Ine Aya' interview
‘We want you to feel the pain and struggles of Ine Aya’
Interview with the makers of Ine Aya’: Nursalim Yadi Anugerah, Miranda Lakerveld and Uyub Dominikus
By Vincent Kouters
‘Music is never a goal in itself for me. There has to be more than just an artistic motivation. Music can do so much more. It can connect societies. It can magnify cultural and societal issues, like in our case the environmental problems in Kalimantan: the deforestation, the palm oil plants. This is why I make music’.
Speaking in a rehearsal space in Amsterdam West is the young and talented Indonesian composer Nursalim Yadi Anugerah. This is where, together with the Dutch librettist and director Miranda Lakerveld, he is working on the musical theatre piece Ine Aya’, which will have its world premiere at the Holland Festival in June. He came to Amsterdam together with the Kayan musician Uyub Dominikus. Originally, the Dutch team would travel to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island Borneo. But the lockdown made this impossible.
Miranda, what was your motivation for making Ine Aya’?
Miranda Lakerveld: ‘The deforestation in Kalimantan is a tremendously complex problem we are all connected with, a global clusterfuck. Europe is complicit in this deforestation: we consume products here that are causing problems over there. This is an interconnection that is difficult to comprehend. I think we would gain a better understanding of these problems if we have a dialogue between all parties involved. There are no simple solutions. We cannot just go there and plant some trees. We have to face the complexity, work together across borders and rethink the way we look at nature. Art can play an important role in this’.
Can opera help?
ML: ‘Yes, for sure. To us, opera might seem like a typical Western art form. But it isn’t. Traditional musical theatre has been around for many years, all across the world. The Takna’ Lawe’, an epic in the Kayan oral tradition is a type of opera as well. It is sung and performed. It seems entirely natural to me to connect this work with the European opera repertoire if we want to address problems in Kalimantan’.
How did you meet?
Nursalim Yadi Anugerah: ‘Pure coincidence. It was 2019. I was working as a composer on a different piece, The Planet – A Lament by Garin Nugroho, which will also feature at the Holland Festival this year. We were doing a workshop in Yogyakarta. Miranda was in a cafe around the corner and heard us working with traditional songs of lament. She came to check it out straight away’.
ML: ‘Naturally! The working process sounded so familiar to my ears. We struck up a conversation afterwards. I already had this idea to make an opera that addresses deforestation in Indonesia. Our aim was to connect this subject with Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I told Yadi about Erda, the earth goddess who presides over nature and warns the supreme god Wotan of his greed. Yadi then told me that the Kayan have a similar goddess and that her name is Ine Aya’, and that there is a similar story with a figure called Hingaan Jaan. He suggested connecting the Ring with the Takna’ Lawe’, in which all these mythological stories are collected. I sent Yadi the sixteen-hour Ring, and he sent me the over 1000-page manuscript of the Takna’ Lawe’. This is how we started working’.
How did the collaboration proceed when the corona epidemic broke out?
NYA: ‘These are interesting times. We’ve been doing everything online up until now. We were set to do research in Kalimantan last year, but couldn’t due to corona. For a long time, I was unable to do research with the Kayan myself, like I’d done for years already. Luckily, right before travelling to the Netherlands I was able to go to Mendalam anyway. I spoke with older Kayan community leaders about our project, the stories of Ine Aya’, the stories from the Takna’ Lawe’ and the rituals that go with them. We also involved Dominikus Uyub with the project. He’s Kayan, plays the sapeh, a traditional instrument, and heads AMAN in West Kalimantan, the organisation representing all indigenous groups in Indonesia. AMAN is currently also working on local environmental problems’.
ML: ‘Luckily, Yadi could do the research, because without that basis we wouldn’t be able to make this piece now. Yadi and I have a similar way of working, very much rooted in research and dialogue. He’s highly attuned to the differences between cultures and knows how to shape musical dialogue in his very own way. He knows a lot about Kalimantan’s musical traditions and checks everything we do with the Kayan’.
What do you gain from these conversations with the Kayan?
NYA: ‘The current situation in Kalimantan is worrying. There’s very little media attention for the enormous environmental and climate problems afflicting the island. It’s essential to work with local groups and hear their perspective, since they know the forests and situation best. It helps to see and hear the stories and values they live by, to understand their traditional cosmology and worldview’.
How can the Kayan cosmology help solve these current problems?
Uyub Dominikus: ‘The Kayan see humankind as part of a larger universe and nature. Gods and the souls of our ancestors are a part of this universe as well. We respect those, so we also respect our natural environment. Ine Aya’ is the goddess who sees to it that this is done correctly. When the Kayan encounter problems, we look to local customs and knowledge. It’s about taking from nature only what you need. No more. This is how you respect nature’.
NYA: The Kayan believe they will be punished by Ine Aya’ if they cross the line, just like Wotan is warned by Erda. Consumer habits have caused deforestation throughout the world, first through woodcutting and later through palm oil plants.
ML: ‘We’re largely responsible from our side of the world. For instance, Unilever invented the large-scale industrial use of palm oil for the production of all kinds of food products, from cookies to frying fat. Unilever is becoming greener now, but the consumer habits that were created aren’t so easily changed. We’re all involved, which makes the problem so complex. By juxtaposing the stories of Ine Aya’ and Erda, we can create a universal story in which we recognise ourselves. We can see how we abuse our natural resources. Both stories are about a tree of life that is dying’.
How did the piece come about?
ML: ‘The two mythological stories share great similarities. We put them side by side and interwove them where possible. Erda and Ine Aya’, for instance, became a single figure, and Wotan and Hingaan Jaan are one and the same as well. Lalang Buko is reminiscent of Brünnhilde, and the hero Lawe reminds us of Siegfried. We use the Takna’ Lawe’ and the Ring as source material, alongside texts and music from Kayan rituals.
How did the music come about?
NYA: ‘I started with the traditional music of the Kayan. Nature is a recurring theme in this music. From there, I started to look for a point of connection with Wagner. We try to find the common denominator from which new music can be created. We find it for instance in Wagner’s leitmotifs in the Ring. Something similar can be found in the Takna’ Lawe’: the habes. What’s interesting is that these leitmotifs in both works always refer to nature. The river, the forest and the air each have their own melody. In this way, nature remains a constant undercurrent in the music as well’.
What’s the difference between you and activists?
ML: ‘I don’t really see much difference between activists and artists. Yadi and I believe in art that has both feet on the ground and that speaks out. In these times, art should reflect on our world. Especially on a platform like that of the Holland Festival, you have the opportunity to address social themes. The Holland Festival draws a critical audience. We look forward to hearing its perspectives on the piece and this complex problem’.
How can art be activist?
ML: ‘The old mythological stories contain powerful symbols that everyone recognises. These symbols are in everyone’s system. Wagner’s Ring and the Takna’ Lawe’ are full of them. By staging a dialogue between the two cultures we’re able to breathe new life into these common symbols. We hope the audiences in the Netherlands and Kalimantan are able to feel the pain and struggles of Ine Aya’. And that this recognition allows them to better understand the other side of the story’.