COVID-19 tune educates, empowers Indonesia’s remote Marapu community

Jungga, a traditional Sumbanese musical instrument from Indonesia. Photo by Joseph Lamont. Source: Coconet

This article by Fendi Widianto and Joseph Lamont is from EngageMedia, a non-profit media, technology and culture organization. This story was edited and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

As the COVID-19 pandemic retains its tight grip on life across the planet, the need to convey public health recommendations to remote communities that speak minority languages is more pressing than ever.

In Indonesia, both the government and civil society has regularly used song to convey these messages, with songs about personal hygiene and health, the importance of vaccinations and the dangers of illegal drugs among those that have found their way into the diversity of languages spoken across the vast archipelago in recent times.

Linguistically, Indonesia faces a unique challenge in terms of communicating government platforms.

The country hosts over 700 languages — almost half of which are now considered endangered.

The state language (Bahasa Indonesia) is spoken by less than two thirds of the population. ‘Message music’ moreover needs to consider diverse local cultural contexts, avoiding a blanket nationalistic approach.

Singer releases health hit

A bottom-up cultural strategy for remote communities can have positive effects beyond getting the message out, such as empowering local cultures to be adaptive, by finding contemporary contexts for their traditional forms of expression.

The Marapu community is one community that has benefited from the bottom up approach after officials threw their weight behind a young singer-songwriter called Jekshon, who used a traditional song in the Kambera language to warn people about the dangers of COVID-19.

Shortly after Jekshon released the song “Rimanya na wiki nda”, which translates as “Take Care of Ourselves”, local officials began inviting him to perform the song at government events and at local health facilities.

Jekhshon's song encouraged people in the East Sumba region, where Kambera is widely spoken, to fight COVID-19 by avoiding large crowds, staying home, and practicing personal hygiene:

Ai kupanawa yia kata ana mbawa mangganya ni na ana nduma lurinda a ai

E ngiara ningu angu nama wandata lamambabu angu dedi dangunggu a ai

A ai ambu eti nu katundu njarangu angu ta ana mangganya na nduma luri kinda angu kana rehi napa hangganda a ai

Kata nguduwa la umakinda angu

Kata maranawa lapa baha lima kinda angu kata mangganya ni na anna nduma luri a ai

I sing this song so we will all take care, to protect our lives

If someone invites us to an event with a large gathering of people, my brothers and sisters

It is a mistake to attend, because we need to protect each other’s lives during this time

Let’s just stay at home

Let’s diligently wash our hands to protect our health and lives

In addition to writing music, Jekshon is also a ritual speaker (wunang), a maker of traditional musical instruments, and a builder and farmer from Kamanggih in East Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia.

Cultural sustainability through songs

Sumba Integrated Development (SIDe) — a civic organization that is part of the Indonesia Inklusi Learning Network — has initiated a VOICE Empowerment project for the Marapu community in East Sumba.

Their project aims to work in collaboration with the Marapu community to organize workshops and local performances.

This project is fronted by Ata Ratu — one of East Sumba’s most beloved female role models and talented singer-songwriters, and is distinguished by the fact that it mandates equal participation from women in a field of traditional music that is generally male-dominated.

In keeping with the vision of the Indonesia Inklusi network, SIDe holds to the ethical principle of “first voice” to ensure cultural bearers are empowered and actively collaborate or guide the activities of the program.

All of the Marapu songs recorded in Kambera are produced with Indonesian and English language translations. The translations help amplify the voices, stories and songs as well as the rich culture of the East Sumbanese Marapu community.

‘Lawiti’ – traditional poetic couplets

Ata Ratu has herself written a song about another important theme in the pandemic — the inability of stranded populations of migrant workers to return to their home villages because of the travel restrictions due to COVID-19.

“Mbawa Rimangu na annanduma luri mu”, translating as “Please take care on your life journey”, is aimed at the diaspora of Sumbanese people who have left Sumba to look for work or study opportunities in Bali, Jakarta and Jogjakarta, and cannot return to Sumba due to travel restrictions.

Many of these Sumbanese people have lost their jobs and are experiencing economic hardship and psychological stress as a result of this situation.

Aiha dama ni dunjaka angu la kota bali a ai.e angu la jakarta angu ni

Ai hali nggunya nu mi ana mbawa rimangu nu ha ba ninggai ha la tana tau ma aka nu

Ai ninda la hidu eti biaka nu bata pamalirungu nu ha rimanya na nduma luri amu ka

Ai ambu mbawa luangga mai dupa nu ha jiaka ningu nu lambabu ndapngu

My friends who are in Bali and in Jakarta

I remember you all and urge that you be careful when travelling, as you are in the land of another people where there is a dangerous situation my friends

We are in a state of heartache because we are far apart, please take care of yourself

Don’t go back and forth in a place where there is a large crowd

In the East Sumbanese Marapu community, songs are written in traditional poetic couplets called lawiti.

Lawiti comes from the fast-paced ritual speech spoken by priests and ritual speakers (wunang) that accompany all Marapu rituals in Sumba. Sumbanese songwriters like Jekshon and Ata Ratu improvise by adapting Lawiti verses to the specific purpose of a song.

Jekshon’s song was released through his YouTube channel with help from SIDe. This song and other videos have been distributed from handphone to handphone via Bluetooth sharing, or ‘share it’ (a filesharing application). The song is currently being played via the public address systems of local markets around East Sumba, while SIDe has distributed the song via mini SD cards (for handphones) and flash disks at local market hubs.

Fendi Widianto of EngageMedia is a communication enthusiast who is motivated and dedicated to community development, creative participatory development for vulnerable groups (including disability groups and disadvantage children), and youth empowerment.

Joseph Lamont is an Australian producer, composer and film documenter. Joseph has recently assisted projects supported by the Ciptamedia/Ford Foundation and Voice concerned with supporting female traditional musicians and documenting and sustaining Marapu traditional music in East Sumba, Indonesia.

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