Small drops of sweat slide down from under his headband along his concentrated face
With his palms down he lowers his arms
Guided by his movements we don’t move
The colorful place slowly becomes silent
While holding the ukulele he opens his hands and raises his body
We take a deep breath
Lifting our instruments to our heart we wait
On his sign we sound
Nature, drum and shell mix into music
With our eyes fixed on his passion we play
And together we start singing
Through the songs we are surrounded by the sweetness of Ambon
By the memories of our childhood and the taste of traditional food
In the Lord Jesus we are all brothers and sisters
Bamboo hits bamboo, the pong pong hits the floor
The calling sound of the echoing tahuri fills the room
The gong and tifa run the rhythm
We are the colors
His energy conducts our hands, our legs, our voices
We step back and forth in a dancing circle of traditional clothes
His smile and our smiles connect in a harmonious space of the love for music
He is the theologian and musician Chris Tamaela
We are his students - standing, singing and sounding in a classroom
This is Moluccan traditional music
An indescribable feeling of joy runs through my body
The lesson culminates in a cacophony of musical density
Following Chris’ ascending and descending fingers we alternate between loud and soft
Until the sound of our instruments slowly fades away
Only in absolute silence the eyes are opened
Torches with orange fire light the path that leads to the stunning view over Ambon. From the
mountains of Tuni we see the sea, the harbor and the illuminated city. In the darkness we
descend into the amphitheater of sand and climb to a place on the bamboo benches amidst
children and elderly, Moluccans and Dutch, Christians and Muslims. We are waiting for the
Moluccan Bamboo Orchestra, conducted by Rence Alphons.
In groups dressed in white and red the musicians are introduced. They sit down on the blue
plastic chairs that form a semicircle in this arena covered by nature. Standards with
microphones, large boxes and amplifiers, lamps, and black cables surround the flute players
and decorate the green trees. The factions are positioned from the highest left to the lowest
right, with the exception of the fifth deep suling voice located in the middle. Several violinists
and percussionists, as well as one guitarist and cellist make the orchestra complete.
The sounds of the jungle, the insects, and the birds turn into the background of bamboo music.
A woman, sitting on a blanket encircled with stones, enlightened by a high wooden torch, tells
about a father returning to his family with his perahu, the traditional Moluccan boat.
Nafas dan ombak, naik dan turun – waves are like breath. Blue, white light floods the
landscape. All musicians start breathing into their suling flutes, guided by the rising and
retreating tide of Rence’s arms. When I close my eyes, I am truly hearing the Sea.
But the sea is full of waste. The players start walking, and a cacophony of bamboo sounds
fills the air. The storyteller is standing on Dryland. Her voice is accompanied by one low,
virtuoso horizontal flute, and by human-made animal tones, soft and high. The suling is made
from nature! The orchestra begins playing, low and soft. Slowly, with Rence’s position
changing from weighted down to outstretched swaying, his movements from tiny to
persuasive, the instruments, density and volume increase. Suddenly a poet runs barefooted
through the musicians. With a lilting, sometimes shouting voice he talks about the City. The
world, the nature is changing, but we are focused on digital gadgets; on our phones and on
making selfies. The sung words ‘extinction’, ‘extermination’ and ‘creation’ shape the
soundscape of the poem. What are we going to do?
The performance culminates in a message of musical Joy. Everyone is free, everyone is
laughing, everyone is ecstatic. We dance, we clap and we sing on the ever-swelling sounds.
The musicians get up and repeatedly we respond to the singer together, pointing and
screaming. It is a party, there is euphoria, it is an explosion of happiness. I cannot stop
The cold breeze blowing from the air-conditioning cools down my body in an unnatural way.
After months of living in a tropical climate, I strangely forgot the sensation of chilliness. I feel
the wind from the machine touching my nose, arms and ankles, turning the spacious office
into a parallel atmosphere without sweat and humidity.
Across the long table on which lengthy sides we both occupy a seat, I look at the fierce face
of Steve Gaspersz, theologian at UKIM and GPM pastor. Leaning forward to carefully listen
to my questions, and relaxed leaning backward in his chair while talking, he sits up when the
weight of a matter that is dear to him needs emphasizing. In a serious tone, in effortless
English and in complete openness, Steve describes his view on contextual theology.
