Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Mak Minah, Uncrowned Queen of the Temuan

In a world where old values, tradition and culture are inevitably being torn down to make way for modernization, a group of people decided to document the beautiful Temuan lullabies, forming a band that would go down in the history of Malaysia's cultural scene. That band is Akar Umbi. And at the core of the band's talents was Minah Agong. Portraits of Perseverance has gotten the permission to use three of the band's songs - songs that had grown to become the hearbeat of the old Temuan tribe and Mak Minah herself. The story of her life, and eventually her death was intertwined with natural resource usage conflicts. Who better to tell that story than Mak Minah's very own bandmate and friend. The man who paved the way for the forming of Akar Umbi: Antares. 

Yes, I am pleased to tell you my story. But as I cannot write things down, I will ask my friend to help. He is among those who knew me well in my last years on this earth. I whisper these words in his mind’s ear, for he is still in the world of the living, while I am already back in the realm of spirit, and happily so.

My bones now lie buried on top of a hill overlooking the saddest sight you can imagine. Majestic hills stripped of trees, mountains blown up to make a dam. I may be dead but my spirit lives on in my songs, and in the sacred (and now badly scarred) landscape I love so dearly.  One day my songs will be heard and they will soften the hardened hearts of the greedy ones who destroy more than they construct. When men’s hearts heal, so will the land.

"Cover of Akar Umbi CD 'Songs of the Dragon' (released August 2002)"

I was born in Pertak, Ulu Selangor, between two world wars, into the Temuan tribe. The identity card issued by the government says I arrived on September 14, 1930, and records my name at birth as Menah Anak Kuntom.  People knew me as Mak Minah because that was my stage name as lead singer with a band called Akar Umbi. Perhaps the most exciting moment of my life was when we performed before 40,000 people at the biggest stadium in Selangor. Afterwards, so many people came and congratulated me. I had a photograph taken with Sharifah Aini and Sahara Yaacob, who were also performing that night. We looked like three queens together!

Anyway, Menah or Minah makes little difference to me, since I can’t spell. Our names keep changing as we change. But once we write anything down, it becomes harder to change. Take my sister’s name: although we have the same father and mother, her name is recorded in her identity card as Indah Anak Merkol, after our  stepfather. My mother’s name was Beresih but all her children called her Mui, which is the Temuan word for Mak or Mother.

"Akar Umbi in 1995 rehearsing for 'Out in the Open' festival at Carcosa Seri Negara. For details click here" 

As a child I remember life was carefree and fun. Fish was abundant in the streams, and the forest supplied all our needs, except for luxuries like sugar, salt, and milled rice. Fresh meat was easily available as there were many animals that could be hunted or trapped.  We Orang Asli can eat anything, with or without legs or wings, as long as it’s not poisonous (we even know how to remove the poison from some wild plants so that they become edible). Apart from fish and wild boar, we also eat porcupines, pythons, leaf monkeys, deer, birds, and bamboo rats (whose flesh is very clean and sweet, as they feed only on bamboo shoots). These are all gifts of the Great Spirit That Dwells In Everything.

The only education I received was from my grandmother, who enjoyed telling us stories. 
She explained how human beings were seeded on Tanah Tujuh (which is what we call this physical world) by Mamak and Inak Bongsu, a brother and sister who survived the Great Flood by clinging to the top of a gaharu tree on Gunung Raja. 

My grandmother was full of wonderful tales about the beautiful elven races (Orang Halus) who left the planet for the higher heavens when the Difficult Times began. Some chose to remain, because they had grown to love the earth, but they gradually became invisible to human eyes.

"Minah Angong, Rafique Rashid & Antares (not visible in pic) perform with Anak Dayung at the first Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, August 1998." 

People ask me if Orang Asli have any religion. I always reply that we don’t need religion because our God is not separate from the everyday world in which we live. The Great Spirit That Dwells In Everything takes all forms and speaks to us as the song of the wind in the bamboo grove, or as the neverending gossip of the river. Sometimes it is the distant call of a mist-covered mountain. Other times, it is as close as a sleeping child breathing gently in its mother’s ear.

