Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rote Island Indonesia - Bringing The Music Back Home 1976 - 2006






I love islands. I collect islands. One of the first islands I collected was Rote (pronounced Ro-tay), off the south-western tip of Timor in Indonesia. In 1976, hell bent on adventure, I left cyclone ravaged Darwin and joined a crew to sail to Rote and retrieve a foundered vessel with the tantalizing name of Siola Tau (Come With Us). While there, mono cassette recorder in hand, I recorded a local musician, Markus Tadak, as he played a curious stringed instrument called a sesando. That tape lay in my drawer at home for thirty years. I returned to Rote in 2006 and took the music back to the musician where my return was marked with a special treat - dog for dinner.

For three hundred years Makassan Bugis sailors seasonally visited Marege as they called the North Australian coast. It is incomprehensible to me that Australians, as well traveled as we are, until recently have pretty much ignored the Indonesian Archipelago. However, Bob Hobman and Robin Davey couldn't ignore Indonesia. They owned one of the first Indonesian perahus (boats) to legally enter Australian waters. As it turned out Siola Tau was the vehicle for my quest for adventure.

Siola Tau, fifteen metres long and weighing twenty tonnes was built in the Pangguran Islands, north of Bali, by local boat builders using hand tools such as adze, saw, mallet, chisel and a drill made from wood and string from plans drawn in the sand. Every swing of the adze could be seen in the planks of her hull. Caulked with paper bark and using antifouling made from a mixture of crushed coral (lime) and coconut oil, the boat was fixed with wooden dowels without a single screw or nail. She had a Nade or Gunter rig i.e. the mainsail had a short gaff that when hauled up sat snugly and upright against the mast. With no deep keel to help her steer the jib boom sometimes needed to be backed or held into the wind in order to encourage her to come about. She was built by eye and the starboard profile of the hull varied from the port profile. On a good day this trade-winds vessel could cover one hundred nautical miles. She was more than a vessel she was a work of art.

Before I met her Siola Tau had left Bali in 1975 and set sail for Darwin, Australia with a crew of five. They had no motor but plenty of chutzpah. By the time they reached the island of Rote, the last landfall before the Timor Sea crossing to Darwin, the crew were ill with malaria and hepatitis. To add to their woes the boat leaked like a sieve. The crew pumped the bilge continuously by hand barely making landfall at the port of Baa where they ran her up onto the beach. It was ten months before they were to return.

For the next four months, the townspeople of Baa and the Catholic priest, Father Franz, nursed the crew back to health. With astonishing goodwill they arranged for a family to feed and house each crew member. Because of that care and devotion the crew came through their ordeal and lived to sail another day.

That day came when Bob and Robin set about making plans for the retrieval and homecoming of Siola Tau. When I heard their story thoughts of cleaning up Darwin disappeared and with blind enthusiasm I offered my services to help bring the vessel home. Before long we were sailing to a place I'd never seen nor heard of, to the island of Rote in Indonesia. This is a story of two journeys thirty years apart.

We sailed out of Darwin Harbour in October 1976 aboard the wonderful wooden sloop Diva Jana. She was piled high with materials and equipment for the rescue of Siola Tau and goods for the people of Baa. After four days sailing westward across the Timor Sea, Rote rose from the horizon. The little port town of Baa grew larger, it's long wharf stretched out across the fringing reef like a beckoning finger. The returning sailors were greeted with gusto. During our weeklong stay we had so many dinner invitations that most days we ate four full meals. The food was delicious, usually a smorgasbord of rice, corn, pork, beef, goat, chicken, greens and chili. Unwilling to upset our hosts or seem unappreciative we ate with everyone who asked.

The Lontar palm is central to Rotenese culture. It provides food, shelter and entertainment. The milky white sap called tuak is a delicious glucose rich drink that has provided the Rotenese succor in times of drought. When the tuak is distilled the result is a fiery clear spirit called sopi, a moonshine produced clandestinely across the countryside in illicit stills. The broad-fingered leaves of the Lontar are used to make vessels to carry the tuak and to make the sound box of an unusual stringed instrument called a sesando. This was an instrument I wanted to hear and record.


