In times of absolute madness, sometimes it is the voices of our loved ones that get us through the worst of times.
In the nation’s prisons, inmates often take to singing their own songs in the discomfort of their cells as a means of expression.
Most of these songs, however, are lost over time as the prisoners themselves usually pass away with the songs.
One notable community of women has made it their duty to keep these prison songs alive, as they are an expression of their helplessness against what they feel is a cold-hearted government.
The Dialita Choir — which stands for “Di Atas Lima Puluh Tahun” (Over 50 Years) — are a group of elderly women, bound together to create a musical legacy to honor those who they feel were imprisoned wrongly by the government during the 1965 tragedy.
They show that behind the prison walls and guards, the humanity of the prisoners is still intact.
The choir, along with several younger musicians, recently held the Women’s Concert for Humanity: Songs for My Children — a celebration of songs that have largely been forgotten by the public.
The songs they sing were written by jailed dissidents and colleagues, many of whom were friends of theirs that were affected by the politically motivated events of 1965.
As writing materials and similar tools of expression are not allowed in prison, the inmates rely only on their own voices to express themselves as well as keep hope alive.
Some of their songs are surprisingly optimistic, such as the “Birthday Song,” “Salam Harapan” (Greeting of Hope) and “Indonesia Jaya” (Great Indonesia).
Others are more touching, such as one that tells the story of a prisoner longing for the love of their mother, and another on a women’s internment camp in Bukit Duri, East Jakarta.
These songs were brought to life at the concert through the voices of singers Kartika Jahja, Bonita Adi, Endah Laras, Petrus Briyanto Adi, Junior Soemantri and Endah Widiastuti, all of whom felt a connection to the choir.
“Tonight was one of the nights I felt the most nervous performing, as I performed with a group I looked up to in terms of singing and one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard in my life,” Bonita said during her set while praising the choir for their high level of talent.
Endah Widiastuti, meanwhile, said she was not able to get through rehearsal sessions singing “Ibu” (Mother) without bursting into tears over the poignancy of the song, which reminded her of her love for her own mother, who lives in Yogyakarta.
The song was written by choir member Utati Koesalah as an ode to her mother. In the song, she misses the unmatched warmth of her mother as she sits in her cold prison cell; she longs to let her mother know that she is still alive.
At the end of the concert, the choir stood up to close the show on their own, with one of its members — visibly frail — struggling to sing her solo part.
Her efforts were met with support from the audience as the choir showed through their performance their strength in pursuing artistic expression despite their state of imprisonment and past experiences in being
To immortalize the choir’s voices, a group of notable Indonesian musicians, including Cholil Mahmud of Efek Rumah Kaca, Sisir Tanah, Frau and several others from Yogyakarta, helped rearrange and reimagine the choir’s songs into one compilation album, entitled Dunia Milik Kita (The World Belongs to Us). The album, released in 2016 under Yogyakarta label Yes No Wave, is currently available for free download on the label’s website.
Moving forward, the choir has several plans in store, including a performance at an Advent Mass at Gereja Komunitas Anugerah in Salemba, Jakarta. They also plan to transcribe their songs into a book.
The spirit shown by the Dialita Choir is a reminder that music serves as both a means of expression and survival as well as a way of coping with hardships — past or present — while sending a political message aimed at the government.
With the social tide heading toward greater willingness to discuss the 1965 tragedy and its aftermath, the choir might just have placed themselves on the right side of history.