During my lifetime I saw how people became blinded by ambition and greed. They began to mine the earth for metals and log the forest for wood. With each passing year the land became hotter and the rivers became dirtier, so we could no longer drink the water without boiling it first.  With each passing year we had to walk farther and farther to find some bamboo or catch some fish because people would come into the forest and take out more than they needed. And with each passing year we saw more and more wilderness cleared so that towns could be built. 

"Rafique Rashid, one of the key musicians of Akar Umbi, with the Temuan at Pertak Village."

I enjoyed going to town where many things could be bought, but to do that we had to sell durians, petai, bamboo, cane (manao) and aromatic wood (gaharu) for cash. Yet I could never imagine myself living in a town where it’s always so noisy and hot. Like all Orang Asli, I dearly love the jungle which is our natural home and hunting ground. I would rather die than be forced to live in a town.

When I was 12 the world turned upside down. Planes dropped bombs in the jungle to destroy bridges and railway tracks. We had to hide in caves on the slopes of mountains. For many years my family stayed hidden deep in the forest, for fear that we may be captured or killed by the invaders. During those war years we missed the taste of salt and sugar. We lived in the middle of the Malay Peninsula - far from the sea – and had grown accustomed to flavouring our food with salt bought from the Chinese merchants.  My mother taught me how to make cooking oil from the perah nut.

After the war life became even worse for us. The government put us all in detention camps, surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded by soldiers. They said it was to protect us from the communist guerrillas. Unused to suddenly being confined in a small space so close to town, many of our people became depressed, fell sick, and died. This is how I lost both my parents. 
"Antares playing the flute in an Akar Umbi number."

But I was already an attractive young woman with many admirers. My life stretched ahead of me like a newly laid road, and I had a taste for adventure. I found myself married to a man I hardly knew. At least he could take me away from the confines of the resettlement camp. We ran back to our beloved jungle and built a hut along the river, along with many others who could no longer bear living within a fence.

My first marriage was a tragedy. I was too young to be a dutiful mother. My children died of illness and my husband left me. For a while, I flirted with the idea of becoming a white man’s mistress. Then I met Angong who had recently become the Batin (headman) of Kampong Gerachi. He was a patient man with great wisdom. It was he who taught me the ceremonial songs passed down to him by his ancestors. Angong taught me to be proud of my noble naga (dragon) lineage. Not every family has an animal totem. Only those with some knowledge of jungle medicine (jampi) or who possess magical powers (dukun) have special allies in the animal kingdom. 

I bore Angong five children and greatly missed him when he returned to Pulau Buah, where souls go after they drop their physical bodies (which we call baju, or clothes). When my children grew up and started their own families, I moved to Kampong Pertak to live with my younger sister Indah and her husband Rasid. My elder brothers, Diap and Utat, lived nearby.  My eldest son, Ramsit, took over as Batin of Gerachi.

"Akar Umbi doing a workshop with Scottish group Shooglenifty at RWMF 1999."

It was fated that my life would begin to change in 1992. I met a few people from the big city who happened to be musicians. They heard me singing and decided to record my voice, adding musical instruments to give my traditional sawai (healing) songs a modern sound. The first song we created together was called Burung Meniyun. I was asked to sing it on stage during a performance by a famous dancer named Chandrabhanu who lived in Australia. I was surprised and touched that people in the big city would receive my humble song with such open hearts.  Never before had I sung for so many strangers in such a large hall! Chandrabhanu himself was quite a colourful character, dressed up as some kind of witch doctor with all sorts of strange objects dangling from his body. I found it exciting to meet so many new friends who were delighted to hear my ancient songs. 

It all happened so quickly. One moment I was just an Orang Asli widow gathering firewood and tapioca leaves in the forest and going fishing with my sister. Then suddenly I was on national TV singing for thousands of people in a huge stadium! I shall never forget the pleasure of hearing the loud applause and shaking hands with everybody afterwards. I felt proud to be able to please so many people with my simple songs. For once I could feel that no one was looking down on me, or ignoring me, for being an uneducated Orang Asli. 

