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Singing for peace

Indonesian musicians are reviving folk music hoping that it will revive peace in their homeland.
PTI | By Agence France-Presse, Banda Aceh
PUBLISHED ON AUG 09, 2005 06:05 PM IST

For nearly three decades the deadly crackle of gunfire has been a frightening but all too common sound for the people of Indonesia's war-torn and tsunami-ravaged Aceh province.

Located on the remote northern tip of Sumatra island, the province has for decades been the battleground for Indonesian troops fighting separatist rebels.

Hundreds of musicians, however, are reviving an ancient ritual they hope will drown out the sounds of war and herald an era of peace for their troubled homeland.

Traditional percussionist Syamsuddin Jalil and his fellow musicians hope the enchanting and hypnotic beat of Aceh's long-forgotten rapa'i pase uroh drums will usher in better times.

Believed to have been introduced by an Iraqi Muslim preacher who visited Aceh centuries ago, in recent years the drums would only be used at ceremonies for visiting officials and wedding parties of the wealthy, their traditional use all but forgotten.

Jalil says they chose the drums, made from aged wood with a dried lamb skin stretched to form the one-metre (38-inch) head, because they had brought peace in the past.

"In traditional Acehnese folklore, once the rapa'i is played, then there will no longer be war. In other words, the loud, constant beat of the rapa'i will be able to defeat the sound of gunfire," Jalil, an energetic and youthful-looking 50-year-old, tells AFP.

Starting at midnight on Sunday, more than 1,000 people including musicians, activists, civic leaders and politicians will set off on a musical caravan to show support for the peace pact to be signed between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The pact, to be signed on August 15 in the Finnish capital Helsinki, will end 29 years of fighting between troops and rebels which has claimed 15,000 lives since 1976.

"The desire to create a peaceful Aceh is the desire of every Acehnese because the ongoing conflict has trapped this region and its people in protracted violence," Jalil says.

The parade is a show of "our support" for the peace deal.

At midnight the peace convoy of trucks and scooters will set off from the governor's mansion in the provincial capital Banda Aceh to the non-stop beat of more than 140 of the large drums played by some 230 musicians.

After an overnight journey of 300 kilometres (190 miles), they expect to arrive in Peureulak, the main town in East Aceh, some time Monday night.

The coastal town of Peureulak was the traditional capital of the first Islamic kingdom of Aceh in the ninth century.

Jalil hopes for a massive show of support from people along the route.

"I am confident that thousands of people will line up along the road which we will use in the parade," he says.

Besides showing support for the peace deal, Jalil said he hoped the peace parade would also be cathartic in helping thousands of Acehnese get over their grief at the loss of loved ones in the December 26 tsunami, which was triggered by a massive earthquake.

Aceh bore the brunt of the disaster which hit countries around the Indian Ocean, with more than 131,000 people believed to have perished when the towering wall of water tore through their land.

But with another 30,000 still listed as missing and many people interred unidentified in mass graves, there has been no accurate assessment of the full toll of the catastrophe.

Jalil lost 30 relatives to the tsunami and was nearly drowned himself.

Despite the enormous tragedy, the disaster proved instrumental in bringing the Indonesian government and the rebels to the peace table.

More than 200 officials from Europe and Southeast Asia will monitor the implementation of the pact, which includes the disarmament of rebels and a troop withdrawal from Aceh.

As previous truces having ended in further bloodshed, there are fears that this time too some diehard rebels and troops will be reluctant to end the violence.

Jalil, however, remains upbeat that the sound of his drums will teach the Acehnese to smile again.

"Nothing is impossible if we want to do a good deed for the Acehnese who are currently suffering."

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