A Song for Lowalangi – An Interview with Dr. Thomas Markus Manhart

Friday, July 28, 2006
By nias

Whilst Nias Island and its people are still in the midst of disaster shocks since early 2000, the “attention” to Nias have not faded. Recent disasters (flood and landslides, tsunami and March earthquakes) in fact have brought Nias to the “attention” of global community. It is an irony, sadly to say, that Nias has become “well known” in recent years not because of its invaluable tradition and cultural heritage or any other “positive things” attributed to Nias, but more due to the its unfortunate geographical place in the world map, its position as one of the disaster spots in the “Ring of Fire”.

It is therefore always comforting to hear any thing associated with the positive attributes to Nias. One of such things is “inculturation”. What is “inculturation” ? In an email interview, Dr. Thomas Markus Manhart, a German researcher, told Yaahowu about his research on Nias culture and its connection to Catholic Mission in Nias. Dr. Manhart, the Director of Artyfakt, Space for Intercultural Arts, Singapore, spent some time in Nias for his PhD research: A Song for Lowalangi – the Interculturation of Catholic Mission and Nias Traditional Arts with special Respect to Music.

Yaahowu (Y): Your PhD. thesis relates to (or focuses on) the work of Catholic missionaries in Nias Island. What drove you to pursue this topic ?
Thomas M. Manhart (TMM): Like for many Southeast Asia studies researchers: coincidence. I studied music and Catholic Theology in Germany and took one semester off to pursue a social internship. Of all German missionary order members, only Pastor Kristof from Nias answered positively saying, they can use someone here in Gidö to take care of the Kinderdorf St. Antonio. Nias and the people of Nias became so dear to me, that I decided to return after my degree in Germany for further learning of Nias culture. To focus on such an academic topic was mainly because I needed any financial support to stay in Nias, thus I registered for my PhD candidature with scholarship at the National University of Singapore. That time, I never thought of really getting the PhD one day, I just wanted to be in Nias.

Y: The term cultural “destruction” and “adaptation” by mission activity appeared in the abstract of your thesis. Could you elaborate further ?
TMM: There were different periods of missionary activities in Nias. The early missionaries had a very strict way of dealing with local culture and anything that could endanger (in their eyes) the message of the believe they wanted to bring to the people. Amidst this, they destroyed many objects of Nias arts, such as sculptures, ritual tools, instruments etc. Openly in a later effort of an approach to local cultures, missionaries try to bring their liturgical needs and requirements and local cultural factors closer to each other – in both ways.

Y: Can you explain the term “inculturation” in the Catholic Church ?
TMM: Following the previous answer: so I created a new term. Inculturation is the official term used in the Vatican II documents. But as I explained in answer 2, it is a movement in both directions: adapting liturgy to local circumstances, and integrating local cultural elements into liturgy. And this is probably the necessary way for those who want to preserve both sides.

Y: Can you tell us which of the elements of Nias culture have been “absorbed” in the Christian (Catholic) Church ? What does this (infusion) mean for Nias culture and the (Catholic) Church ?
TMM: Many Nias songs, at least their melodies, have been used for songs in Catholic services; more in the book “Laudate” then in the Indonesian widely spread book “Madah Bakti”. It would bring the Nias people closer to what is happening at all in a Catholic service, and bring the message of the Church closer to the people. Would all Catholic music only consist of Gregorian chants, it might have stayed in many areas merely as “a foreign thing”, a religion fixed to one culture. The ability to convey the message in different cultural clothes makes its reception more possible and easier for people in different areas of the world.

Y: In brief, what are the main findings on your research on Nias culture in relation to Christian mission activities ?
TMM: Nias shows one of the highest activities of inculturation compared to many areas of the world. But this is mainly due to the efforts of individuals like Fr. Johannes Hammerle or Fr. Hadrian Hess. There is a danger, and that is cultural indifference or falsification. Only people with a strong cultural knowledge of an area should really be the ones conducting intercultural creations on such a high level. Many conflicts arise; for example out of the work of the Pusat Musik Liturgi – Yogyakarta, who try with good intention to do intercultural work for the entire Indonesian country. In Nias, with the efforts of these individual missionaries, who have advanced to antropologists and ethnologists, the Church can now even contribute to a certain extend to conservation programme of Nias culture. It would need neutral local Niassan experts, however, to supervise the correctness of such programmes and efforts.

Y: You spent some time in Nias collecting data for your research. What sorts of data you gathered and who were your resource persons ?
TMM: All in all I spent around one year in Nias conducting interviews with Niassans from different villages, with missionaries, Christians and non-Christians, musicians; but most of the time I spent recording music and dances, partly at celebrations, partly at touristic events (for a critical view on offers for tourists), and in churches.

Y: Could you describe your experience living in Nias ?
TMM: My experience living in Nias was adventurous, exciting and most rewarding. The warmth and friendliness of the people was what made me come back again and again. Such a research fieldtrip is for sure not an easy task with all the odds of transport, language etc. But there is never a lack of helping hands; this is the case for all areas of Indonesia where I have been. Something the world can learn from Indonesia and from Nias.

Thank you for your time. Yaahowu.

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July 2006