This past September Larry traveled back to Malaysia, as a follow up to his first trip in May 2015 collecting research for his potential new project highlighting the indigenous cultures of Malaysia (the Orang Asli). He collaborated with Sabera Shaik, owner of Malaysian Masakini Theatre, to further develop the concept and direction of the project. Below you will find Larry's reflections after his first trip in May 2015. We look forward to sharing his most recent experience upon his return.
Malaysia is a complicated country. There are large Chinese, Malay, and Indian populations. Out of a total population of 20 million people, only 200,000 are known as Orang Asli, the original people. Traditionally, they are a semi-nomadic people whose culture revolves around an intimate knowledge of the rain forest. In the rain forest they are completely self-sufficient hunter-gatherers. They know the range of the animals they stalk, and they know where the best plants grow for nutrition and for healing.
They are territorial, but the concept of land ownership is foreign to them. They are animists who believe that spirits inhabit everything everywhere. These spirits can be both benevolent and malevolent. They communicate with the people through their dreams. The people then interpret the dreams using songs, and in some cases masks, to ask these spirits for guidance, for healing and for balance. In a sense they are pacifists who believe in living within nature, rather than conquerors who dominate it.
Tetsuro Koyano, Ramli Ibrahim, and I first met in Indonesia fifteen years ago where we were studying and performing together. Koyano specializes in Balinese masked theater, Ibrahim is a major exponent of Indian dance in Malaysia and a cultural icon there. I studied traditional Balinese shadow theater, and subsequently created a new, cinematic form of theater using shadows, which could be easily adapted to any culture. This project is an outgrowth of a conversation between Ramli and myself that began over ten years ago. We thought it would be interesting to work with the Orang Asli community to make a large-scale shadow theater piece, which would increase awareness of their culture among the general population of Malaysia, and stimulate a sense of pride among the Orang Asli themselves. In the interim I have done projects with the Karuk tribe of Northern California (COYOTE’S JOURNEY), and together with Koyano, with the Ainu people of Northern Japan (PORO OYNA).
The purpose of the trip was to test the feasibility of our ideas among the Orang Asli, and among the cultural leaders of Malaysia. To that end we engaged Busu Ngah, a member of the Temiar tribe and good friend of Ramli. We travelled to three Temiar villages about seven hours North of Kuala Lumpur. We stayed in the village of Santhi where we were introduced to various healers and village leaders. We participated in healing ceremonies in the village of Yum and also showed them some videos of our work, and conducted a brief shadow theater workshop with some of the children there.
We then travelled up the dirt logging road to the village of Perjek where we met with a group of village elders and listened to Temiar creation stories. Every time a logging truck went down the road, the men all turned and watched silently as it roared by.
These villages are all government-built concrete-block relocation projects.
One of the men continually wears the traditional loincloth as a silent protest.
Their home territory further up the road is being clear cut, and will soon become yet another palm oil plantation. Most of the people are ill equipped to survive in modern society. The younger people often work as day laborers.
Busu Ngah is taking a different route. He has finally received his university degree after years of night school. He hopes someday to represent his people in parliament. He has a nightly radio program playing indigenous music and accepting calls from Orang Asli around the country. It is a great forum for people to talk about their trials and successes. We appeared live on his program and talked about our impressions of the villages, our appreciation for the culture, and our hopes to do a project together in the near future.
The next day we traveled to Carey Island to visit the Mah Meri tribe in the village of Sungai Bunbun. Surprisingly one of the elders had listened to the radio program and knew all about us. They performed a masked dance ceremony for us and talked about the process of carving masks based on dreams. It was unclear to us how important this process is in their actual lives.
In the village of Santhi, many of the families have succumbed to government pressure and become Muslim. By contrast in the village of Yum the ceremonies seem to be a vital part of life. The women form a chorus, keeping time with bamboo tubes, which mark the heartbeat of the ceremony. A healer, usually a man, sings a line, which is repeated by the women, etc. His song has come to him in a dream, and the act of performing it is healing. The men take turns singing and some go into trance, further enhancing the healing process.
In truth, our original plan was to attend the first national festival celebrating the Orang Asli cultures and peoples, which was abruptly postponed. This sudden change turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of having to navigate the large event to meet people with different agendas and goals, we were able to have very personal, intimate, focused and meaningful experiences especially in the villages.
This was all thanks to the insights and resourcefulness of Ramli and his staff at the Sutra Foundation. They made sure that we could fulfill all of our goals. When the trips to the native settlements were arranged, I was eager to jump in with shadow workshops and demos as we thought it was the best way to gage their interest in the project. Ramli convinced me otherwise – he felt it was not only important but also essential that we simply be there, meet, observe and understand the history and current situation of the Orang Asli people first hand. Let the demo and workshop naturally happen if they did ever happen at all. He was right. We could not have anticipated what life was like in the village, and how hard it would be to stage a project entirely in one village. We now have a common understanding of how to move forward.
All photos & video by Koyano Tetsuro