Young Papuans Find Their Voice in Song

Lisa Siregar | May 17, 2011 Jakarta Globe

When the Wakhu Bhim choir performed at Pacific Place mall in Jakarta earlier this month as part of Festival Papua 2011, crowds of shoppers stopped by to listen.

Wearing grass skirts, known as sali, headdresses and body paint, the 20 singers from West Papua performed the anirei, a traditional Sentani harvest dance, as well as several spiritual numbers, including “Rock My Soul” and “Elijah Rock.”

The crowd was mesmerized as the choir performed two songs in the local language of Sentani, “E Mambo Simbo,” which tells the story of a man missing his homeland, and “Yesus Nit Hasik Wathlakhe,” which talks about the sorrow of Jesus.

The group’s choirmaster, Aris Sudibyo, was not surprised by the reception his singers received in Jakarta.

“They have golden voices,” Aris said. “I would even go one better and call them diamond.”

The Wakhu Bhim singers’ voices are at least worth gold and silver, which they won at the World Choir Games in Austria in 2008. At the time, the group had only been practicing together for six months under the guidance of Aris, who had traveled from Surabaya to nurture young talent in West Papua.

Aris moved to Jayapura with his wife in 2007. As a music teacher at Petra Christian University in Surabaya, Aris had taught many students from eastern Indonesia, from places such as Kupang, Sumba, Ambon, Manado, Toraja and West Papua. Impressed by the vocal talent of many of his Papuan students, Aris was inspired to travel to the region to start a choir.

He contacted the choirmasters at Jayapura’s Cenderawasih University and the Walterpost School of Theology to help him hold auditions. Only 40 out of 180 applicants were accepted, and they came from a variety of different tribes and islands. They called themselves Wakhu Bhim, a phrase from the Sentani tribe meaning “Echo of the Tifa,” referring to a traditional drum.

After performing at local events at institutions and companies in Papua, Wakhu Bhim took its act international at a number of competitions and shows.

At the World Choral Symposium in Copenhagen in 2008, the group received the longest standing ovation of all the participants, lasting more than a minute. The reaction strengthened the confidence of the singers that they had something worth sharing with the rest of the world.

Aris said he hoped the young singers would not only develop

their musical talent through their involvement with the choir, but also develop a greater sense of self-empowerment.

“My philosophy is that when we are performing, we need to show the best of our abilities,” Aris said. “As artists, we should bring happiness to people.”

Suryani, 26, joined the Wakhu Bhim choir in 2008. Growing up as part of the Sentani tribe, music has always been part of her life.

“I can’t live without singing,” she said. “When I sing, I no longer feel empty inside, because I feel like something is filling my soul.”

Suryani said it was her dream to pass on what she has learned about singing to the children of her homeland.

“I just want to give my best to Papua,” she said.

Building on the singers’ natural talent, Aris taught the group formal vocal techniques, such as breathing and projection, as well as the basics of stage performance and personal presentation.

“I taught them how to present themselves, apply makeup, choreograph movements and communicate with the audience,” he said.

Aris said the confidence gained through their involvement with the choir had affected other areas of the singers’ lives as well.

Choir members who are university students have seen their grades improve to an average of 3.5 out of 4.0. Before joining the choir, many of them had GPAs of about 1.0 or 2.0.

Aris is a firm believer that performing offers some life lessons.

Another Wakhu Bhim member, Dianno Rumaropen, known as Edo, has also been inspired to pass on the skills and wisdom he has learned in the choir. Edo hopes to lead his own choir someday, on the northern island of Biak, where he grew up. He now works as a choirmaster at a church in Jayapura.

“I want to start from my homeland, and if it gets big I can eventually expand,” he said.

That is the attitude Aris hoped to inspire in all of his students.

“I came to Papua not to make them sing,” he said, “but to make them live through music.”

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