The night of March 3 at the French Cultural Center in Yogyakarta was an unforgettable night of colors and sound as Christian and Muslim performers shared the stage, made music, danced and performed in and for peace. Common Sounds: Songs of Peace and Reconciliation, a concert fully sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation grant funds, featured Muslim and Christian artists, ensembles and choirs, with participants coming from Egypt, Sumatra, Yogyakarta, and the United States. One American participant came from Libya where he is stationed. The vision for this concert was to find that common sound (of peace) through the music and performance of these artistes. They did not disappoint. The concert was standing room only and some people had to be turned away.
The performers and audiences came from different walks of life: Muslims, Christians and other religious faiths, young children to mature adults, world-renowned musicians, university professors and students, and local women and children from the outskirts of Yogyakarta. Musically, the styles drew from various music genres: Indonesian folk music, popular music, classical Arabic music, shallawat and world music. Instruments featured included the oud, gambus, khendang, sruti box, electronic keyboard, djembe and bonang. What do these diverse performers, instruments and musical styles from various parts of the world have in common? Interestingly what emerged with each successive performance was this common sound of instruments, movement and voices in dialogue and expressing their hopes and reasons for peace.
The concert opened with a set of four songs by Suarasama, all of which were written by Irwansyah Harahap, who co-founded the group with his wife Rithaony the vocalist. As the sounds of the delicate plucking of the guitar by Irwansyah, accompanied by the soft percussion and the silky voice of Rithaony, the audience quietens down and becomes absorbed in the harmony of voices and instruments in their first song, “Bahtera (Sails), a tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali who has had a profound influence on Irwansyah. With the next song, Fajar di Atas Awan (Dawn over the clouds), we are transported internally with the rich image of dawn that is breaking forth from the clouds forming from the sounds of the djembe and rebana in soft interlocking rhythms, the gentle plucking of the guitar and the soft harmonies. The listener begins to be drawn into the rhythms and eventually slow down internally into a state of peace.
The rhythm and pace picks up in the next piece, “Untuk Mu yang Berperang” (For Those who go to war) a strong piece dedicated (sardonically) to those who go to war. Inspired by an African tradition, Chedo, it draws its inspiration from an African saying, “If you are angry, you are not thinking. If you are making music, you are thinking.” This song poetically describes the negative consequences of war with the use of strong imagery such as “black iron spreads all over, the smell of the blood of death.” The author’s voice is heard as the lament is sung and hopes ascribed:
“For you it is power, for us it is suffering. For you it is pride, for us, it is stupidity.”
“Your legacy is only hateful vengeance”
What we desire is to sit and to walk together, saying to everyone, never to war again.”
The final song in the first set by Suarasama is Lebah (Bee), an ode to the bees whom many regard as dangerous and scary but in reality they provide us with honey. It begins with a wistful-sounding taqasim by Irwansyah on the gambus, who is joined by Ritha and ends strongly with six voices in harmony.
From the harmonies of instruments and voices of Suarasama, we move to Mustafa Said, a prolific ‘oud player from Egypt. Drawing excerpts from his album “Roubaiyat El Khayyam”, Mustafa sings and plays a wasla (musical piece) around five of El Khayyam’s quatrains. Impacted by the intellect, ascetism, profound vision, philosophy of El Khayyam, a reknowned scientist, traveler and poet, Mustafa draws us into the world of the poet’s wisdom. In a wasila played in ramal rhythm, Mustafa expresses the poet’s reminder that love is central to a person’s existence. This is followed a taqasim oud maqam Bayati Shuri. After an improvisation on wahda beat, another wasila centered around the wisdom of ascetism and the philosophical notion that knowledge is limited for the human person. “he only knows one thing, that he does not know anything.” What is striking about the performance is the creativity of the taqasims and Mustafa’s mastery of the oud, as he moves seamlessly between different rhythms and maqams (from suites in maqam Bayati Taher in Wahda rhythm 4/4, to ramal rhythm 3/4 to maqam Bayati Shuri, to improvisations on wahda beat and to dur maqlub rhythm 7/8. His versatility and impeccable technique grounded on the deep and profound philosophical poetry allows for a transcendence.
