Saturday, June 24, 2006

Rebellion Through Song

This Advertiser piece by Maria Moscaritolo shows how important the aural transmission of songs can be in shaping a local culture.

IN a small village in Malaysia's Islamic-run state of Kelantan, youthful rebellion is taking an unusual form.

There, teenagers are quietly staging a mutiny against a state law that prohibits the practice of their traditional Malay culture.

In defiance of the law, they gather once a week to learn the songs and dances banned when the Islamic PAS party won power 15 years ago.

The man behind this mini-revolution is Eddin Khoo, a former journalist, who started his small "underground" program in response to the PAS edict.

So far, he has helped train 70 youths around the state.

Usually getting by on a shoestring budget, he was lucky to receive $10,000 in corporate sponsorship for his program in Dewan Kecil, a small village about a 40-minute drive from the capital, Kota Bharu.

The teenagers there are learning "dikir barat" - ensemble chanting.

He says they are not allowed to perform publicly, "but we do, because there is strong community support". "There is no lack of interest," he says. "Whenever we do one of these underground performances we get a huge audience of about 300-400 people, which, in a village like this, is a large number . . . but there is an element of ambivalence. They wouldn't mind watching but whether they would want to participate is another matter."

Kelantan is the only one of Malaysia's 13 states ruled by PAS.

It banned traditional performances to purge the conservative state of practices it saw as "un-Islamic".

It now only has a one-seat majority so, while it will not sanction open cultural displays, the need to keep voters onside means the party is prepared to turn a blind eye to the program. (It remains to be seen if this cosy relationship will be upset should the kids perform for the visiting Prime Minister, as they hope to, in the next couple of months.)

"The first year . . . it was terrible because there was this great zeal of radical religion and, in those early years when performances were held like this, there was every chance that you'd get people who would come and break it up, and a couple of incidents of assault," says Mr Khoo, who visited Adelaide last year to give a lecture on Islamic art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

"To the credit of the state government, they stopped all of that and (instead) they tried to convince the people not to participate, but culture is hard to expunge because people love this sort of thing."

The straitjacket conservatism has had far-reaching effects beyond silencing traditional songs, he says.

"You have 15 years of young people being severed from any kind of cultural sense, cultural identity, and by extension, sense of self and we've seen in Kelantan very serious social problems - terrible problems of alienation, of drug addiction, of sexual violence, and really a society that has been turned on its head for the past 15 years," he says.


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