A World Heritage Dance Meets a High-Tech Stage
In a melodious chorus of assalamualaikum, the Arabic greeting meaning “may the peace of God be upon you,” a group of young boys deliver a flawless, lively and somewhat spine-chilling welcome dance.
Dressed in elaborately embroidered black vests and trousers, with red, gold and green thread, the boys, aged from 6 to 12, skillfully drum their chests in perfect rhythmic percussion. They are performing Saman, a dance native to the Gayo highlands of central Aceh and a tradition ingrained deep within their ethnic roots.
This performance was one of several to celebrate Unesco’s recent recognition of the Gayonese Saman dance as an Indonesian Cultural Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
The celebratory summit, held last weekend in Taman Fatahillah, Kota Tua, North Jakarta, was hosted by the Ministry of Education and Culture. It showcased the various forms of Saman and an array of related Indonesian Islamic dances on a spectacular high-tech multimedia stage.
“We present the Saman Summit to give thanks for Unesco’s recognition of Saman as a world heritage,” said Wiendu Nuryanti, deputy minister of education and culture, in the opening speech. The recognition was made official in Bali on Nov. 24.
Committee member Risman Musa said the summit was held in order to introduce the origins of Saman and to provide an intelligent forum enriched by expressions of Indonesian tradition, thus fostering a sense of belonging among the people.
The dance group profiles and the history of the dances were projected through widescreen video onto the white exterior of Museum Fatahillah, accompanied by high fidelity audio. The committee hoped that the highly technological presentation will attract young Indonesians to express contemporary creativity and thus preserve ancient traditions.
The boys performing at the celebration were very quick to master the dance because “it is already in their blood,” said the group’s coach, Syarifuddin.
“Since birth, these boys grew up watching their fathers and elder brothers dance and sing in the community. They watched Saman videos in kindergarten and imitated the singing or the moves during playtime,” Syarifuddin explained.
“Almost every Saman performer in Gayo is self-taught. All they need to do is to be part of the community, and join in the dance and music,” he added.
Saman is commonly performed during special occasions and Islamic holidays, and sometimes as a friendly competition between villages. Having evolved and been transmitted almost exclusively by oral tradition, each village in Gayo has its own Saman style. However, some rules of thumb are to be followed in order for the art form to qualify as Saman.
Firstly, Saman is performed by an odd number of performers, usually between 11 and 17, kneeling in one line facing the audience. A lead singer kneels exactly in the center, and there are moves that require alternating coordination among the dancers.
Secondly, the singing is performed in a combination of Arabic and Gayonese and conveys Islamic messages.
Thirdly, Saman is only to be performed by men or boys.
“It is taboo for females to perform Saman,” said Ben Saifuddin, who has taught Gayonese and Acehnese dances in Sanggar Pesona, Langsa, for nearly two decades. “This is because Saman music is exclusively produced through body percussion. It involves drumming the chest, which would be offensive on women or girls.”
Despite the taboo that prohibits females from performing Saman, the summit featured women dancers as well.
Meuseukat is an Acehnese dance, which, like Saman, is performed by 13 kneeling singing dancers. To make music, the women carry hand drums called rebana . Instead of sitting in the center, the lead singer separates herself from the rest of the dancers, chanting Koranic verses and religious words of wisdom.
The only unisex dance performed was the Tarek Pukat from Langsa, a town in the southeast coast of Aceh. Tarek Pukat, which means “pull the net,” is a prayer dance of the fishermen and their wives.
“As fishermen prepare to venture out to sea, their wives at home weave nets for them while praying to Allah to bless their journey with plentiful fish. Fish, as the main source of protein for coastal peoples, symbolize life, nourishment and prosperity,” Ben explained.
In addition to the Gayonese and Acehnese dances, the summit also featured performances of Islamic dances from other regions, including Pariaman, Cirebon, Jombang and Lombok.
One of the most interesting dances was Rodat Syi’iran, performed by the people of Banyuwangi, East Java.
Rodat is a dance that takes a V-formation like the flight of heron birds, and “syi’iran” means poetically lyrical.
Rodat Syi’iran was originally performed exclusively by men, but in recent years women have been allowed to participate as was the case at the Saman Summit. The reasons, as Gandrung leader Haidi puts it, are “purely aesthetical.”
The Provincial Secretary of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, Tengku Setia Budi, hopes events such as the Saman Summit will help construct a new positive image for his homeland.
“We hope that in the future Aceh will be known for Saman, not just for tsunamis and civilian conflicts,” he said. “We would be delighted if people around the world would start learning Saman.”
Unesco has also recognized batik, keris, and wayang as Intangible Cultural Heritages belonging to Indonesia. Saman is currently the only one originating from outside Java.
With Saman now recognized as a World Heritage, various people outside Java are hoping their customs will make the Unesco list as well, prompting pride and a significant effort to conserve them.