Mah Meri, pronounced Max Mri, is a native group mostly native to Penisular Malaysia. They are one of the 18 Orang Asli groups present in Malaysia, and can usually can be found in Pulau Carey, in Selangor province. Based on the data collection from Malaysian government’s Orang Asli Office, in 2005 there were about 2200 Mah Meri people. These people speak Besisi, which is part of Semelaic sub-branch of Aslian languages, part of Austroasiatic languages. Mah Meri’s village headman is known as Batin, and the group is famous for Tarian Jo’oh – or Jungle dance – and for Tarian Topeng – or Mask dance.
I knew from the festival program that Mah Meri was going to perform at the Rainforest World Music Festival, and with persistence and luck I managed to track down their group manager, Mr. Rashid Esa. Let me share with you the essence of my interview with Mr. Rashid.
Asian Itinerary: Can you tell us a bit about your band?
Rashid Esa: Yes sure; I am the leader of Mah Meri group, and this year we are bringing to the Rainforest World Music Festival a different group, one with people who are real performers in their local villages. These people are not professional musicians but simple villagers performing their rituals, the new year celebrations, the healing dances, and more.
AI: Where do you hail from?
RE: We are from Carey Island, in Selangor, Malaysia.
AI: Tell me please about your music.
RE: Well, our music is very similar to the Malay music, the instruments are violins, rebana (or tambourine), the gong, but the really unique traditional instrument in the Orang Asli music is the Centong Buluh, a bamboo stamping tube that all Orang Asli including Mah Meri use.
AI: What is the message you wish to transcend at the Rainforest World Music Festival?
RE: Our main purpose of being here is to promote their small culture. There are only about 4000 Orang Asli and we want to tell the world that these 4000 people are unique and very special, as I said early. Everything that was said about them in the past was wrong, their tribe name is different, their own name is different. And this has lead us to find out more on who they are. From their DNA we have realized they are not malays or Chinese, they are not Indian nor are Indonesian. So the question is, who are they? And if this question is unanswered, then we can at least ask ourselves: when did they come to Malaysia? It must have been pretty early if we judge from their ancestral practices, their music and their religion.
It brings to mind John Lennon’s lyrics, where he says there is no country, no boundary, no religion and no war. These people’s religion is such that there is no life and there is no death; they believe that when we die we become a spirit and we still live on. This is reflected in their celebration called the spirit day, where they celebrate together with the spirit. This is the crucial difference between our society and theirs, and we hope that we can understand it and not interfere with their belief. If we do so, then we will destroy their community.
AI: Is this your first time performing at the Rainforest World Music Festival?
RE: No, this is our fourth time, but we always come with a different group.
AI: What do you think makes you different from the other groups at the Rainforest World Music Festival?
RE: These are real people, performing different rituals from different villages. So, here we are, bringing you the sound of the rainforest with forest people who produce that sound and that music.
AI: How long have you been in the music industry?
RE: With the Mah Meri, very very long, more than 30 years. We represent 4000 of them, promoting their culture through music. Some people prefer to fight for their rights, maybe through demonstrations, but with the Mah Meri we do it through their culture. Music is not the only aspect, we also promote their sculptures, as they will remain in the times. Also, in the festival workshop we are going to introduce the oldest origami in the world, the leaf origami.
AI: In your opinion what is the connection between music and nature?
RE: I believe it is one and the same thing. Take the harvest for instance: the Orang Asli sing a song about it, tell a story, and this is not only to heal or to change the world, but also to remind themselves that there is a power beyond the known. And this is the relationship between the other world and this world, things that we cannot see and that it gets expressed in their music. So they sing a song, and chant it over and over; we call it music but they called it differently. They are telling the spirit that they are now planting and during this act is also preservation. You cut a tree you must use the wood, you kill an animals you must eat the meat, you carve a sculpture you must at least leave the sculpture there. This is a very different culture that you cannot find elsewhere in Malaysia today.
I take leave from Rashid Esa, filled with this special information he shared with me, and happy to know more about Mah Meri and their music and culture.
To know more about Mah Meri, and to experience their culture yourself, visit the Mah Meri Cultural Village website http://mmcv.org.my/web/ for programs and prices.
Watch Thomas Gennaro video of Mah Meri at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2015: http://asianitinerary.com/mah-meri-at-the-rainforest-world-music-festival-2015/