We need to find the basic faith in our culture. We need to recognize and acknowledge that our
faith is not a strange faith. Our faith is basically based on our cultural expressions and
identity. Let people talk about themselves, their culture! Do not determine what we think is
true for the people. Just listen to their stories, their narrative. By this, we can understand
their living experience, their suffering, their history. So in that way I think that theology for
me is the continuous task to find the meaning of life in relation with God, human beings and
the living environment. That’s is my understanding. My belief is not a final belief. I think our
theology or our faith is challenged by our changing context.
Not only his words, however also his attitude is provoking and stimulates reflection. A certain
proudness, a certain courage, a certain untouchability radiates from his being.
How as a Moluccan, Indonesian Christian to contextualize? How to face the new challenging
context in postcolonial Indonesia, in modern society inside the paradigm of our government,
and in post-conflict Maluku? I found that to understand contextual theology I need
interdisciplinary knowledge. I am the first pastor that uses the word Mena-Muria. Did you
know? This is a very dangerous word that is like a war yell. It means readiness. I use this
idiom as the spirit of reform, to replace syalom. Because we belong to the reformed church,
so that is the spirit of reformation! I want to revitalize Christian theology. And this is not
merely about my intellectual exercise, but this is my calling to give something, intellectually
and theologically, to my church. I hope to introduce a new way to build the contextual
theology of Maluku. I think that is my dream.
It is remarkable how other people’s dreams communicate via character, personal investment
and perseverance. After two hours, impressed by the academic environment I am part of here,
I stretch my stiff legs and walk into the warming sun.
The sounds of the busy traffic in Ambon rage around us
Cars honking, music blasting, motorcycles roaring
Everything is warm, humid, loud and intense
Yet, in this dome of noise we experience a secluded moment of silent emotion
I am sitting across Vally, my best friend in Ambon
In the corner of the terrace of café Sarinda we talk about religion, UKIM, music and life
Our words are flavored by the sweetness of the Indonesian delicacy we are eating
Vally is a theology student and wants to become a pastor
At the age of seventeen she lost her mother
She therefore decided to study in Ambon instead of Salatiga, to not leave her father
I look into her beautiful, brown, tearful eyes
The feeling of loss is very strong
The first year was hard for me, continuing life without mama
But I am a person who never wants to fall apart – up to today I am strong
I see her strength
Every day, from the early morning until evening she studied
She took over her mother’s role in Sunday school
Although she was tired, she continued, full of joy for what she was doing
When I remember my mother I can finish everything I want
She was always singing
Before we prayed and when my mother was sick we always sang together
The song is a hymn from the PKJ, the book her mother loved
Her breakable voice breaks the cacophony of life around us
The sad smile on her face creates an emotional connection between us
I think in myself I have a place to become a pastor
I can no longer see my mother’s proudness of me
I have a dream, and I must make my mother’s dream come true
This is power, this is beauty, this is vulnerability, this is pride, this is love
We bend our heads, fold our hands and close our eyes.
A serene yet expectant silence descends on us.
Then we hear a bright voice.
Rather than breaking the tranquility, this voice flows from it.
Words in a native language that I don’t know form a melody.
It is a prayer sung by Chris Tamaela.
Sentences begin with elongated high-pitched sounds, shaping the gratitude expressed to God,
bridging the distance I have travelled for this research and wishing for my success and well-
being. Alternating between only a few tones, the music glides up and down like a timeless
wave. The lengthy, loving lines end in a slowly accelerating pace of increasing lowering
The beauty of this praying song,
the beauty of this singing prayer.
The beauty of this sung speech,
the beauty of this spoken song.
It brings me in a placeless, weightless trance.
I want it to go on forever.
