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Concert - November 2008

The following article about the Brass Band Jenderal (Medan Band) appeared in my regular "mata jeli" column in the Straits Times on December 12, 2008

Dazzling show of good governance

Date: 12/12/2008

MATA JELI: A PERSPECTIVE ON INDONESIAN AFFAIRS

By Bruce Gale

SENIOR WRITER

INDONESIA often gets a bad press. In fact, almost every visitor to the country can cite some example of corruption, mismanagement and (some say) plain laziness. Indeed, the local and international media sometimes seem to delight in highlighting Indonesia’s deficiencies.

In the spirit of goodwill this Christmas, however, it is well to remember that not all Indonesians conform to these negative stereotypes. I was forcefully reminded of this recently when I participated in a brass band Christmas concert organised by current and former members of a Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Medan.

Boys’ Home residents consist mainly of children whose poverty-stricken parents are unable to support them. The home’s 30-strong band uses second- hand brass instruments, mostly purchased in Singapore. Band members range in age from 12 to 31, including several who have left the home and are now self-supporting. Most members, however, are teenagers attending government schools.

The home has a dedicated staff, but it is unable to help the band financially. Instead, the band, throughout its 20-year history, has been financed and trained by volunteers from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Britain.

But this story is not about the home, the Salvation Army or the generosity of a small number of foreigners. Rather, it is about the boys themselves and the way they have struggled against the odds to build a credible music ensemble while practising principles of good governance that would put many senior government officials to shame.

The band members are no strangers to hard work. Normally, the band practises twice a week (Thursdays and Saturdays), with older members teaching the younger ones. But when a foreign trainer arrives – usually for a long weekend every three months or so – marathon afternoon and evening rehearsals are the norm, with some running up to five hours or more at a stretch.

All this is done under the most trying conditions. There is no air-conditioning, and only a few fans. Medan’s unreliable electricity supply also means that some rehearsals have to be carried out to the accompaniment of a noisy electric generator.

The band has visited several parts of Indonesia. The most memorable was a 1989 trip to Bandung, when General Eva Burrows (the Salvation Army’s international leader at the time) gave the band its official name: Brass Band Jenderal (The General’s Band). It is a monicker generations of band members since have worn with pride.

This year’s concert was the result of months of careful planning. It wasn’t simply a matter of choosing some suitable music and ensuring that it could be played well. Determined to make an impact on the local community but facing acute financial constraints, band members drew upon their entrepreneurial skills. With no previous experience in such matters, these young Indonesians managed to hire a concert venue, negotiate for the use of professional sound, lighting and recording equipment, and arrange for advertisements on local radio – all at a mere fraction of market prices.

Specific departments were also created within the band for advertising and promotions (such as fliers), programme design, logistics, transport, concert hall preparation and refreshments.

All this occurred as members juggled school and work commitments. The 20-year-old principal trombonist, Mr Yohanes Mori, for example, left the full- dress rehearsal at 10pm the night before the concert to work as a labourer with a local vegetable wholesaler. Finishing work at 4am, he attended lectures at a local university from 7am to noon before joining the band at the concert venue for final sound and lighting checks at 6pm.

On stage, band members looked impressive. However, few in the audience knew that most of the ties and neatly pressed white shirts were borrowed, or that band members wore ill-fitting black shoes purchased from a local second- hand store.

Given the lack of regular professional coaching and access to live performances by top class musicians, musical standards are surprisingly high. Indeed, after years of hard work, the band is now worthy of comparison with some of the best secondary school bands in Singapore. I had the privilege of conducting the group for one of the highlights of the concert: a brass band arrangement of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

The following evening, band members assembled to review the performance and consider a detailed financial report (including official receipts) by Bandmaster Danias Karosekali. Despite a last-minute donation from a local Methodist church, there was a significant deficit, with much of the shortfall being financed from the 31-year-old leader’s meagre savings. Band members resolved to make up the difference through the sale of DVDs of the concert, currently in preparation.

Hard work, good organisation and transparency – they were all there. Now if only these Indonesians were running the country!

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