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Spotlight: Arka Kinari

Photo: Benjamin Blankenship

Subversive, immersive and partially submerged, Arka Kinari is a live music performance, staged from the deck of a traditional sailing ship, which imagines life after the carbon economy. Musicians Grey Filastine, from the US and Nova Ruth, from Indonesia, created the project to change the way they share their music with the world, starting in Nova’s home, Indonesia. Their mix of edgy electronica, folkloric vocals, ecological consciousness and theatrical stage shows has brought them international recognition on the underground music scene.

The performances of their last album, Drapetomania, imagined civilization as a plane hurtling towards its own destruction. Arka Kinari, which is at once the name of the project, the ship and its musicians, takes this a step further. Arka is Latin for ‘vessel’ or ‘repository’, coming from the verb ‘arcere’ meaning ‘to hold off or defend’. Kinari is a Sanskrit word for a half-human and half-bird musician, guardian of the tree of life.

The ship itself becomes a floating stage with video projected onto the sails, submerged lights, performers in dinghies and scaling the rigging, to tell a story of ecological crisis and survival, where the last great commons, the seas, become a base for a nomadic and borderless future.

‘This is our emergency exit,’ explains Filastine. ‘This is us jumping off the plane with a parachute and asking everyone, communally, to jump together. We don’t mean we’re expecting everybody to get a ship and go to sea, but to find their own emergency exit.

This project is the least I can do and the most I can do, because in the context we are living in right now they are really the same thing.’

‘For me it is answering an ancestral call,’ says Nova, ‘I don’t know if it’s a history or a myth about our ancestors, who were sailors and pirates... My grandmother is a Bugis from the pirate island of Sulawesi.’

With the Arka Kinari project Filastine and Nova are pioneering a new form of ‘slow touring’ in which the ship is the stage, the tour bus, the roadie, and the home for them and their crew.

Their music focuses on issues of ecological collapse, borders and globalization and in this project they have been able to make the medium and the message meet, touring with the power of the wind, performing using electricity from their impressive solar array, and bringing their music to audiences that might not otherwise see performances of this calibre or technical innovation. The slow touring style also lends itself to a genuine cultural exchange between the touring musicians and local artists and communities.

This is our emergency exit from the carbon economy. This is us jumping off the plane with a parachute and asking everyone, communally, to jump together

‘This is a process of creating community and networks, not a process of entertainment and observers. The show is the punctuation mark to our visits and the collaborations that have happened, not the whole story,’ says Filastine.

The tour was always planned to start in Indonesia, but circumstances determined that the boat was bought in April 2019 in Rotterdam. While the development of the show and conversion of the ship were still underway, the Arka Kinari set sail for Indonesia, taking the long way around across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They were crossing the Pacific Ocean when the pandemic hit, and the project made headlines internationally as the ship was stranded in the middle of the ocean as the world shut down.

‘Most people were locked inside. We were locked outside. Outside of the human race. The open ocean and uninhabited islands were the only places to go,’ says Filastine.

Contacting everyone they could think of to get the ship and crew into Indonesia, Nova and the Indonesian team managed to elicit support from their ministry of culture and education and the project was able to tour during the coronavirus pandemic, with open air, socially distanced, Covid-19 responsible performances.

The project aims for gender balance in the crew, with an Indonesian woman as co-owner and the principal performer, another as tour manager and crew member, and two British women (including this author) as bosun and first mate.

But going to sea isn’t so easy for Indonesian women, as Nova explains: ‘In the Bugis tradition a woman can’t be on board unless she wears a fake moustache, dresses like a man and brings a rooster on board. But we have the story of Malahayati, a badass Indonesian woman sailor who led battleships in Aceh in the 16th Century. The traditional song ‘Nenek moyangku seorang pelaut’ (‘my ancestors were sailors’) uses the word for grandmother, not grandfather. I want to open up possibilities.’

Titi Permata, Arka Kinari’s tour manager, saw the impact this had: ‘Younger women we met on tour were so excited to see us women on the boat, having fun and working hard. Not many women in Indonesia have that kind of independence and it gives them a way to imagine more freedom for themselves.’

Follow Arka Kinari’s voyage at arkakinari.org

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