Monica Akihary: Singing the past to life

Sara Veal

Twenty years ago, Monica Akihary visited Indonesia for the first time, with high-school sweetheart Neils Brouwer, to study sculpture and batik. The trip inspired her to become a professional singer.

Today she is still making beautiful music with Brouwer in world jazz band Boi Akih, drawing on her Moluccan roots, adding a contemporary twist to old folk tales.

“I was at Asri, in Yogya; I came to study there for a year,” says Akihary, an ageless beauty with wild curls.

“Our house was across from a school that taught traditional gamelan music of Java. We also traveled around. When I came back, I was like, oh, these things are so beautiful, and it really inspired us for the rest of our whole lives.”

Akihary and guitarist Brouwer are the center of Netherlands-based Boi Akih (“Princess Akih” in the language of Haruku Island), which plays in a range of set ups, from duo to six-piece band. Earlier this month, they performed in Jakarta, Ambon and Bandung.

Akihary’s grandparents on both her mother’s and father’s sides emigrated from Ambon to Holland in the 1950s, fleeing the tense political situation. Despite living in diaspora, Akihary’s relatives made sure she was well-versed in Moluccan heritage, language and culture.

“They taught me as much as they could about the socially important things in Indonesia,” she says, listing respecting one’s elders, remembering ancestors and always making sure there is food in the house among the most important lessons.

This meant that her first visit to her homeland, where she still has countless relatives, was like returning home, although she found, to her amusement, that her vocabulary was old-fashioned, reflecting the 1950s language her parents had used.

Language is essential to Akihary, who can speak Dutch, Indonesian, English, German and French. She also sings and writes songs in the language of Haruku Island, where her father is from, because “this language … is very beautiful to sing in”, she says.

The Haruku language’s soft vowels and melodic syllables perfectly set off her rich vocals, forming the most distinctive aspect of Boi Akih’s sound. In fact, her confident, expressive use of the near-extinct language is doing much to rejuvenate it.

“Because I’m writing new stories, it is alive again!” she says.

“I’m working with two universities, one in the Netherlands and one in Australia, Monash University, and there are two professors who are keeping all these words that I have written, also the new ones, so they have noticed there is new development in this language.”

Bringing the past to life and retelling it in an original way is another characteristic of Akihary’s music. She once found old recordings of Moluccan music in a Dutch museum, which were immediately familiar, as she had grown up with them. She and Brouwer rearranged the compositions, incorporating jazzy improvisation.

“Of course people will say, oh, these are old, but actually, the nice thing with old music is that you can listen to it, and especially because music develops, you can think, hey, what can I do with it?” she says.

Indonesia continues to inspire Akihary, who includes techniques from the wayang kulit and traditional Balinese dance in her performances. As well as the lagu lagu (traditional Moluccan folk songs from the 1920s to 1940s), she is constantly stimulated by the archipelago nation’s incredible diversity.

“It’s about daily life. It’s about the way I see Indonesia, because Indonesia’s so different. All the islands have their own unique things, the way the people are living together, all the different languages, all the different makanan *cuisines*,” she says.

She notes that even Jakarta is more musical than people than realize, picking out the call of an unknown bird cutting through the ever-present sound of traffic and hum of bustling activity. All this she can use.

“I can hear so many things that I can translate into music,” she says.

Akihary’s music also reflects her preoccupation with living harmoniously with the environment and preserving it for future generations. One of her songs is about a fisherman on a quest for a rare fish, but he throws it back into the sea after he has caught it, rather than eat it, so others may be able to see its beauty.

“Music can do a lot of good, positive things for people, like make people happy,” she says. “Or maybe people will cry and feel sad because I have somehow touched them.”

She observes that her music seems to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, with audiences everywhere responding regardless of whether they can understand her lyrics.

Boi Akih has toured all over the world, including South Africa, France, Germany, Italy and Mexico, as well as Indonesia.

“*Indonesians* are one of the few audiences that really get into live music . The first time we came here; people reacted immediately, in the moment. In Europe, it’s like OK, they like it, they will do like a little applause but very carefully, and then at the end they will applaud.

“But here it was immediately and at the end, because you do nothing, they will be quiet, and that’s so funny. And it is, because that’s the way it is, and it’s realistic,” she says, laughing.

Akihary is currently working on a new Boi Akih album, which will be released by a German label, as well as developing a contribution for a poetry anthology with a classical Greek theme.

However, rather than thinking too much about the future, she prefers to focus on the now.

“We just play, and if things are coming our way, we try to do something with it, and of course you have to look a little bit in the future, but most of the time, you just prepare for your concerts, and prepare your music, and try to grow your music, and see what happens.”


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