Melaka-based cultural activist gives Kristang language folk songs a global audience


Theseira will be performing a set of Kristang language folk songs in his virtual series surrounding Melaka Portuguese roots, music and stories. Photo: Handout

There is nothing like a "front porch" singalong and storytelling session surrounding folk-based songs to keep the spirits up.

"It's the simple things that can cheer people up. It's been a tough year for everybody with the ongoing pandemic, and we all can do with something familiar to get us through the gloom," says Martin Theseira, a Melaka-based cultural activist and musician, who will be introducing two Kristang language folk song sessions on the digital platform Explore Malaysia Virtually on Nov 28 and 29.

Kristang is a creole language spoken by the Kristang community (with mixed Portuguese/Malay ancestry) in Melaka.

Theseira, 64, who hails from the Portuguese community, says the idea behind the upcoming Kristang folk song series is two-fold: the first is to reach out to the close-knit Melaka-born Kristang community abroad, who couldn't return home this year to see their families, and to also expose this particular strain of folk music to curious-minded fans.

It has been a subdued year in the Portuguese Settlement, which relies on tourism to support its cultural and food scene.

The cancellation of the annual San Pedro festival in late June was a huge economic blow, but Theseira is confident the Kristang community will bounce back.

"It is all about resilience and the will to adapt. The world has totally changed in the last few months. But there are still many little things people can do to turn a bad situation around... I'm playing Kristang music online, just me and my guitar, and amazingly, the world wants to listen," says Theseira.

Such a scenario wouldn't have happened last year, he admits. But Theseira is embracing such new and exciting opportunities to play Kristang music to a new global audience.

"If you have ever visited the Portuguese Settlement in Melaka, you will know this is a common scene with friends and family hanging out and playing music.

"For newcomers, this might be your first encounter with Kristang music and you will get to know more about the lifestyle of Portuguese in Melaka through the lyrics of songs composed by the community members of Portuguese Cultural Society, which was established in 1967 by the late Bernard Santa Maria," says Theseira, who is also the Save The Portuguese Action Committee chairman, a group working to preserve Kristang culture and traditions.

Theseira has planned seven songs during each (ticketed) virtual session. He mentions that in a traditional context, this Kristang folk songbook is still relatively recent since it was pieced together by the music pioneers – Noel Felix, Rozil De Costa and Stephen Fabiano Theseira – from the Portuguese Cultural Society in the late 1960s.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of this year's San Pedro festival in the Portuguese Settlement, but Theseira is confident the Kristang community will bounce back. Photo: Filepic The pandemic forced the cancellation of this year's San Pedro festival in the Portuguese Settlement, but Theseira is confident the Kristang community will bounce back. Photo: Filepic

"These are not ancient songs from hundreds of years ago. But since the 1960s, they have come to represent Kristang-based community gatherings and festivals. The (now defunct) Portuguese Cultural Society played a huge role in introducing a new way of thinking for our community when it came to arts and culture," explains Theseira.

"The (Portuguese Cultural Society) committee in those early years laid the framework for many types of Kristang folk arts, including reviving songs, drama and comedy, and documenting them the best they could. We have lost most of them, but we must continue their legacy," he adds.

In thumbing through his setlist, Theseira mentions Langgiang Langgiang (the fisherman's butterfly net) as one of the highlights since it celebrates the days when people could make a living off the sea.

In reality, the fishermen in the Portuguese Settlement are on the verge of extinction, with barely any seafront left to fish.

“In the 1970s and 80s, you could still find plenty of fishermen in the Portuguese Settlement. They were raised at sea - that was their second home, ” says Theseira.

"But things have changed, with so much urban development and land reclamation near - and in - the Portuguese Settlement.

"As a way of life, it will be a struggle to sustain even a small fishing outpost here in the coming years."

Other tunes such as O Bela and Tia Anica (sung in Portuguese language) reflect on vibrant community life, while favourites such as the evergreen Jingkli Nona and Nina Boboi (a pre-Christmas favourite, says Theseira) have also been picked for these live sessions.

Fishermen from Portuguese Settlement casting their fishing nets despite facing a shrinking shoreline. Theseira says Kristang folk music also reflects on these daily struggles. Photo: Filepic  Fishermen from Portuguese Settlement casting their fishing nets despite facing a shrinking shoreline. Theseira says Kristang folk music also reflects on these daily struggles. Photo: Filepic

"Each song is inspired by true stories and the lifestyle of the Portuguese community (in Melaka) in the 1960s and 1970s. I feel that these songs are very meaningful as they carry the heritage of Melaka Portuguese. These are songs that are still sung or taught (to children) in most Kristang-speaking households... you don't need to wear a traditional Portuguese dance costume and click your heels here."

In 2006, Theseira, who is an avid song archivist, and his uncle Don Biens also compiled an album of Kristang songs titled Festa De San Pedru.

He hopes to carry on with these upcoming live online folk sessions next year and is glad they will be documented.

"We'll start off with basic sets, and if things really take off, we might consider adding guest musicians. I might have a violinist as a surprise guest this weekend."

Theseira has also kept himself busy during the movement control order months. He has been hosting the Praya Lane "virtual walking tour" in the last three months, and he agrees that the digital route has expanded the potential of some of Melaka's lesser-known destinations.

"Praya Lane is such an old world Kristang neighbourhood, with a church and a few families living there. It's perfect for a virtual walking tour, where I also get to play folk tunes. With nearly 20 countries joining in virtually in some sessions, I have to say we are headed in the right direction in introducing Melaka to the world," he maintains.

His virtual music sessions are a spin-off project, where Theseira will be spending more time discussing Kristang lyrical content and messages in each song coupled with some of his personal stories as a Kristang in Malaysia.

More info here.

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