To capture this music proved difficult. Some musicians just didn't play very well and one recording session ended in violent disarray. We were in the countryside at the hut of an old couple, whose names escape me now, but the episode will live long in my memory. The man played the sesando cradled on his knees in the traditional manner and they sang well together in a screeching high-pitched harmony helped by the lubrication of a glass of sopi or two. The thatch-roofed hut was full of friends and relations who, as the band played on, became louder and drunker. Something that started out promising descended into chaos.

A toothless old man wearing a sarong and sandals became a danger to himself and others and was ejected from the party. He returned a couple of times but couldn't stand still and bumped his way around the hut knocking people over. Three of his compatriots hoisted him horizontally and proceeded to evict him again. He screamed for release and as they speared him towards the front door he wrapped his feet around the central pole of the rickety building. The walls shook and the thatch shimmied. It was like a mini earthquake about to devastate the whole place. The harmonies became weaker and weirder. Thatch floated down through the air like confetti as the miscreant was unceremoniously dumped over the side of the small ravine beside the hut. He rolled like tumbleweed to the bottom cussing and spitting and we could hear him vowing revenge during his subsequent unsuccessful attempts to scramble to the top.

The old couple's timing became erratic and their harmonies descended into a squawk as they simultaneously fell sideways off their chairs to land in a single crumpled heap on the dirt floor. It was time to leave. Who was going to play definitive sesando for us?

The Tadak house was like all the others on the hill above the town, thatched roof, split bamboo walls and earthen floor. Markus had been recommended to me as the man to see about sesando music. He agreed to let me record and so, with a bottle of sopi and the mono tapedeck, Robin Davey and I zigzagged up moonlit tracks to Markus's house. Lontar palms were silhouetted on the ground and Baa twinkled below. The evening warmed out across the Indian Ocean encouraging my fantasies about tropical islands. After the previous melee we approached Markus's house hoping for something better.

The yellow glow of a hurricane lamp painted our shadows across the beaten bamboo walls. In the two rooms were one table, four metal chairs and a bed. Rob, Markus and his brother Yakob and I sat down around the table and Markus Tadak began the arduous job of tuning his instrument. Today, sesandos sport guitar strings but in the 1970's strings were made from whatever came to hand. In this case household fuse wire and unwound motorcycle brake cables made up the eighteen strings each positioned length-ways around the circumference of a piece of bamboo 400mm long. The bamboo itself was positioned pole to pole within the semi sphere of the Lontar leaf sound box. This was an alien instrument.

Markus's wife sat on the bed in the other room. She made some appearances with snacks of gulah merah or solidified palm sugar, and biscuits. The sopi bottle clinked against the glasses and forty minutes elapsed before the musician was happy with the sound of his instrument. He tuned it by nudging triangular wooden bridges set between each string and the bamboo tube. Through this twiddling a rhythm emerged and Markus began a twenty minute flailing of his instrument playing with force and precision, segueing between rhythms, varying his speed and attack; the right hand forming the bass lines and the left hand conjuring up melodies. He began to sing.

Teomarinda...oh!...sama sai..ai... sama sai..ai...ai.

It reminded me of the guttural sounds of some of the early Mississippi Delta blues men, not pretty but heartfelt and on pitch. He played for over an hour segueing smoothly from one song to the next. Yakob tapped out the beat on the sound box. It was too loud for the recording's sake but I was loath to interfere; the brothers had been doing this all their lives.

We sat alone in Markus's house. There had been no invitations to party. We needed to take this seriously. By 9.30 pm the tape was full and the bottle was empty so we bid farewell to Markus and his wife and his brother Yakob. Stepping outside into the moonlight I had no idea that I would not see them again for a very long time. That cassette tape lay in my drawer at home for thirty years until 2006 when I took the music home to the musician.


A few days later, overfed and smiling, we left for Oiselli on the southern tip of Rote. Siola Tau had been moved there for shelter and security. The bay was cobalt blue and the white sand beach had a coconut grove behind it and was bordered by rocky headlands. Irianto, a young man with long hair and a long nose had been employed to live aboard and keep her secure and shipshape while the crew was away.

