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Maluku Music of Today & Yesterday
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
"Jailolo Festival's youngest band, G'Semri as photographed with author."

The absolute perfection of geometric forms as first mathematically defined by the ancient Greeks Euclid and Archimedes rarely occur in the natural world as visible to the human eye, but the Indonesian island of Ternate comes very close to achieving such elemental simplicity and elegance.

A small, almost perfectly circular island forty-two kilometers in circumference, its steep volcanic peak reaches a summit apex of more than a mile above the sea, perfectly centered plumb and square above the circular base, making for a perfect cone. Covered in dense rainforest from shoreline to peak, the only imperfection is a sunken dimple which cradles a small lake. It lies within a hundred meters or so of the sea at the foot of the volcano which steeply rises above and beyond very tall, vertical cliffs which encircle and enclose the lake. I am told that crocodiles still find home in this mystical lake, and the locals still believe in age-old myth that demonic forces infest its waters. Needless to say, the people of Ternate will never be found bathing or swimming there.

The tiny island carries historical significance for both the country of Indonesia as well as for much of Europe. In terms of its proportional size, it may pack more historical importance per square meter of land area than any of Indonesia’s seventeen thousand islands. It stands next to its twin sultanate, the island of Tidore, and between these two erstwhile power bases the fabled spice trade was organized, managed, and operated. It was the sultans of Ternate and Tidore with whom the Dutch had to make business when that European colonial power made its fledgling attempt to become a trading partner in the already well established regional trade of slaves, spices, kain timur cloth, and other valuables that stretched from the Southern Philippines all the way to West Papua.

Less well-known is the fact that the Portuguese made contact with Ternate’s sultanate a full century before the Dutch, and the remnants of one of their redoubts is still worth a visit for the sight seeing foreign traveler. Whereas the Dutch were quite successful in their business dealings in the spice trade, the Portuguese were much less so, suffering a quick turnover by the Spanish who in turn were vanquished by the Dutch. It is little wonder that several forts are scattered around the island, as it was occupied by so many and was strategically vulnerable to attack.

Aside from providing archaeological interest as found in the fort ruins, this well-worn history of colonial victors and vanquished means very little to today’s average inhabitant of Ternate. And even though Portugal ranks as the first great loser in the competition for European dominance of the so-called East Indies, they left a lasting influence that is vitally alive and still to be felt and heard in the Malukus of today.

A short plane ride from Manado, North Sulawesi, Ternate is gateway to the Malukus, a culturally and geographically distinct region of Indonesia spanning a vast swath of ocean stretching south from the Philippines across the Banda Sea to Tanimbar which borders the eastern most reaches of Nusa Tenggara. Across this region unique traditions of song and instrumental music help make these remote and beautiful islands even more alluring. Strains of Portuguese melody and harmony waft in the air if you know where to catch them. Hints of the passion and sweet sadness as derived from the song stylings of ancient Fado blend mellifluously with indigenous language and rhythm to create hybrid music that stands out as some of Indonesia’s best.

The Malukus in general and the areas of Ternate and Ambon in particular are concentrated hot beds of music talent. As invited just three weeks ago to serve as a member on a jury whose job it was to audition and judge the participating bands of West Halmahera’s first-ever music festival competition, I can whole-heartedly testify to and confirm this well-deserved reputation. And apart from the confines of a musical performance venue, it seems everyone you meet out in the streets and in private homes either sings or plays an instrument.

Auditioning nearly fifty bands over a three day period as held in an outdoor pavilion in the small town of Jailolo on neighboring Halmahera Island, two observations clearly arose to mind. First, entries from Ternate itself showcased the best individual as well as group talent from not only the region, but rivaled any modern popular music groups I had ever heard in Jakarta and Makassar. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-well kept secret if one judges by the next to non-existent coverage the area’s music is given by Indonesian television. Secondly, western popular forms of music- for lack of a better term “rock ‘n’ roll”- have swept over even this relatively remote area of the world with the power of a hundred tsunamis. American rock may have died an unseemly death with Kurt Kobain’s suicide in 1994, but it is alive and kicking massive butt in the Halmahera Islands circa 2009.

But back in the lobby of my Jailolo hotel late at night after the clamor of high decibel rock had just begun to recede to a faint ringing in my over-wrought ears, I stumbled across a small acoustic group of four Ternate musicians getting out their instruments to play and blend their voices in song. The instrumentation was simple- two acoustic guitars, a hand drum, and a small ukulele-like instrument with three strings. It was sitting in with Dodoku, the name of this unique group, that I had the luck to hear in the most intimate terms a modern take on Malukan traditional music. Dodoku translates as “bridge” in the local language of Ternate, and the group consciously aims to provide their audience with a contemporary arrangement of traditional music sampled from all over the Malukan region. But being no stranger to ethnic music and hybrid musical forms, I could distinguish Dodoku’s music to be more a contemporary music bridging back to past traditions as opposed to traditional music so traveled across a bridge to the present and inflected by modern variation.

And in Dodoku’s music could be heard the persistent influence of the Portuguese whose physical presence in the Malukus has been absent for more than four hundred years. Dodoku played not only Malukan music but Keroncong as well, another Portuguese-influenced musical style that developed in Java and is still performed in concert today.

Hybrid forms catalog some of the world’s best musical fare. Whether is be American Jazz, Cuban Son, or Brazilian Samba and Bossa, it is a marvel to witness how the magic of music can perform alchemy, marrying the higher expression of divergent cultures whom otherwise stood apart and at odds from each other in polarized social status- one as master, one as slave; one as colonial overseer, one as subjugated non-entity. Dodoku’s music has the power to transcend, and carry the listener with it on a journey into the skies above one of the planet’s power points of music, the spice island of Ternate.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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