We are sitting in an immense white building, decorated with yellow lanes along the door and
windows, and characterized by neo-classical elements. Columns rise up towards the sunny
blue sky, carrying the red renovated roof. Imagined echoing sounds of the trumpet played by a
sculptured angel roll over the green grass that stretches out in front of this
From the outer looks of it, the age of these stones is not directly visible. But we are in Noloth,
a village in the far north-east on the island Saparua. After following the one and only paved
straight road on the back of Dave’s motorcycle along the houses in Tiouw, Tuhaha, Mahu,
and Ihamahu, we arrive at this unexpected construction that is located at the brightest and
bluest coast I have ever seen in my life. It is one of the oldest Protestant churches on the
Moluccas, built by the Dutch in the year 1860. From then until the recent present the roof was
made of the large leaves of the widely available sago tree, now replaced by an appearance that
resists the ravages of time.
While making apologies for his simple work clothes and bare feet, a member of the church
council in Noloth takes the time to tell me about his tasks as a servant of God. The devote
man, already working ten years for the council, talks about his role in serving the community,
about the facets of church services and about music. Suddenly and quickly, two seemingly
simple questions become memorable moments.
‘Why did you want to become part of the church council?’
‘Did you go to Sunday school yourself when you were young?’
The answers are exactly the same:
His eyes filled with tears and his voice unsteady, the old man explains with full religious
conviction that he serves the work of God in this world. Then the tears start to stream and the
voice breaks: ‘Tiga puluh lima tahun nona’. Thirty five years he has been working as a
Sunday school teacher.
Seng ada di luar Tuhan.
Hidup hanya untuk Tuhan.
He only lives for God, because there is nothing outside God.
The man sights deeply and the sentence ends in an almost silent whisper.
The simplicity is the all-encompassing complexity.
Blown away by this communicated feeling of religiosity I leave the church.
The victorious Jesus nailed to the cross watches me walking to the sea.
In the first weeks of my stay in Ambon, on the first of November, we climb the slippery
mountain road in the remaining rays of sunlight as the day comes to an end. The simmering
sound of the motorcycle we are sitting on judges the steepness of this terrain amidst valleys of
bright, green trees. We smell the pyres of fire burning garbage, we hear the birds, we taste
the twilight fog and we see the sea surrounding this island. We feel fresh and
Passing small houses, colorful villages, white churches and large families, gradually our
journey becomes higher, darker and colder. We cross a narrow bridge made of old sagging
planks and turn right into a sandy path that leads to the most spacious and pretty view over
We are in a place called Tuni. In the dense darkness I descend the stairs and arrive at the
round, dry, brown compound in front of the brick house owned by the musician who lives
here. He sits on a tree trunk, I sit on a red plastic chair. There is no light. The absolute silence
is only interrupted by zooming insects, barking dogs and our voices. It is as if we are alone in
the world. Two boys approach us, each with a bamboo flute in their hands. In this moisty,
tranquil atmosphere they play for me.
In the last weeks of my fieldwork, on the 19th of December, I again find myself on the back of
a motorcycle. This time we almost fly through the mountains and jungle, avoiding holes and
bumps in the road. Halfway we stop at a lonesome stall to buy a plastic bottle filled with
green fuel to fill up the tank. Then we continue our way.
In a small group we sit in the green garden of another musician. From our cheap chairs and
bamboo benches we look out over the village Hutumuri, which at its edges is protected by the
deep blue of infinite water and the light grey of sharp, looming cliffs. The man next to me is
old and active. He runs, plays, moves and smiles to the point that his few black teeth are
openly visible. His young wife and sons help to carry the instruments from the house to the
In a long row, from left to right, from very big to very tiny they are laid down: the conch
shells from the Moluccan sea. This is the traditional tahuri, an indigenous wind instrument. A
group of children joins us, picking up the shells of various sizes, carefully holding the circular
forms in their hands. On the sign of the musician, they take a deep breath, place their lips
around the single hole on top and blow their round cheeks full of air. The hollow, echoing
sounds are carried away by the wind, into the
Listen to suling in the jungle
It is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of the little church in Soya village. The
rectangular nave forms the whole body of this house of God, narrow and small. The
inconspicuous building is located on the left of the road when driving from Ambon into the
green mountains. I visited the place twice. The first time to hear the suling bambu flutes that
each week accompany worship here. The second time to complete my fieldwork by attending
service in one of the most beautiful churches I had ever been.