Father Franz, a native of Austria, was destined to spend his life ministering to the people of Rote and Savu. He is still there today. An extraordinary man, 190 cm tall with crew-cut hair, he wore short shorts with rolled up cuffs, sandals and towered over his parishioners. His thick black-framed spectacles curiously enlarged his eyes adding to his overpowering presence. In attempts to raise the islanders' standard of living and ameliorate the sometimes-brutal effects of the dry season he began experimental projects all over the island. Despite a jealous machete-wielding neighbour cutting down his banana plants he continued to grow them. He was a determined man.

Franz ferried our gear and us in a vehicle built in The Netherlands called a Haflinger. Like a cross between a Mini-Moke and a Quad bike this little all-terrain vehicle bumped and smoked and revved over the atrocious island roads. Franz drove crazily and fast. Momentum was needed to crest the hills on the rock-strewn tracks. The overloaded two stroke bounced and wheezed it's way backwards and forwards between Baa and Oiselli in clouds of dust and blue smoke until all the gear stored at the church was back aboard the boat. Franz was also an action man.

Siola Tau needed a new boom so a party walked to the forest and returned with a gigantic stem of bamboo ten metres long and 200mm in diameter. It was stripped of branches and a y-shaped yoke fashioned from mangrove root fitted to one end. It was then hoisted into place behind Siola Tau's naturally curved grown timber mast. Fertilizer bags filled with sand were placed in the bilge to augment the smooth river rocks already there as ballast and the sails bent onto the mast. New lines were spliced and diced from polypropylene rope bought in Kupang, Timor. We loaded 200 litres of fresh well water and a kerosene stove for cooking. On the night before our departure we had a mad sopi-soaked party on Siola Tau's deck complete with a gong ensemble. This consisted of people striking what looked like big rusty hubcaps with little sticks creating crazy offbeat rhythms. Village people laughed, sang, screamed, gonged, fell or were pushed overboard and partied until dawn.

The next day with the wind from the south and on our bow we kedged out of Oiselli Bay. Kedging involved a well-balanced crew in a sampan manipulating two anchors and line. One anchor was ferried forward in the sampan, deployed, and the vessel hauled up to it. The sampan was again paddled forward and the second anchor deployed and the vessel hauled up again. In this way Siola Tau inched towards the mouth of the bay whereupon the sails were hoisted and the tiller pushed hard over. She turned eastward and the gentle slap of the ocean against the hull told us we were making way. Next stop Port Darwin, Australia.

Tropical storms, known as line squalls, formed menacingly across the southern horizon. At times eight or ten hovered in the distance. We skirted the edge of one black maelstrom. The wind on it's periphery blew us safely away like Cassini sling-shotting around Jupiter. We dodged a couple more but it was inevitable that sooner or later we would be swallowed. When we did succumb Siola Tau was held captive and battered for eight hours. She began to leak badly and I thought, what am I doing here?

Below deck the water rose to the level of the seating around the saloon table. We took turns pumping the bilge using the traditional Indonesian maritime force pump; a bamboo tube, a stick for pumping and the cut up sole of a thong for a seal and a valve flap. Australians are not the only improvisers.

During next morning's calm I watched Robin Davey, a diver by profession, slip into the water amongst circling sharks to plug the leaking seam with plasticene. The leak slowed but we pumped continuously to Darwin. Great for the upper body but ultimately exhausting and luckily for Robin the sharks were not hungry that day.

Siola Tau was run up onto another beach next to the Trailer Boat Club in Fanny Bay and later sold for one dollar. She lived in Darwin for another fifteen years before sinking in the harbour on a Sunday sail, an ignominious end for a gallant vessel.

The tape of Markus Tadak's music lay in my drawer for thirty years. Every so often I took it out and played it. I don't think my friends liked it much - too raw - but it became an old friend to me.

Over the intervening years I toyed with the idea of taking the music back to Markus and his family on Rote Island and as 2005 became 2006 the idea became more fixed in my mind. After all thirty years seemed an appropriate anniversary for a return. Even so, I held no high hopes for the project. Markus was in his fifties in 1976 and may well have shuffled off this mortal coil. However, I knew Rote was a place of oral history and family legends so I could give the music to his relatives. Surely someone would remember the legend of Siola Tau.

Before leaving for Indonesia Cal Williams, an old friend and one of the driving forces behind the band Yothu Yindi, cleaned up the tape and transferred it to CD in the music room at Charles Darwin University. My return to Rote began one morning in July 2006 as the Air North Brasilia turbo-prop took off over a shimmering Fanny Bay and headed for Kupang, Timor.

