So far, Ibu Rambut Gila is my only transvestite alter ego. Her Malay name Ibu Rambu Gila translates as "Lady Crazy Hair". She is styled after a Javanese lady of old and takes this name from the assemblage of a black bandana and a Javanese postiche bun, a peculiar association rooted in my twisted sense of creativity and the practicality of the bandana as an indispensable travel item carried at all time. It was there in my bag when I needed to recreate in a rowdy yet visually convincing manner the refined allure of traditional feminine Javanese hairstyle: a complex chignon, partly made-up by a wig to give the volume needed to complement the elongated silhouette of the sarong kebaya with an elegant crowing touch. This fashion is so quintessential to Javanese culture that, although fairly old, it is still very much part of the 21st century environment, especially on formal occasions.
So, Ibu proudly embraces her transvestite identity with a chignon that instantly makes it plain for all to see. With her, it is a case of both "what you see is what you get" and "what you get is not what you see". She is in fact a performance artist who hides the true implications of her art with reality-bending musical items made to look harmless by relying on the not-so-subtle but highly effective ingenuity of cabaret techniques applied to performance art. She acts on the deepest layers of subconscious identity to turn mind-twisting moments of musical interaction into amusing snippets of innocent tackiness, making people think that they are "just" entertained. Truth is that she is both so deliciously vicious and genuinely sincere at the same time in her well-wishing project for the world, that she sees no problems in the mind control technique used to hide from the member of her public that, far from being "entertained", their essences and souls are deeply intertwined with the spiritual dimension of her mesmerising vocal performance, a forceful intervention that subject them to an irreversible application of her cosmic evolutive nature on their deep primal sense of identity. She is indeed a bit of a trickster, a black hole trickster!
She first appeared in 1995, on the southern coast of Central Java, Indonesia and documentation of her too rare interventions are few. All the materiel available is gathered for the first time in this page, as of today 27 October 2019. Let's hope that some unkown documents will emerge from the shadows of history in the future. Over the last two decades her whereabouts seem to have been centred on the Riau archipelago and its surroundings. She is undoubtedly born Javanese, yet she also carries the universality of the Melayu language in her with pride. Hence the long period of retreat and meditation at the heart of the Malay world, possibly aiming to identify her own heart with this epicentre of geographical and historical forces, and maybe understand what makes her voice irreversibly transcend the reality of the people around her when they happen to be exposed to it.
If she disappeared for so long, it might well be because big things are brewing. A rumour currently running around Singapore says that she is working on a comeback and very soon will reach unseen new heights in her art. Some even say as early as next year. Other that it might be a video performance of a new kind, something that will make the current obsession with colonialism, gender issues and appropriation of cultural identity turn into a joyful memory of the past. A video would also allow her voice to be heard around the world. Fact is that she has yet to use the potential of the web as it developed after she last performed.
Ibu Rambut Gila is first of all the expression of a deep love for a part of Asia. It reflects my wish to understand and even at some point the desire to identify with Nusantara, the Indonesian archipelago. This emotion experienced in the course of numerous visits to Indonesia, particularly Central Java, became a song in 1994. Its title, Jangan Tipu Saya, is a Malay expression that translates as "don't bullshit me". Its tune was composed in the course of solitary walks along the mystical beach of Parangtritis, south of Jogjakarta. The lyrics were inspired by a peculiar local contrast that opposed a feeling of utter peacefulness through the week to the submerging emotions brought by an explosion of social activity during the weekend.
Soon the person started manifesting her intention to adopt a physical form , and I was not surprised too see her adopt the attributes of a Javanese woman of old. Slowly she emerged. And then suddenly, one day, I saw her walking from afar along the beach. I already had plans to celebrate my 40th birthday in this unique setting. In fact, part of that stay was to start preparations. I could see now how her aura would make the party unforgettable for my friends.
The Song (lucky you, you are going to hear her sing. Isn't the duplicoring energy amazing?)
Ibu was born out of the sea, but not just any sea. She was born from the Southern Hemisphere Indian Ocean, from the immensity of a maritime world with no ends in sight for about half of the planet. She was born on that shore at the edge of the known world where humankind come to face the daunting probability of never finding a suitable answer to that immensity, an answer that could combine harmoniously reason and belief, science and religion.
