Travel with Pesta Raya

Travel with Pesta Raya
Gamelan master Rahayu Supanggah on his debut full-length presentation, Sakti.

After 12 years, a new curator has taken the helm of the Esplanade's annual Malay arts festival.

Pesta Raya, which returns from Aug 28 to 31, will be curated for the first time by Esplanade producer Rydwan Anwar. He takes over from Ms Norhayati Yusoff who left the arts centre last year.

Mr Rydwan says the idea of merantau - "travel" or "voyage" in Malay - inspired the choice of all the festival's acts this year - from Malaysian pop, soul and R&B diva Ning Baizura to a dance-and-music performance spearheaded by world-renowned gamelan composer Rahayu Supanggah from Indonesia.

He explains that merantau is reflected in "how the Malay culture today in Singapore is influenced by the confluence of different cultures from within and outside of the Malay archipelago".

As an example, he points to Rahayu's production Sakti, a fusion of traditional music and dance to be staged at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Aug 29, and was inspired by the 7th- to 9th-century South-east Asian reign of the Srivijayan empire.

He says: "The dancers hail from Palembang, which is the capital of this mysterious ancient empire from which Prince Sang Nila Utama comes from, the same man who named our country Singapura, according to the Malay Annals."

Back for its 13th edition, Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts will feature programmes that celebrate the unique hybrid of art forms and language in the region.

Taking place at venues within the arts centre, the seven ticketed and 35 free programmes include two specially commissioned plays by home-grown Malay theatre artists - Wanita (The Women) and Kuat Ketam Kerana Penyepit, Kuat Burung Kerana Sayap, which translates as The Strength Of A Crab Is In Its Claws, The Strength Of A Bird Is In Its Wings.

Home-grown singers and musicians also take centre stage. There are concerts by singer-songwriters Awi Rafael and Tengku Adil, while Malay orchestra Orkestra Melayu Singapura will relive classic Malay genre dondang sayang (love ballads) with a concert that features Peranakan singers such as Babas Frederick Soh and Francis Hogan.

Regular Pesta Raya attendees have given this year's programmes the thumbs-up.

Civil servant Saiful Amri, 36, praises the line-up for having "something for everyone". She says: "I am looking forward to Alin Mosbit's Wanita and Rahayu's Sakti. Wanita because it will be performed by big-name actresses from the local television world led by a theatre genius. Sakti because it will be the first experience of a full gamelan concert in the acoustically awesome concert hall."

Housewife Fildza Zin, 34, says the Esplanade "has been upping the ante" with the Pesta Raya programmes over the years. "The quality of the programmes has improved and I especially like the infusion of local artists instead of just getting foreign talents to sell the Pesta Raya programmes."

Gamelan champion's full-length debut

Today, Rahayu Supanggah is an ethnomusicologist and one of the world's foremost gamelan music composers, with more than 100 works to his name.

But the 64-year-old Indonesian music pioneer's life - and the entire gamelan scene - could have taken a different turn had he followed his childhood dream.

"My mother was a musician and my father and grandfather were all puppeters. When I was young, I thought choosing a career in the arts was not very promising and I wasn't sure I could make a living by playing gamelan.

"I thought I would be better off becoming an architect or a doctor," he says with a laugh in a telephone interview from his house in Solo, Central Java.

The global gamelan scene would surely have been poorer had he not continued in the family tradition.

Over the past three decades, many of Rahayu's works have graced the world stage.

Among his illustrious achievements is composing the music for multicultural music theatre production I La Galigo by prominent American avant- garde theatre director Robert Wilson, which had its premiere at the Esplanade in 2004 and has since been staged throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States.

He is also known for his collaborations with Grammy Award- winning American string quartet Kronos Quartet as well as home-grown director Ong Keng Sen on his pan-Asian interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Rahayu takes centre stage at this year's Pesta Raya, the Esplanade's Malay arts festival, with Sakti, his debut full-length presentation in Singapore.

Originally a 20-minute dance and music performance staged at the Venice Biennale 2013, it has expanded to become a full concert.

Inspired by the Srivijayan empire's 7th- to 9th-century reign over the region, Rahayu has assembled a team of dancers and musicians from all over the Malay archipelago to perform in Sakti, a term which in Bahasa Indonesia encompasses magic, the divine, the sacred and the supernatural.

The non-narrative performance is produced by Indonesia's The Bumi Purnati Center for the Arts, Indonesia and Italy's Change Performing Arts.

Rahayu, who has taught ethnomusicology and composition at Indonesian art schools such as Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia and his alma mater, the Indonesian Arts Institute in Solo, says: "There will be many new things we are adding that are unique to the Singapore production.

"The repertoire will be a mix of gamelan music, Malay traditional music and contemporary sounds.

"The musicians I have assembled are all who can work with an open mind. They can collaborate with one another and combine many different elements in their performance."

Rahayu's childhood reservations about the gamelan dissipated when he discovered that he was naturally skilled at playing the instrument. When he first learnt how to play it, he found that he could play any melody immediately after hearing it.

Impressed by his skills, Indonesia's then Minister of Education and Culture Prijono included the teenager in an Indonesian arts mission which performed in China, Japan and South Korea.

In the 1970s, Rahayu taught classical Indonesian arts in Australia and performed all over Europe.

In the 1980s, he obtained a doctorate in ethnomusicology from France's Universite de Paris VII.

The father of three has also composed music for films such as the 2006 musical Opera Jawa, which won him the Best Composer accolade at three film awards events - Asian Film Award, Asia-Pacific Film Festival and the Indonesian Film Festival.

He is heartened by the fact that gamelan music is gaining popularity outside of Indonesia.

"I am very optimistic about the future of gamelan music," he says. "Although in Indonesia itself, the media seems to focus more on pop music but, in the rest of the world, gamelan music is spreading fast.

"In England, Japan and the United States, many new gamelan works are being composed and I am happy to see gamelan musicians collaborating with musicians from other genres such as jazz and Western classical music."

This article was first published on August 19, 2014.
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