Nusi Poetry — Carrying on traditions

A line-up of poets during the 2019 edition of Nusi Poetry's ‘Mosaic: Ngebat Mimpi’.

Oral tradition, or oral lore, is a form of human communication wherein knowledge, art, ideas, and cultural materials are received, preserved, and transmitted orally from one generation to another. As part of our identity, it is important that we do our best to preserve the arts and culture of the olden days. Hence, the founders of Nusi Poetry, Kulleh Grasi and Azhfar Raimi, aim to keep the oral tradition that was once practised in longhouses alive for future generations.

Appreciating heritage, respecting our roots

The Nusi Poetry team of Azhfar Raimi (left) and Kulleh Grasi.

The art, culture, and tradition from long ago should be acknowledged and appreciated in order for us to maintain our roots. It is a part of our life journey and what defines us in the best ways. 

While growing up in the city or within modernity may cause a loss of sight of these traditions, the tiny bits that run through our blood should not be dismissed. Such sentiments were shared during an interview with the founders of Nusi Poetry, Kulleh Grasi and Azhfar Raimi.

With their concern geared towards celebrating the cultural aspect of oral tradition, they both believed that a rich heritage should continue to be practised even in these modern times. According to Kulleh, oral traditions were used in longhouses by the elders in the past to pass down knowledge. However, as time progresses, the language used has adapted to modernity too.

The urgency to revive the tradition

Emphasising the importance of reviving these oral traditions, Azhfar signified culture as the identity of an individual. “The most important thing in life is our identities. If you don’t know where you come from, it’s like you lost a part of yourself, and that means you will lose sight of yourself.

“Our culture is forever evolving. Our lives are always moving forward. Sometimes, we tend to forget the tiny bits of our origins. What if this happens to our language? What happens if the next generation forgets everything? That’s very upsetting and frightening just to think of,” she added.

Kulleh Grasi delivering a speech at Ted X Sungai Segget in 2016.

With oral traditions, Azhfar said there are many words from the olden days’ longhouse that are no longer used today. As a band member of the cultural band Nading Rhapsody, Azhfar said the group often sings about the old rituals that are no longer practised.”
Through our music, we want to convey the message and hope that many will learn of these old practices. These are the things that make us who we are today, “ she said.

Celebrating the art through Nusi Poetry 

Azhfar Raimi giving a presentation at the Ted X Sungai Segget in 2016.

Seeing the urgency to revive the art of oral tradition, Kulleh and Azhfar, under the Nading Creative group, aim to use poetry as a medium to keep the culture before it is lost. Known as ‘Nusi Poetry’ where ‘Nusi’ means “to tell” in the Iban language, Kulleh shared that what motivated them to organise the movement was their musical experiences.

 “In Nading Rhapsody, we realised that people enjoy the music, but not much of the lyrics. We found that it was important to reach out to our audiences through words, hence why we started Nusi Poetry in 2017,” he added.

Recalling their first edition of Nusi Poetry, Azhfar described the event as a cross-cultural one, which involved the different ethnics of Sarawak. “It was a mix of different languages performed using poetry as a medium. And that was the important factor that we wanted to introduce to the community.”

In each edition of Nusi Poetry, Azhfar said that there were different contents shared by various walks of life. Nusi Poetry also held an edition in 2019 called ‘Mosaic: Ngebat Mimpi’ to commemorate the Unesco International Year of Indigenous Language.

Elaborating, Kulleh said, “Nusi Poetry is not only an avenue to celebrate the different languages, but also to showcase the oral traditions of different ethnic groups in Borneo. We are more than just a platform; we are the focal point for the poets’ works. Under Nusi Poetry, we share mainly our history, anything that regards the development and civilisation of the olden days that we took for granted.”

Poetry under the oral traditions is a co-existing process between art and language, and Kulleh also said that the main goal of Nusi Poetry is to be the result of the next generations. “For us who are directly involved in this art, we are the people that can challenge the evolution of the world. If it is not thought-provoking, it is not art.”

In 2016, Azhfar and Kulleh spoke at the Ted X Sungai Segget.

Georgetown Literary Festival 

Explaining the objectives of Nusi Poetry, Kulleh hopes that the oral tradition shared will be archived for the future. He also revealed that Nusi Poetry will be part of the upcoming Georgetown Literary Festival (GTLF). “I would like to thank the director, Pauline Fan, for including us in such a huge event. It is an honour for us to be able to introduce the words of Borneo to this festival.”

Kulleh added that it is a big responsibility for the group. “We hope to be able to project the messages that we want to convey. In this GTLF edition, there will be 12 line-ups, including a group of special-needs children from Sabah and a Suluk ethnic poet, Nelson Dino.”

The festival will be held virtually and physically from November 25 to 28, and Nusi Poetry’s show is titled ‘Oda Dari Seberang’. The live broadcast can be viewed on GTLF’s official Youtube channel, where various videos from this year’s edition will be made available.

Kulleh and Azhfar hope that as Nusi Poetry grows, the oral traditions of Borneo will be able to reach a wider audience through poetry. “We hope to not only stay within the region but also go international. We need to be an outlet that keeps these words alive.”
Azhfar added that she hopes to see more languages included in the future. “I would love to see the different Chinese dialects — Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, and others — perform their oral traditions under Nusi Poetry. In the future, I look forward to seeing all these compiled into a book for the next generation.”

For more information, visit Nusi Poetry on Facebook and Instagram. The social media pages will include recitals, live broadcasts, and more for you to browse and learn about the oral traditions of Borneo.

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