The performance artfully blended singer Monica Akihary’s soaring vocals with guitarist Neils Brouwer’s elegantly daring compositions, and boasted a range of influences from Moluccan folk songs to European classical music.
The Netherlands-based band also included Eric Calmes on bass guitar, Owen Hart Jr on drums and Maarten Ornstein on saxophone and clarinet.
Akihary and Brouwer, who are partners in life as well as music, constitute the heart of Boi Akih (or “Princess Akih”, in the language spoken on the Indonesian island of Haruku, part of the Moluccan archipelago), which, since 1996, has performed in a range of setups, from duo to six-piece band. Thursday’s quintet was the debut of this particular incarnation of Boi Akih.
The free event was organized by Erasmus Huis, which also brought Boi Akih to Jakarta last year for the Jakarta Jazz Festival. Today they will be performing at Taman Budaya Provinsi Maluku in Ambon, a surprise gig for the city’s birthday celebrations, followed by a workshop and concert in Bandung on Sept. 9.
“We felt it was time to bring them back to Ambon, where their music originated from,” said Paul J. A. M. Peters, counselor for press and cultural affairs and director of Erasmus Huis.
While they are best known in their homeland, where they are regular performers at Amsterdam’s legendary jazz hotspot Bimhuis, Boi Akih has a deeply intertwined history with Indonesia.
Akihary’s father was born on Haruku, a small island next to Ambon, which led her to develop the rare ability to write and sing in the near-extinct Harukan language. Its soft vowels and melodic syllables complement her warm vocals, allowing her to showcase her magnificent range, the most distinct feature of Boi Akih’s dynamic sound.
Twenty years ago, Akihary and Brouwer visited Indonesia for the first time, to study in Asri, Yogyakarta, which furthered their joint interest in traditional Indonesian music. Boi Akih’s Moluccan heritage came full circle in 2006, when they performed for thousands at the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Ambon, at the Lampangan Merdeka.
Over the course of Thursday’s performance, Boi Akih relentlessly enthralled the crowd of hundreds, creating a colorful, emotionally diverse universe, featuring a dozen or so numbers from Boi Akih’s three most recent albums, Uwai i (2004), Lagu Lagu (2005) and Yalelol (2007), which boasted Harukan, Moluccan-Malayan, Indonesian and English lyrics.
The set included traditional Moluccan folk songs from the 1920s to 1940s that were rearranged by Brouwer, as well as wholly original compositions, all of which reflected Boi Akih’s fascination with Indonesian culture past and present, and desire to live harmoniously with the environment.
The barefoot Akihary, clad in a flowing dress, immediately beguiled the audience in Indonesian before opening the show with a soulful Harukan number. She used her voice as an instrument, smoothly traveling from husky tones to notes of dazzling clarity, chasing her sounds with her hands, as if to extend her range even further.
“Although I don’t understand the words, the music touches my heart. It’s something in Monica’s voice, her personality,” said Dirk de Jong, communications officer for the Netherland-based IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre based in the Netherlands, and Akihary and Brouwer’s neighbor for 14 years.
He is traveling with the band and documenting the tour on dijoh2o.wordpress.com.
Despite the power of Akihary’s vocals, she never overpowered her band mates. Her voice wrapped around the instruments, following some notes and elevating others. The romantic and musical chemistry between Akihary and Brouwer was in full force, as each intuitively responded to the other’s stylings.
Although it was the first time for this particular lineup comprising Calmes, Hart Jr and Ornstein, the improvised interplay between the instruments was organic, and each performer had the opportunity to let loose and take center stage in thrilling solos. Drummer Hart Jr, the newest Boi Akih collaborator, drew particular admiration with his exuberant beats and outgoing manner, dousing himself with water after a particularly frenetic sequence.
Akihary never forgot the audience either, always responding to the mood, whether Boi Akih inspired delight, laughter or even tears. Many of the audience members found themselves unavoidably tapping and nodding to the funkier numbers, and took little encouragement to join in when Akihary extended an invitation to sing along on the final song.
When the night ended, the audience gave Boi Akih a standing ovation. Peters presented the band with Erasmus gifts and they responded in kind with a newly printed Boi Akih T-shirt.
The evening won Boi Akih new devotees. Wini Andreini, a Telco business analyst, first heard of Boi Akih when she learned of the event via a colleague’s mailing list. After Googling them and watching their videos on YouTube, she knew she had to see them live.
“I never knew that there were such Indonesian songs that could be sung in this way,” she said.
Boi Akih are likely to return to Indonesia in October, for the Ambon Jazz Plus Festival. They are also working on a new album, soon to be released by a German label. A special edition of their Lagu Lagu CD has recently been released in Indonesia and can be purchased from www.wartajazz.com.