El Tari Airport sits on a rocky plateau overlooking Kupang Harbour. The terminal buildings echo the high pointed roofs of traditional Timorese architecture. On my first visit there in 1973 the terminal was in a tin shed and I took advantage of the break in the flight to Bali to use the lavatory that was also in a tin shed out on the field. I fronted up to the cracked and mineral stained porcelain urinal and while sniffing the pervading aroma a fellow passenger with a greying beard and wearing a safari suit stepped up beside me. He saw my look of consternation so slapped me on the back and said with a chuckle,

You're in the Orient now, boy!

The Maliana Hotel was my favourite low-rent accommodation in Kupang. Situated on Jalan Siliwangi, the esplanade that runs along the edge of the harbour, it offers motel-style rooms with bamboo verandah furniture where you sit and look across the harbour foreshore. Mini buses called bemos, plastered with trashy iconography mostly about sex and movie stars, doof-doofed up and down the street with their horns bleating sequentially. They stopped and started willy-nilly as they touted for customers. If Bali is the front door for tourists going to Indonesia then Kupang is definitely the back door. The short flight from Darwin to Kupang reminds me of the times, growing up in Sydney, when I jumped our back fence to take a short cut to my friend's house in the next street.

Across the road from the Maliana was L' Avalon, a Bar with no walls. Edwin, the owner, was constructing the building around an already functioning business. Here I met Dave, a middle-aged Aussie, who spends half his year at Nemberala on Rote. He lived in the village of Sedowa assisting the locals to sink wells. He had also bought a bemo for the local youths so they could make an income by ferrying surfers from the wharf at Baa to the guesthouses of Nemberala. Luckily Dave advised me to take cash to Baa because there was no ATM capable of handling international transactions on Rote. Perched on the rocks above a harbour beach, L' Avalon became a place to source local information, buy hot chips and beer, get online or perhaps purchase some Ikat, traditional hand-woven cloth, from the hovering salesmen or just to socialise.

My anticipation was building so next morning I hired an ojak or motorcycle taxi that whisked me and my single piece of luggage around the winding coast road to the ferry terminal at Ternau for the fast boat to Baa. Arriving late, I was assigned a seat in the bowels of the vessel. Only a month previously an overloaded older ferry sank while crossing the Rote Strait so my eyes were constantly on the life jackets stowed above our heads. Were there enough to go around? I doubted it. This cigarette shaped Italian job flew out of the harbour and across the Rote Strait at 40 knots, white water whizzing behind. I was about to complete some kind of geo-social circle/cycle and Baa was just a "B" grade heist movie away.


The ferry docked at Baa two hours later and I disembarked into the brilliant morning sunshine to see the town for the first time in thirty years. A new jetty stretched 200 metres out into the clear water. Cargo dangled on derricks as Makassan perahus were loading. People milled, looking for relatives. Bus and bemo boys spruiked for passengers and motorcycles weaved through the throng. It seemed the sleepy town had woken up.

The town quickly threw up old landmarks. There was the lovely lady Foxy's shop where I had taken a shine to her younger cousin Linda, and she to me. Empty now, it had once been a bustling business situated as it was near the wharf. The office of Naval Communications and the Office of Animal Husbandry gave the area a more prosperous appearance. Thirty years had wrought some change. Around the next corner was the almost new Ricky Hotel, which I took as an sign, considering my name, and booked in. I had my bearings.


It was lunchtime so I strolled along the main street and popped into the first Nasi Padang restaurant on the strip. Delicious aromas of beef rendang and chicken curry wafted through the room. Half way through the meal an old man sitting opposite me asked,

Where are you from?
Darwin, Australia.
Ah. Where are you going?
I'm looking for a man named Markus Tadak. Do you know him?
Sadak?
No. Tadak.
Ah, Tadak, yes I know him. He lives up the top at 'Lete Langa'

My heart raced, at least he was pointing in the right direction according to my memory. He wrote down the address for me and left. I finished my meal, quaffed the sweet black tea and paid the bill. The mid day sun strobed my exit onto the rocky thoroughfare that passed for Baa's main street. The old fellow I'd just been talking to was standing on the road with a policeman who looked strangely familiar to me. Introduced as Irianto, he was Markus Tadak's son! He asked my business and I told him about my musical quest. He smiled and suggested we ride up to the house together. He was a big guy so I squeezed on the back of his little Yamaha and we putt-putted up the spaghetti-like tracks behind the town past lurching trucks and motor-cyclists who warned me to watch out because he was a crazy driver and how did I get a policeman to be my ojak. Markus Tadak's house was made from concrete bricks and had a tin roof. It was more substantial than the house I had known in 1976. I'd left home with the faint hope that Markus would still be alive. Soon I would know.

