I was so sad to hear of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia this week, a city we were based in from 1988-93. Having also experienced losing our own home in the Christchurch earthquake of 2010, we know in a small measure that it can take years to recover, even from a lesser quake. The recovery from this for the people of Palu, Donggala and the west coast of Sulawesi is likely to be longer and much more challenging than what it was for us here.
We have so many memories from our time there, most of them positive, but few centered around music. Here is one memory of some stunning musicians we came across in Palu.
It was a fairly normal Sunday morning, a typical Palu day around 34°C and we went to church as usual. What was unusual was that there was to be a visiting choir at the service. Many Indonesian people love singing and are good at it, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to hear.
As they filed in I noticed that our hostess from our days of learning Indonesian was in the choir. We had lived with her family for 6 months while learning Bahasa Indonesia. I didn’t know that she was a singer as such, so that didn’t particularly raise my expectations. They were to sing unaccompanied. (There was a piano in the church, one of only 15 in the whole city. A piano tuner used to come once a year from another place to tune them. Anyway, I’m digressing.) It was quite normal for choirs to sing acapella.
The conductor was a young man who looked not much more than 15. I thought this is going to be interesting. And then they all opened their mouths and the first chord sent a ripple down my spine. The harmony, the volume! It was stunning. I had never heard such a magnificent choir. Not one person let the side down and it was total commitment that produced an incredible sound from start to finish. Then I found out that they were the representative choir for the province – people from various churches around that region who were preparing to participate in the national choir competition in Yogyakarta.
The following week I was contacted by our former hostess to ask if I would come and accompany the choir for a practice. They had never played with a piano, but as part of the competition they had to have two of their pieces accompanied. I couldn’t help but think it was a shame to add a piano to their already excellent sound! But I agreed to see if I could help.
The young conductor turned out to be somewhere in his 20s and was incredibly skilled. I marvelled at his musicianship and that of the choir who learned all their music from the Indonesian not angka system. It was all done with tonic-sol-fa and their musical score is shown with numbers, along with various dots and dashes to show rhythm. Fortunately for me the piano music was familiar western notation!
After a number of practices they got used to singing with a piano and I was invited to come with them to the national competition. Unfortunately, due to our work and upcoming trip to the village area, it just wasn’t going to work out for me to go. But their conductor told me later that he had learned enough to know what he was looking for when an accompanist was provided for them, and turned down two before he was happy with a third. They had never made it into the top half before, but that year this out of the way province came 5th out of 27 provinces in the national competition. I wasn’t surprised. I knew they had something special.
A search for a beautiful sound in our music is the same in every culture, even though what defines a beautiful sound is going to be different from place to place. Striving for excellence brings many rewards, and much is involved in getting there. If I can in some way inspire my pupils to play music beautifully, learn to play music they want to play and enlarge their outlook to discover other music to enjoy too, then I know they are well on the way to enjoying it for many years to come.
As I’ve been reflecting on this story of our time in Palu, I pray for the community, friends and co-workers who work with them as they go through the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks that we know from experience will likely continue for years.
Sorry, I don’t have a photo (or a recording) of that magnificent choir. The other photos are of the Palu beachfront, Donggala waterfront (taken during our time there) and a meal with Palu friends.