Before school vacation started in the middle of June, the children in Kelompok Besar (The Big Group, grades four and five) had begun writing their own music. I introduced a process to them that was adapted from an NGO I interned at in Dakar, Senegal that also worked with children in creating music. Their process was as follows: take a song the children already know; have the children change the lyrics; then change the melody and the rhythm to which the children will sing the new lyrics. Voilà, a new song written by children.
The first half of my research with SDKE Mangunan in Yogyakarta was based around discussions of children’s musical culture in Indonesia and having the children practice songs they already knew. After a few weeks of workshops, I felt we were prepared to take the next step and change these songs into new creations. I first tried the process with my favorite regional children’s song, “Suwe Ora Jamu” (a Vimeo recording of this was posted in a previous blog). I posted the lyrics on the board, and explained that the children would write new lyrics to the same song, but maintain the melody. Unfortunately, when I went home to type and translate the new lyrics, I realized that I had chosen a Javanese song. I am still learning Bahasa Indonesia, so unfortunately most of these songs I could not understand or translate.
The following week, I made sure to post a song in Indonesian from which the children would change the lyrics. I chose the song “Bintang Kecil,” or “Little Star.” This song follows a different melody from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and is not an exact translation. However, during our initial meetings when the children wrote this as a common children’s song, they also proved to me that they knew the English version (at least partially, they mumbled through most of the lyrics but maintained the proper melody). So with the lyrics from “Bintang Kecil” as a guide, each child wrote a single verse using new lyrics. What proved difficult was that many children did not change the lyrics entirely, only a few words (“Bright Star” for example). However, two groups persisted and wrote two completely new songs.
The first song is called, “Ikan Kecil,” or “Little Fish.” The group that performs this song is made up of three girls. Each girl had written her own version of “Bintang Kecil,” but as a group they chose one verse to use together. We then had a day when the children experimented with new melodies, trying out new ways to sing the lyrics. When the girls came up with an idea, I quickly pulled out my Flip camera to record the song before it was forgotten. The following week, I replayed the song for the girls to make sure they remembered their new melody, and they practiced the verse with instrumentation (a glass bottle and tin can). These three girls were particularly focused and finished practicing quite fast, so I asked them if they would like to write a second verse together. While the first verse was written by Ketin alone, the melody was a collaborative effort. The three girls quickly came up with a second verse in the same vein as the first. The fourth week, the girls practiced their two-versed song with instrumentation until they had memorized the lyrics. This video is a recording of the final song, whose lyrics translate to:
Little fish in the vast sea
Very many decorate the Indian Ocean
The fish always swims
Here and there, always happy
A whale, the big fish
Eats quite a lot of plankton
The fish always swims
Here and there, always cheerful
The second song is entitled, “Keluarga Besar,” or “Big Family.” The process of this particular composition was quite different than that of the girls’, which provides insight into the differences of male and female children’s musical participation. Originally, each boy in the group wrote his own lyrics to the same song, “Bintang Kecil.” The following week, I asked the boys to get into a group and decide on a song to sing, and to try singing it to a different melody. Three boys chose to sing Dale’s song, “Keluarga Besar,” and Dale himself came up with a slow, pensive melody while others played drums. However, the boys are much more shy about singing, and it was difficult to record the new melody, even when told no one would see the video recording, it was only to remember the song. The were also easily distracted and rather than practicing the lyrics they preferred jamming on percussion instruments.
The following week, Dale again was quite timid about singing his song, despite the fact that he had written lovely and insightful lyrics about family life. While he played drums and avoided recording, another boy (who was not present the previous week) looked through the verses of others. He chose the lyrics to Tegar’s “Bintang Terang,” Tegar having left the workshop already. Dokras experimented with the lyrics, coming up with a rhythmic and almost rap-like melody to sing the new verse. Pak Ndaru came over to listen with me, when we both looked up with puzzled faces: he had slipped into the rhythm of a rap song by the Jogja Hip Hop Foundation. However only moments later, he had suddenly devised a brand new melody. As I transcribed a recording later, I found that not only did he create two different melodies, the second half of the melody modulates to a new key. When I presented this finding to the music teacher, Ndaru confessed that Dokras is a particularly talented musician, though with no formal training. As Tegar was not present, we asked Dale if Dokras could try to sing his lyrics using the new melody. Since Dale was shy of singing, he had no problem. Dale helped him read through the lyrics, and played drums to keep a beat while Dokras worked out rhythmic kinks. The song “Keluarga Besar” was truly a collaboration between these two boys, resulting in a tune I find myself singing as I wash dishes or stroll down the street. The lyrics translate to:
Big family, big family
Living in the home
Very happy, very happy
To be with family
I will enjoy being with family
When one is happy, all are happy
Please note that these recordings were done as soon as the children had finished writing so that we could have two completed works before school break, and were thus minimally practiced (you can see Dokras looking around as he tries to recall the lyrics, as if they were written on the classroom walls). We are currently continuing to write new songs and recording audio only. These two songs, and hopefully a few more, will be produced into an informal CD, all lyrics, music, and song performance by only the children. While these two songs were a result of experimentation and introducing one song-writing process, we will be approaching more compositions with themes regarding children’s lives in Indonesia. I am so excited to share more songs with you and Mangunan’s community in the final months of my project!