I peered through a grimy verandah window and saw an old man sleeping, taking his noonday nap. Irianto called out repeatedly.

Pak (Dad), there's someone to see you!

A wizened character emerged into the sunlight and his eyes, behind goggle-lensed glasses, appeared bigger than they really were. I couldn't believe it, here he was, alive if not kicking. Wracked with arthritis he would not be playing the sesando for me, but I would do that for him.

Someone found a boom box and we moved inside to hear the maestro's music. By then the whole family had gathered except for his wife, who had died. Two svelte old women wearing traditional sarong kebaya sat together on the floor. They were cousins and both called Lina, the two Linas or Lina dua. Everyone laughed because they looked so similar they could be interchangeable. The room was bare of decoration except for one photo of Markus holding his sesando.


A low hiss, then the clink and slop of sopi being poured into glasses slid out of the speakers. Markus's voice crackled down through time as he made small talk thirty years ago. The first notes of the sesando drifted through the house like ghosts. Lina dua's four eyes became wider and wider. Markus and Yakob sat motionless, apparently unperturbed. The children looked to their elders, beginning to understand the significance of what they were hearing. The emotion of the moment almost overwhelmed me. I'd left home thinking that Markus Tadak was probably dead. Experiencing this event brought a lump to my throat. It was amazing and as I watched the faces in the room I could tell that they thought it was amazing too. Did the enigmatic Markus think the same way? It was difficult to tell.

While the music played I was told some family history. Markus's son Johan, fifty five, a sailor and skinny like his dad, had spent five years in gaol in Western Australia for captaining a refugee boat that smuggled Pakistanis to Ashmore Reef. He served time in Kalgoorlie, Pilbara and Casuarina prisons from 1997 to 2002. Markus didn't say much. In fact, looking back, I hardly spoke to him at all. Everyone else talked so much he could not get a word in edgewise. On the other hand, he may have preferred it that way.

That evening the family held a spontaneous celebration to thank me for my trouble. The food was delicious, even the dog meat, that I'm sure they had gone to special trouble to prepare. I ate just enough to be polite. No, it didn't taste like chicken but instead tasted like beef. My western conditioning dampened my appetite for pooch curry.

Markus's music played all evening, Lina dua kept pressing the play button and smiling wistfully at each other. At one point a middle-aged woman danced in the traditional fashion, side on, knees bent and a shawl across her shoulders, moving to the rhythm. I joined her to cheers of delight. Irianto remembered our wild gong session aboard Sioa Tau and I came to the realisation that it was he who looked after the boat while the crew was away. Rote is a small place and everything is interconnected.

Thoughtfully, Johan took the picture of Markus off the wall and gave it to me. I was touched and asked Markus to sign it but he couldn't write. Johan sent someone off to find a ballpoint pen. He took his father's hand, inked his thumb and pressed it onto the back of the photo leaving an excellent impression. One of the Linas jumped up and disappeared into the back room returning with a faded colour snapshot of Yakob taken some years earlier. Johan repeated the process and inked Yakob's thumbprint onto the back of his photograph. You know how it feels when you want to achieve something and the pieces fall into place? Having the photos with the thumbprints on the back was winning the prize. I was going home with an Oscar for a job well done.

The owner of the Ricky Hotel called me the tourist asal disini or Rote's first tourist and later that week as we rode to the wharf to catch the ferry back to Kupang, Mus, my ojak, jokingly called back over his shoulder,

You're a legend!

Down at Nemberala, Emu, the young man who drove Dave's bemo, asked me if I was Mr Ricky and then proceeded to tell me the story of the procurement of the bamboo boom! Well, I'm part of the legend anyway.


That was my time on Rote island, a round trip that took thirty years to complete but was well worth the wait.