Duta Voice, a 30-member choir from Duta Wacana Christian University under the direction of Mr. Marsius Tinambun, the choir director, gave a stirring performance of three Indonesian folk songs. Dressed in traditional costumes representing the various ethnic groups in Indonesia, they performed in perfect harmony and synchronized dance movements. The first song, Sayang Kene, was feisty and upbeat while containing beautiful alliteration of poetic language from Maluku. Accompanied only by an electronic keyboard, the choir soared with their voices in unison and harmony, accompanied by occasional ullulations, and small but strong dance moves. The bonang and khendang now accompany the next song Yamko Rambe” from Papua New Guinea and finally a rousing number, “Soyang” a song from Central Java.
The children from Tabungan Komunitas Pondok Tali Rasa, Pondok Anak Sewon and Pondok anak-anak Taman Kanak-Kanak Terban take to the stage in their brightly multicolored costumes in traditional design. They engage the audience in a sincere, simple and yet touching rendition of dance and mime. The audience is immediately drawn in by the innocence and enthusiasm. Their performance began with the children dancing and playing Indonesian children’s games together in harmony. However, at some point, they start quarrelling. Conflict escalates. Finally, there is a realization that they need to reconcile and learn to live in peace. They re-gather to dance and finally fly balloons as an affirmation of their desire to seek to live peaceably and for life. The charm of this performance is how the audience, adults and children alike, were so taken up by the children and their efforts. At one point a small boy accidentally fell on the floor due to the “rough” violence in conflict, gets disorientated with where he’s at with the performance. The audience cracks up and people rush to help him get back on his feet.
Following this, 29 ladies from the Indonesian Women’s Coalition, who come from the villages in the outskirts of Indonesia performed two songs. Farsijana explains that the purpose of this organization is to help people understand how women can be a part of decision making in Indonesian society. These ladies, from different economic and religious backgrounds, singing together in one common voice gave a memorable performance. Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta, the spokesperson, describes how practicing for this performance allowed Muslim ladies to connect with Christians. In fact the leader of the group, who also leads the reading of the Qur’an in the mosque, played an instrumental role in convincing the Muslim women of the need to sing together with Christians. In particular, this group’s heart-filled rendition of Tanah Air Ku, a patriotic song written by Ibu Soed, evoked a longing, love and appreciation for their homeland.
Farsijana aptly summarizes, “We live together in this green and beautiful land. We need to share what we have together. Indonesia is a precious resource and there is a need to maintain peace in Indonesia so that we can all share in this resource.”
The next performer, Dr. William (Rob) Hodges takes to the stage. He sings L’Agli-nNabi (For the Sake of the Prophet) and is accompanied by Mustafa Said. A poignant moment of musical interconnectedness was demonstrated as a Muslim (Mustafa Said) and a Christian (Rob Hodges) made music together. There were instances when Mustafa sang together with Rob at the chorus. At other times, the vocal and the oud would weave in and out, each listening to the other, and each giving space for the other to either take the lead in improvisation or to fall back.
Suarasama capped the evening with a final set of four songs. The first three is a trilogy dedicated to the three icons of the Islamic and Christian faiths based on the Abrahamic tradition: Prophet Muhammad (Habibullah, Muhammad Ya Rasullullah [Beloved of God, Muhammad Apostle of God]; Abraham (Ibrahim Alaihissalam [Abraham, Upon Him be Peace] and Isa Alaihissalam (Jesus , Upon Him be Peace]. A commonality that emerged in the texts is that of Abraham as the forefather. Additionally all three icons come in and bring peace. Mustafa Said joins the group for Isa Alaihissalam, a song that is performed for the first time. What is striking is how the gambus and oud play the opening lines in harmony and later engage in a creative musical dialogue between Mustafa on his oud and Irwansyah on the gambus.
Perhaps the final song for the concert, “Kita Berbagi” written by Irwansyah Harahap, specially commissioned for the consultation and concert most reflects the possibilities and aspirations of the project in bringing together people from diverse musical cultures, ethnicities and religions to sing together in and for peace. The lyrics share this hope:
We should be as one, sharing this life
We should be without suffering, without anger
We should of one voice, no longer quarrelling
Sending forth to all, love for one another.
During the final verse, the predominantly Muslim band members invited two Christian performers to join them by singing from their faith tradition, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “O God, You are My God, and I Will Ever Praise You.” In an interview for this project, Irwansyah describes his philosophy: that all peoples share the same earth. “Why do we have to fight or hate each other?” He uses the image of the earth as an altar, where all peoples can pray and worship God and uses the drone sound from the sruti box to express this. It is to this underlying pulsating sound of the drone, that Dr. Rob Hodges and Jared Holton sing, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “O God You are my God,” together with vocal improvisations from other members of the Suarasama ensemble. It was a mesmerizing moment of harmony.