Conga Tata Güines and Flute German Velazco
In the time of the Dutch, 20,000 bronze drums were unearthed in Alor, many of them near rivers. Known as mokos, these drums are forty centimetres high and are shaped like a sandglass. They bear mysterious designs of mythological animals or manifestations of spirits, presumably engraved by shamans. Why they were buried in the earth remains a mystery. Might that have been to prevent them from being stolen? Were they offerings to evil spirits? They might have believed the drums had magic powers, regarding them as sacred objects, in keeping with an animistic creed.
What is known for sure is that they did not originate in Alor. Experts in dating antiquities place their origins in the Dongson region of northern Vietnam. Considering that Timor and Flores were colonised by the Portuguese and that, etymologically, the word ‘Alor’ is related to ‘oro’, the word for gold, it would seem that the bronze drums must have been exchanged for gold. I subsequently decided to find out if there was gold on the island, and was told that the natives’ ancestors used to store gold in special vessels and, in the National Museum of Alor, in Kala Bahi, there are samples of gold found in rivers.
Smaller than Bali or Ibiza, Alor is Indonesia’s most mountainous island, with rivers snaking through the jungle, many of them possibly bearing gold deposits. The island is so rugged that over thirty dialects are spoken there. It is forbidden to export mokos, as they are considered to be an integral part of local culture. Nowadays, when a man wishes to marry, he has to present his future father-in-law with the gift of a moko.
When I paddled around Alor, I was protected by the magic force of a shaman named Moses Molana. He was a short, skinny man with very narrow shoulders, an enormous head that loomed up from his body, sunken eyes, curly white hair and dark, almost black, skin. The expression on his face was both naive and diabolical, as if the angels of good and evil had merged into one. When I met Moses Molana, I felt I was in the presence of a powerful medicine man and that I would have to tread carefully in my dealings with him, prompting him to use his powers to help me rather than destroy me.
It is impossible to forget the expression on his face. Men with great power inspire fear. As has happened so often in the history of the world, those regarded as too powerful are targeted for elimination. Just six years ago, when I was about to visit my friend and protector, Moses Molana, and take him a gift of an electric piano, I found out to my dismay that he had been murdered with a shot to the head. The day before I embarked on my circumnavigation of the island, Moses Molana performed a strange rite using a chicken’s egg and a turtle shell, predicting that my expedition would be successful. However, he insisted on me giving a wide berth to an accursed cave at the point known as Tanjung Babi (Cape of the Pig). His parting words were: If you need me, utter my name aloud and, within seconds, I will come to your aid.
The film includes a scene in which, more out of ignorance than bravado, I swim into the accursed cave, despite the natives’ fears, and their warning that all those who have ventured into the cave have disappeared.
One of Shakana Moon’s most impressive portraits is his depiction of the worried face of the man who escorted me in the boat, when I said to him that I will swim into the cave.
On the third day of the expedition, we experienced one of the most terrifying moments in our lives when we became trapped in a violent whirlpool. The power of nature is merciless. The forteen-metre-long vessel began to rotate like a feather in the wind. The lights of a distant village appeared both to port and starboard, making us well aware that we were spinning like a top. We were both nauseous and about to vomit. The boat was turning faster and faster. The captain’s constant ringing of the bell, to keep the crew on the alert, only heightened our fears.
We were lucky to survive that ordeal. Within minutes my silvery temples turned even whiter, and wrinkles belying Shakana Moon’s panic came out on his face. That moonless night, as black as death, the whirlpool roared like an enraged monster, seemingly intent on swallowing us up and dragging us to the murky bottom of the sea. I don’t know how I had the courage to look overboard but, when I did so, the void in the whirlpool looked like the abyss of death. A cold shiver ran up my spine, my throat went dry and I began to tremble with fear. The most forbidding sight I saw, which I shall never forget, was of the water shooting out of the whirlpool so forcefully that it set up millions of fluorescent particles. It was as if we were about to be sucked in by a universe of stars. We were seized with panic. I didn’t know whether to close my eyes in a spasm of terror or open them to behold that amazing, splendorous beauty. I thought:
“I can’t imagine a more spectacular burial”. I also recalled the witch’s curse, who had predicted I would die in the sea (1). In an attempt to raise my spirits, Shakana Moon said, in a trembling voice:
“It’s a good thing we can swim.”
“If the engine isn’t powerful enough to break out of the whirlpool, how are we going to get out?” I replied. Needless to say, Shakana Moon was more concerned about surviving than filming. We subsequently tried to reproduce the whirlpool scene, but the attempt lacked authenticity and we decided to scrap it.
The Theme of the Film
When I paddled around the island, I was unable to take a drum with me, but I did play the bronze drums in the villages we en-countered in our stopovers. African rhythms went down the best with the locals and they nicknamed me Dang Dut for the Senegalese rhythm I played and recited: Dang Dut, Dang Dang Dut. There are people in Alor who still call me Dang Dut. The positive energy I received from them was so intense that, on the flight back from Kala Bahi to Bali, I wept with joy. Those drumming sessions were so successful that I suggested to Shakana Moon we should return to Alor to make a film, organise parties and provoke emotions using drums, masks and effigies. Most of the places we ended up visiting were islands far from Alor, where the natives had never seen a Westerner and, for our reception, they dressed up in costumes and performed ceremonial dances, as if we were important dignitaries.
Shakana Moon and I have spent much of our lives in Indonesia. We agree that, of all the ethnic groups we have seen around the world, the Indonesians are the most relaxed, fun-loving people we have encountered, followed by the Africans. Indonesians
respect those with the ability to control their emotions and they gauge intelligence by one’s capacity to laugh at oneself and at life. Whether you are a professor, a doctor from a reputable university, an inventor of new computer programs or a millionaire, if you take yourself seriously, you are likely to be susceptible and not react happily to jokes. Indonesians will regard you as rather silly.