Can you imagine how it feels to be recognized by someone in Ulu Langat who had seen my performance on TV?  When I went to the market in town, people came up to me and congratulated me on my performance. But back in Kampong Pertak, I was greeted with a mixture of wholehearted support and suspicion. Some whispered behind my back that I was soon going to be too sombong (proud) to be their friend. That really hurt my heart.

"Minah Angong, diva of the rainforest, wowed the crowd at RWMF 1998 (photo: Wayne Tarman)."

I enjoy singing for people, and my late husband taught me that these songs handed down from our ancestors carry healing power. They are medicine songs. When I sing I can feel my spirit expand like a strong wind blowing through a tree. Naik angin, we call it.  Once I start I must carry on until the wind becomes a breeze and goes quietly on its way. If I don’t let the spirit wind flow (lepas angin) I can get very sick.

My first experience of flying was when Akar Umbi performed in Sarawak at the Rainforest World Music Festival. I had such a grand time and made even more friends. I returned to Sarawak with Akar Umbi the next year, for the last time. At the party after the close of the festival, my newfound friends sang me a rousing Iban farewell. My heart was light and heavy at the same time. Perhaps I knew this was our last meeting on this earth.

Even as I felt the pleasure of being applauded, I could feel the pain of losing our past and future. The dam project would soon destroy Kampong Gerachi and its durian orchards. A man-made lake would fill the Selangor River Valley, drowning a once-beautiful forest, along with our ancestral graves. I could not imagine anyone so foolish as to declare war against the forces of nature.  Did they have no understanding of, or respect for, our deep love of the land? Were they totally unaware that destroying the land would mean the end of our livelihood and future?  We are the land. If the land dies, we die. 

"Minah Angong and Ahau, Antares' son."  

My sister Indah and brothers Diap and Utat felt the same way that I did. We cherished our traditions and would never lose our heart connection to the land, even if we were offered vast amounts of money.  The 
Temuan tribe has lived here for many thousands of years; the hills and valleys and rivers are much, much older than that. Our fruit trees can live for over a hundred years and as long as we keep planting new ones, our great-great-grandchildren will never starve. But if they destroy the wilderness and put our people in housing estates and make us work in factories, our tribe will be disappear within a generation. Our nenek-moyang (ancestors) told us: “When Orang Asli are no longer visible on this earth, the sea will rise, the sky will fall, and everything will perish.”

It all seemed hopeless. My own son, as headman, had signed an agreement with the dam builders and loggers, allowing the destruction to begin.  I tried to talk him out of it, but he silenced me, his own mother.  My sorrow ran deep.  Before it had even started the dam project had split our families apart. 

But there were thousands of voices raised against the dam, and I was glad that we had so many friends, people who knew the true value of the rainforest and fought hard to stop the destruction.  I was interviewed by many reporters and I told them how I felt about seeing our way of life being taken from us.  One reporter asked me: “Don’t you want to see your grandchildren getting a good education, which they can only get when development reaches the rural areas?” I replied: “All those who cut down the trees and make the hills bare, causing landslides and floods, aren’t they educated too? If that’s what being educated means, then we Orang Asli don’t want to be educated!” The reporter had nothing to say to that.

"Mak Minah's gravestone which was placed in the middle of an old tree near Kg Gerachi. The tree had been struck by lightning but somehow survived. Sadly, her firstborn the Batin of Gerachi subsequently chopped down the tree, haunted perhaps by the memory of his mother who had been vehementy opposed to the dam project. The gravestone has since disappeared."

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t live to see the bulldozers and excavators arrive. Three weeks after I performed in Sarawak, I fell ill and surrendered my body to the earth.
It has become part of the sacred landscape of my ancestors. But my spirit is reunited at last with the Great Spirit That Dwells In Everything and I am happy.

© Antares (Kit Leee) 2002


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for bringing Mak Minah's story to a wider audience. Today is the 15th anniversary of her departure from our midst and I still miss her profoundly. She was a truly endearing and noble soul.