Adaptation of the interview by the Surinamese writer Roué Hupsel with the Dutch visual artist Arnold Schalks for the SRS-radio program 'Skrifiman taki' (Writers talk). Recorded in Paramaribo on Tuesday, the 11th of November, 2008.
Roué Hupsel: Good evening, this is Skrifiman taki. Today's guest is mister Arnold Schalks, who's working on a unique, fantastic project: SOMENI TONGO. And what is it about? Well, if all goes well, Dobru's poem 'Wan' (One) will sound from 48 mouths in 16 languages on the 22nd of November. Someni tongo is a project that centres around poetry and recitation. The famous poem by Robin Raveles, who lived from 1935 - 1983 wil be recited simultaneously in the following languages: Arowak, Aukan, Chinese, Dutch, English, Hindi, Javanese, Kaliña, Lebanese, Modern Hebrew, Portugese, Saramaccan, Sarnami, Spanish, Sranan Tongo and Trio.
Welcome Arnold. How long have you been in Suriname?
I've been here for a little more than a month now, but I visited Suriname before for a short fact finding trip last year. Rotterdam and Paramaribo are partner cities. I am a visual artist from Rotterdam and I participate in ArtRoPa, an exchange project organised by the Rotterdam CBK (Center for Visual Arts) and the Surinamese FVAS (Federation of Visual Artists of Suriname). Poetry is my passion. As an artist, I often work with language. I always prepare myself for projects abroad by reading a little about that foreign country. Someone recommended me to read the poems of the Surinamese poet Shrinivasi. I bought a collection of his poetry in the Netherlands and started reading on my flight to Suriname. His words made a deep impression on me. I expected to find a lot more of it hidden on this side of the ocean. After my arrival I went more deeply into the subject, and I found out, that many Surinamese writers publish their work on their own. Their products hardly ever make it to the Netherlands. In other words, here was a wide unexplored field open to me. And once you get started, you inevitably encounter Dobru. After all, he's a kind of icon of Surinamese poetry. When I returned to the Netherlands last year, I resolved to use the collected material for a project, and that intention developed into the Someni tongo-project.
Can you tell us more about it?
I took 'Wan' because it is the most well known Surinamese poem, and I often work with familiar things. I think, you should not take along something alien and plant it over here. You ought to take something that was grown here. That is that tree. I read the poem. It's a plain poem, extremely clear, with a enormous open heart. Everything fits in there. I read the phrase 'someni tongo', and considered that it should somehow be possible to translate the poem in all the languages that are spoken in Suriname. A few translations were already available, but I had additional translations made by, for instance, Arman Karwofodi, Sapto Sopawiro and Nardo Aloema. With that raw material I started to search for people who could pronounce the translation. The poem was meant to be recited by a multilingual, many-voiced speaking choir. Simultaneously, not seperately. Not first Kaliña and then Sranan Tongo, no, all at the same time. I wanted that, because the theme of the poem is: 'diversity in unity'. I divided the performance in five parts. Each part sheds a different light on that diversity and unity.
Can you explain that?
In the first part of the performance: the Biginpisi (begin piece), all 48 speakers recite the whole poem simultaneously in Sranan Tongo, the language in which the poem was originally written. In music that is called 'unisono'. One voice, that is unity. In the second part, the Moksipisi (mixed piece), all lines that begin with 'wan' are recited in Sranan Tongo, while all the lines that begin with 'someni' or another numeral are recited in one of the other 15 languages. It's like a tree that gets branches. The third part is the Fayapisi (fire piece) in whch all speakers perform the poem in their native language. That is diversity in unity. The fourth part is the Teripisi (count piece). In this part, the poem is reduced to its trunk: the numerals 'wan', 'someni' and 'ala', and the speakers recite these words in their native language. In the final part, the Bakapisi (end piece), the text is again reduced to the numerals 'wan', 'someni' and 'ala', but this time all 48 speakers recite the words simultaneously in Sranan Tongo.
A peculiar thing is, that a particular line in Sranan Tongo has a certain length, while that same line in, for instance, the Javanese translation is much longer. So the Javanese spreakers need more time to pronounce their particular line than the persons speaking Sranantongo. To make sure that all speakers start simultaneously with the next line, the conductor, composer and musician Eldridge Zaandam has composed a drum part. That part is performed by the percussionist Ernie Wolf. Eldridge leads the choir. He has the task to keep that multi-tongued monster on the right track
You need 48 speakers. Is it difficult to find these people?
That sounds more difficult than it is. First of all, I need to admit, that we are not complete yet. For some languages it's hard to get speakers, in particular for Lebanese. But I contacted a few people: Alida Neslo, Wonnie Karijopawiro, Henk Tjon, James Ramlall....
