of the chemistry of the dyes… until they finally get the results they are looking for. In this way, they revive not just the natural dyes, but also local recipes and colours (each dye yields a vast array of colour and each region has its own recipes and preferred tints and tones) and stimulate the revival/retention of that exciting diversity that characterizes Indonesian culture.
Colour is just one facet of the process of textile renewal. Ancient textiles may be “replicated” in appearance, but when they are revived in this cultural sense, including songs, techniques and equipment, associated rituals and so on, this is what is truly exciting and laudable. And this is what Threads of Life does.

On the first day of my visit here in Bali, I saw some “revival textiles” in the Threads of Life storage area that filled me with such emotion that I later had to sit down and try to figure out what was going on inside me. It is hard to explain. At first I described it as akin to the first time I saw impressionist paintings in Paris after having learned to love them in books and postcards. But the wellspring of my emotion was much deeper  than that. I love the quality of the ancient textiles of Indonesia but for so long they have also been the source of a dull, sad ache because I know they represent a past era. Modern products are different. They are not as fine, they are more standardized so that the weaver’s hand is virtually absent as a signature, the materials from which they are made are usually inferior, and so on. In my writings, I have described and analyzed the kinds of changes that have taken place and the social and economic reasons for these changes. Seeing revived textiles has moved me to tears. It is like witnessing a miracle.

 Oh Shoppers, when you go to the Threads of Life shop in Bali, know what you buy! Your purchase is supporting indigenous Indonesian culture, making a tiny bit of room for it in this world.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Showing Rangsa ni Tonun

Fiber Face 3 has given us the opportunity to show our Rangsa ni Tonun film three times.

The first time was 12 February when Batak was chosen as the theme of the grand opening of Fiber Face 3. It was a very busy night -- the busiest that Fiber Face 3 has had to date -- with people lined up to the street to get in and all of the chairs taken. We don’t know how much this had to do with the Batak community coming out in full force. If they came, I think they went away satisfied. We had a full Batak gondang orchestra with the two brilliant players Marsius, amazing with his flute, and Sarikawan Sitohang mastering all of the instruments.

Sarikawan and Marsius Sitohang are wearing the red headcloths.
The set of drums was owned by Batak in Yogyakarta. The musicians
were thrilled to play with the talented Sitohang brothers.
(Photo MJA Nashir)
Mas Nashir orchestrated the opening performance. He had Ompu Okta doli (the male counterpart) recite the Rangsa ni Tonun text to the Sitohang musical accompaniment as the prelude to the premiere screening of our film.
Ompu Okta doli is reading his text while his wife, Ompu Okta boru, weaves
during the opening of Fiber Face 3 in Yogyakarta, February 2011.
(Photo MJA Nashir)
Afterwards we heard that the people who had been able to see it enjoyed the film but that many others were unable to see it because of the milling crowds. I personally felt pleased enough with the result that Nashir had prepared for this big deadline, but was aware that we haven’t yet finished our polishing; there is still plenty of work to be done.

After the opening, my brother (son of my sister in the Hutabarat clan), the protestant minister, Bonar Lumbantobing, contacted me to say that he could be in Yogya on the 17th of February and would he be able to see if he came to Fiber Face 3? This was just the spark that we needed to prepare another screening. He came with a group of enthusiastic and thoughtful theology students. First I gave them a tour of the Batak textiles in the exhibit, then showed the film.

Ito Bonar Tobing's class watching Rangsa ni Tonun on the television screen
in Taman Budaya where the Fiber Face 3 exhibition was staged
(Photo MJA Nashir)
 It was followed by a discussion about culture and religion. What has been lost, why, what can be done about it? We talked about the goal of Fiber Face to stimulate an awareness of the importance of indigenous textile techniques and the thought worlds wrapped up in cloth production.

This was a special moment for me. In Medan, ito Bonar had shared with me some of the insights he had gained from his explorations of Batak language. He had discerned, among other things, that Batak missionaries gave new denotations to Batak words that placed Batak culture in the light of their own European and Christian background and biases, a distortion, in other words, that often gave a negative twist to indigenous Batak beliefs. By discovering the real meanings of some of these Batak words ito Bonar has gained insight into the beauty of Batak culture. Such discoveries are powerful to a thoughtful, discerning mind such as his. I learned from the discussion that evening that the Batak church continues to question its relationship to indigenous Batak culture. So much has been lost that the students were scratching their heads. Why was it, again, that the church forbade so many elements of Batak culture? It all seems so innocuous today. Indeed, it is innocuous. There are essentially no spirit-worshipping Batak left and the culture has receded imperceptibly, like sand between the fingers. There is historical and cultural amnesia. Now the church perceives itself as a champion of Batak culture. Church leaders are asking themselves what they can do to rescue what remains.
(Photo courtesy Paulina Sirait)
The evening was crowned by Paulina Sirait’s minutely documented review of the evening on Facebook. She was one of the students in attendance. (The photograph to the left is courtesy of Paulina Sirait. It was taken of us in front of two of the textiles in the exhibition from Muara..)


(Photo by Nelly Sitorus)
 Another showing was held for the general public on Saturday evening, the 19th of February. This was an important showing for Nashir because he invited his friends and colleagues from his past in Yogyakarta. He left Yogyakarta about a year ago to pursue his future and life in North Sumatra. The decision was preceded by a set of circumstances, not all of them easy, and when Nashir got up to talk about what the film meant for him, he was overwhelmed by all of the emotions that came flooding back. The viewing of Rangsa ni Tonun was an opportunity for him to bring his friends up to date with his life and his creative accomplishments. Several of his friends stood up to give testimony to his creative talents, his courage in searching for a new path for himself, and his good heart.

Others in the audience asked crucial questions:
How much of the weaving world that was shown is still alive and how much was staged?
How vibrant is the Batak literary tradition? Does it still exist? (Thankfully, there was awareness that we had filmed a piece of Batak literature and not simply made a documentary of Batak weaving techniques.)
What is the gendered division of labour in Batak weaving?
The themes of cultural transmission and cultural loss dominated the evening.

Ompu Okta doli tells his story
about the very first ulos
(Photo by Nelly Sitorus)
 Our main stars, Ompu Okta boru and doli were in the audience. A highlight of the evening was when Ompu Okta doli stood up to talk about the origin and meaning of Batak ulos in Batak culture. He did so with his customary energy and narration skill transforming our space into a cozy Batak living room. Suddenly we were all grandchildren hanging on the lips of grandfather and culture was being transmitted from one generation to the next.

Much appropriate emphasis was placed on MJA Nashir’s single-handed filming, direction and editing of this film and he received some of the appreciation that he well deserves for his spectacular accomplishment. My job that evening was to present background issues related to the text and Batak ethnography.

I was sorry that there were some mix-ups and communication failures pertaining to our equipment just prior to the showing and we received a defective cable so that the colour red was absent from the film.

This evening, too, was crowned by Paulina Sirait’s enthusiastic review in Facebook. (We are grateful for this because Nashir and I were both so keyed up with our participation that we forgot to use our cameras.) She has attended all three viewings and this time she brought a sizzling bevy of Batak beauties with her. The spirit of Batak women is indomitable! May they all take up weaving!