News accounts last Friday highlighted the importance of preserving and fostering the musical traditions of two different peaceful societies.
According to Indian news sources, the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), the Indian National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, just awarded the coveted SNA prize—Rs.50,000 (US$1,000)—to Hildamit Lepcha for her dedication to preserving and performing, with the help of her husband Sonam Tshering Lepcha, the traditional music of the Lepcha people.
Sonam apparently was collecting traditional Lepcha songs when he arrived in Hilda’s village in 1974. Her father arranged for the scholar to marry his daughter so that he could foster her musical talents. She joined her husband, helping him collect songs and musical information from villagers, and they have been working together in the cause ever since.
Hilda explains that the traditional Lepchas, who are nature worshipers, have songs for every occasion or task. “We worship nature so we have songs on rivers, seasons, mountains etc,” she says, and she starts to sing: “ka ku ku ka ku ku chakdun chakdun dun dun.” The people sing it when they sow their seeds.
She wears traditional clothing and uses an instrument called a tumbok while she sings a song, adapted by her husband, which accompanies the prayers the Lepcha use to encourage the souls of the deceased to be transported to the sacred mountain where they will join other souls. Hilda also performs at various ceremonies and festivals. For instance, she sings to ask an indigenous goddess to protect children during naming ceremonies, and she performs other songs to accompany marriage ceremonies or to highlight festivities that mark the start of the new year.
Hilda brings her singing to the stage and radio in India, while her husband continues his musicology research, going village to village studying Lepcha folksongs. Their focus on Lepcha music and their work to promote it helps keep the traditions of the people from disappearing.
In Peninsular Malaysia, radio station Asyik FM dedicates itself to programs for the indigenous peoples. It provides a special venue for the music of the Orang Asli societies, including the Semai. Last week, according to a news story, the station was unable to contact a Semai man, Jaafar Salleh, from RPS Pos Betau Kuala Lipis, to tell him that a piece he had written had won a song-writing contest and it would be performed in a few days as part of a music competition.
The Semai man heard the repeated announcements on the radio but was unable to call the station since he did not have a telephone. Later, he was able to borrow a phone to call and express his pleasure at the news. A 29 year old who does odd jobs in his village and writes songs, Jaafar was thrilled. “It is a dream come true. I have never experienced anything like this in my life,” he said.
Personnel from the station had toured Malaysia in May, holding auditions in ten different locations in order to find the best singing talents among all the Orang Asli peoples. They considered 453 aspiring singers, 40 of whom advanced to the semi-finals last month and 8 to the finals. The finalists will sing songs of their own choice, plus Orang Asli songs submitted by listeners, such as the one by Jaafar. The station was coaching the singers on performing techniques before the final event on Saturday.
The first prize singer will receive an award of RM10,000 (US$2,800) and the best composer will receive a prize of RM3,000 (US$850).