Parangtritis is undoubtedly a very special place. The drawings I did there are not many but I think they transcribe how it felt at that moment fairly well.
The Birthday Party
And so in 1995, Ibu Rambut Gila became the defining character of my 40th birthday celebration in Parangtritis. This turned out to be a wonderfully warm \ gathering of numerous friend, some of whom traveled from the other side of the world to answer the invitation in which the now physical form of Ibu carried negligently the invitation to enjoy a beautiful holiday. There was even a Tshirt for everyone, printed in a sablon studio that united us on the day of departure with the theme of the few days too fast gone by. She also had to perform the song written without knowing it would be for HER. The character on the invitation had to turn into flesh and blood. She had to breathe, laugh and cries.
Following performances (various locations)
Upon returning to Singapore, the party mood was hard to extinguished. So Ernesto Bedmer threw a party in his home to keep the feeling going. It became the place where Ibu could make her self heard for the first time in the Lion City. There was for sure a lot of work to do here.
Ivan Tan ran a talent company called Jes Penguin. He started selling my performance for parties and events. Ibu was turning into a business! I learned a new Malay song, the famous Getaran Jiwa from P. Ramli. It started the set, followed by Jangan Tipu Saya and closed with a Malayu tinted performance of La Vie en Rose. We recorded a set of piano accompaniments with a friend of his musician in Katong and out we went to perform around Singapore, mostly on saturday nights and in glamor-less hotels or even seedy halls. Life as a performance artist is tough as everyone knows. But Ibu had to survive and be independant in the big city. This was far from the level of artistry I hoped for her, but out of these performances emerged one which I regard as an artistic peak in Ibu's peculiar career in the way it revealed almost innocently an underlying political position on power, found right at the start of her process, yet not openly articulated, as if too serious for her liking. This performance brought a difficult topic to the surface, but with a non-confrontational approach that allowed both content and impact of her intention to manifest in full. In fact I now regard this performance of Ibu as probably my best ever.
Ivan had sold my act to the organisers of an SAF platoon annual party to be held in their camp on Holland Rd. That would be a welcome change from the low-class hotels. Performing for such a gathering of healthy young men, loudly eager to demonstrate their virility at any time, was of course very much to Ibu's liking. So much so that the impact of her electrifying presence on them reached an unexpected high point when she came to seat, in the most natural yet suggestive way, on the laps of the very platoon's colonel and shamelessly started to caress and entice him. That is when the platoon went MAD, and nothing could stop them. So, the clearly embarrassed handsome officer had no other choice but let Ibu turn him into her toy-thing of a day, and let the soldiers expressed their satisfaction at seeing him at their mercy freely and as loud as they wanted. It was a party and they wrote the rules. For once, in the course of two years of NS, they were in control. Ibu's intervention had reversed roles and positions assumed by power in Singaporean society. Unfortunately no photo exist of that unique moment of performance art. It is forever gone: a photos that should have been but wasn't.
There is another performance, or rather an "apparition" of Ibu that is not documented but should be mentioned for its relation to the National University. That day, Ibu was to attend first a fancy-dress farewell party not far from the campus and later join another friend, a long time Australian resident of Jogjakarta attending an Indonesian festival in the university cultural centre. The juxtaposition of Fancy dress and Indonesian festival in the same evening called for Ibu once again. She did have an informal performance in the farewell party, something to say bye bye to her friends in her own inimitable way. And her apparition in the university cultural centre didn't last very long. If anything it was pretty tame, much more than usual. But as an observer, I truly enjoyed the sense of spontaneous disruption her presence created for about an hour or so in this well-oiled cultural machine and the interrogating contrast raised by her fake identity next to actual Javanese classical dance groups, who happened to be Chinese. Cultural appropriation was not yet the fad it is today, but she stood her ground with gentle and firm elegance. One could almost read all over her: Please refrain from telling me what I should be. And rest assured that I know who I am as much as you do.
Ibu's last documented performance so far appears to have taken place by the late 90s in Malacca. The setting was exceptional: the lush garden of an authentic Malay wooden house where she performed for the birthday of Azri, a friend from Kuala Lumpur. Being a well connected socialite, his birthday was attended by the who's who of the KL society at that time. A public of Datuk and Datin for Ibu's farewell to the stage... what more to ask?
Farewell to the stage, so far yes, maybe... but... wait and see!