I indeed got in touch with famous people, and I asked them for phone numbers of other people who might want to participate in the project. And then the Surinamese community turns out to be very closely connected. People are well aquainted and have a right estimation of each others skills. So, you can get an actual group of people together in a short while. That makes work pleasant here. Of course we still have to dot the i's and cross the t's. As I told you before, we're not complete yet, and each language stands out best, when the volume ratio in the chorus is right. We now have only one Mandarin speaking Chinese, Daning Chen, but he is loud enough to represent a whole group of three Chinese on his own. Furthermore it is hard to find other Mandarin speaking Chinese. He will do. But for Lebanese we haven't found anybody yet. The search goes on. We planned seven rehearsals, of which three have already passed. Because the performance will finally be broadcasted by the television, we need sufficient time to rehearse.
How were the rehearsals?
If you invite somenone for a recitation, for instance someone who speaks Portugese, and you ask her to recite her text simultaneously with someone who speaks another language, then this person will ask. "Why not each language in turn? Why everything at the same time?" Then I need to explain that I want all languages to sound simultaneously, because everyone means the same at the same time, but uses other words to say that same thing. After all, Someni tongo is a work of art. It's a different way of dealing with a poem. It is not a conventional declamation, for which people get up on the stage and finish off a text. I had to explain that several times.
Is this a new way of performing?
The newsletter of the Schrijversgroep 77 (Surinamese writers group) mentioned, that a similar event was already performed by Eddy van der Hilst in Tori Oso, but I suppose that was for another reason. The phenomenon 'simultaneous recitation' dates back to the Dada-period. It was meant as a provocation. At that time, you had the traditional art of declamation, rhetoric, and the dadaists wanted to bring that tradition to an end. They all started to talk at the same time. Not because they thought that that was wonderful, but because they wanted to get a rise out of people. My motive to apply that principle to 'Wan' is a different one.
What I like about Dobru's poem is, that it initially appears to be simple, something that must have been made with great ease. But if you look closer, you see a tremendously ingenious, sophisticated poem. I parsed it with respect, and tried to find just the proper visualisation of it. 'Someni tongo' was my starting point. Once you have so many languages, you also need people who speak those languages. And if these people finally line up, then 'someni prakseri', 'someni wiwiri', 'someni skin' but also 'wan pipel' suddenly become visible. You're looking at a sculpture. The perfect visualisation of the poem. That is what I deal with as a visual artist.
You told me before that the performance will take place in the Palm Garden, but the Surinamese Television is also involved.
Yesterday I received the official confirmation, that the performance will be broadcasted live from the STVS (Surinamese TV Foundation) studio on the 22nd of November. But initially I planned an unplugged recitation between he palm trees in the Palm Garden. 'Wan bon' in between the trees. That rhymes, and that makes the location the most appropriate enviroment. But a performance in the Garden would also mean a limited public range. We would only reach a small audience. We might also meet accoustic problems. An unfavourable wind might blow the sound in the wrong direction. A coconut might drop, a palm leaf might fall, it might rain. In short, you have little control over the performance. Now we know, that the STVS is broadcasting the recitation, I proposed to repeat the performance only once in the Palm Garden on the 29th of November. Just for the fun of it and for those who happen to be there at that time. Just to have the feeling of that historic spot. But for the public range it is better, to show the project on TV. Besides, you can make a DVD of the registration and easily distribute that format.
To come back to your person, Arnold Schalks. Can you tell us something more about yourself? How did you start?
I am a so-called conceptual artist. That means, that I don't start my work by taking a canvas, paint or a pencil. I start with thinking. That produces an idea and with that idea I start making things. I'm fascinated by language. I actually always worked with translations and visualisations of the translations. In a certain sense I am a linguist...
I sense from your words, that you like new things, like experiments.
I like to play. There is so much room to play and so little of it is used. For instance in Dobru's poem. There is so much room in there. Let me put it this way: if you look at an object too many times, that might make that object disappear. Sometimes you need someone else to cast an eye upon that object to make it visible again. I think that the recitation somehow renews the poem. It revives. Albeit from my Dutch point of view, it revives in a performance that is entirely in hands of Surinamese.
Do you understand Sranan Tongo?
I do my best. If you speak slowly, I manage. I can normally understand it when I see it in print. Then I have all the time to analyse it. But speaking, no, I can't.
Monday, the 17th of November, 2008 is an important day.
Yes. We rehearse with the choir on Monday- and Wednesday evenings. One of those Monday evenings, the 17th of November, is the 25th dying day of Robin Raveles. I decided to invite the board of the Dobru-Raveles foundation to attend that rehearsal. It will be a solemn occasion. It is important to commemorate Dobru. But his poem is also a vision. It looks ahead, to a 'Wan sranan', that has not yet been achieved, but might come one day. It is an optimistic poem. And we have to celebrate that.
Are the participants enthusiastic?
Yes. They are all very loyal, and I'm extremely grateful for that. To me, it's very important that people feel closely associated with the project.
Yes, it is a unique project. I hope you will find these Lebanese speakers very soon.
(Interview broadcasted on Monday the 17th of November 2008 at 21 h.15 local time.)