A pure and happy feeling of awe arises the moment I cross the threshold. The round shapes of
the roof and the windows, the light entering the space, the resigned silence descending upon
me – I feel peaceful. I sit down in one of the simple, tiny brown-wooden benches, my knees
pressed against the next row. On both sides of the nave thin, elegant columns carry the
atmosphere. The brilliant woodwork that characterizes this church is yellow-white combined
with dark green. In front of me I see the flowered altar, solemn lectern and modest pulpit
behind each other, crowned with a stained-glass Last Supper and surrounded by the higher,
decorated compartments where the king, village leaders and majelis
take their seat. Above me
I sense the majesty of the semi-circled roof made of white, long, wooden slats. Around me I
see the black and colored clothes of the men and women who, packed together in this cozy
place, silently and patiently wait for the worship to begin. Behind me I hear the high, sharp
sounds of the many suling flutes, played by younger and older musicians who are positioned
on the open balcony in the back of the church, demarcated by a wooden balustrade framed
with organ. A short, almost straight staircase leads to this loft close under the ceiling, where
innumerable suling players perfectly fit their instruments next to each other, blowing the tones
over the heads of the congregants. I see a butterfly floating on subtle waves of air.
I smell the old wood.
We read the Bible passage out loud. The taste of the mint candy I am given flavors the Word
of God. The pastor talks about the status of an abundance of faith, transforming us in the
totality of our existence. We close our eyes, bend our heads, fold our hands and pray. From all
sides of the church a gigantic choir assembles, standing in between the benches and facing the
pulpit. Their polyphonic voices and musical range express a sacral, noble ambience. Together
with one keyboard the musicians play without notation. We sing Dua Sahabat Lama without
beamer. A moment of wonder flows through my being. The acoustics, the quality, the place.
The power and volume of our chanting. The solemnity, the tranquility, the beauty. Everything
is right, everything is in balance. I am immersed.
I sit on a white, plastic chair in front of a desk in a rather dark office. Low, wooden screens
divide the room into tiny cubicles. While there are many, we are alone. Laughing sounds of
students’ voices move through the open spaces between the horizontal lanes of window glass,
between the wall and the ceiling. Heat touches my skin. I feel nervous. I look up to the brown,
warm eyes of the older woman sitting here with me. And I know all will be
The topic of our conversation is contextual theology. With a soft, dry articulation she
carefully and slowly constructs her gracious sentences. In a thoughtful, kind, serene way she
explains in perfect English what theology means to her. Born in a Christian family and with
four uncles being a pastor, she initially wanted to become a doctor. Reconsidering distance,
financial burdens and risks of shame, she eventually studied theology. She went to India, was
vice-moderator of the World Council of Churches, took part in an interfaith peace-and-
reconciliation women’s movement, and became a lecturer.
In the heat of the real Moluccan fight, when blood was all over, we needed another
perspective. I think that is how we confess Christ in a new way. Contextual theology starts
from our real context and experience. But contextualization is not only about local
experience. We don’t just start theology. We learn from others, and then we start. Cause for
me religion is not God. Religion is the way we respond to God, and that’s why we can differ
in many places, in many ways, you know. How we see God, the way we worship God, the way
we understand God. We could be different. To me God is so great, you cannot define God in
only one way or the other. God is kind of a mystery, you see? So we need to broaden our
vision, broaden our understanding, broaden our experience of God. By also learning from
each other. To me it is like that.
The beauty of her worldview touches me. She is passionate, she is funny. I see her generous
smile, the freckles on her cheeks, the white, neat, fluffy hair crowning her open face.
Listening to people’s everyday experience, to people’s questions about God, about life, about
religion, about human beings; it helps us to reflect on and to define our theology. It’s not an
abstract kind of theory. It starts from the bottom, like a spiral. It comes down and goes up,
and it transforms.
I still remember her voice, the intonation moving along with dedication, the pleasant accent.
Only a handful of people in your life blow you away with their intelligence, their elegance,
Reverend Doctor Margaretha Hendriks is one of them.