- 2007/12/04 Renewing Kristang culture

The Kristang Poet of Malacca, one of DiGi's Amazing Malaysians projects for this year, ended with a musical showcase in Kristang, a language unique to the descendents of the early Portuguese settlers. DEBRA CHONG was in the historical city recently to catch the finale.

Kazamintu no Praiya. It translates to "Wedding on the Beach". And true to its title, the Kristang settlement by the Straits of Malacca came alive with the sound of music in celebration.

The lovely Rosalinda with the blinding smile was getting married to the kacak Paulinho in a grand ceremony replete with songs and lively dances.

But it turned out to be fake. It was a grand scale enactment of a traditional Kristang courtship and wedding as practised in Malacca back in the 1950s.

Yet for a little over an hour that Saturday night, the residents as well as guests from out of town were swept away by drums beating out a lively tattoo which reverberated throughout the neighbourhood, cymbals clashing and guitar strings singing as a choir of angels lifted their voices to the heavens and belted out melody after melody in a tongue that would be on the fast-track to extinction if not for the efforts of one person.

She is Joan Marbeck, a retired music teacher born and bred in Malacca, who has taken the initiative to preserve the heritage of her people, the Kristang.

The Kristang are the descendents of the Portuguese voyagers who arrived in the port town in the 16th-century. As they settled down into the new land, their language and customs evolved and assumed an identity distinct from their Europe-based cousins.

Some words, like pescador (fisherman) remained, but other words from other cultures, like kacak the Malay word for handsome, were absorbed and added to the Kristang lexicon.

Today, the Kristang community number some 200,000 people, about a third of the Malaccan population at slightly more than 680,000. Sadly, only some 5,000 are able to speak the language fluently, according to Marbeck.

Like many minority tongues worldwide, it spreads orally from generation to generation. Within the Portuguese settlement, there remains at least one person in each household who speaks it. But because it is not formally taught in schools, its growth is stunted.

Thanks to Marbeck and the generous sponsorship of telecommunications giant, DiGi, interest in the language and the culture of the Kristang has been renewed.

Under the DiGi Amazing Malaysians programme, now into its third year, Marbeck was able to launch a musical drama that showcased various aspects of fading Kristang culture to a wider section of the public.

For the past three months, some 60 secondary students from SMK Bukit Baru, SMK Canossa Convent and SMK Infant Jesus Convent were sucked into speaking Kristang (the script was penned by Marbeck herself) and into learning Kristang dances, such as the branyo, a flirty dance similar to the Malay joget, and the popular farapeira, probably the most recognisable from the many tourism Malacca videos shown over TV.

The wedding theme was a surprise, though in the end it proved an apt choice considering the connotation of marriage not just as vow between two individuals but as a social contract that bound the different peoples and blended their cultures and formed the beautiful melting pot that is Malacca today.

As Marbeck stated: "I chose the theme of a wedding because it is something that all Malaysians can relate to. A traditional Kristang marriage is match-made, like it is traditionally for the Malays, the Chinese and Indians. But some of the customs are peculiar to the Kristang, and I thought it would be interesting to re-enact some of these."

Judging from the smiles and rapture from the audience that night, one would assume she has made her point.

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