Many of us grew up with ghost stories. For some of us, it’s very much part of our belief system that we share the world with other presences. (If you’re interested, I wrote a speculative text about the Pontianak here.)
When I was younger, my mom would use the word “pelesit” each time she saw a grasshopper in our house. According to her, pelesit is a sign that someone “hantar barang”, or was using black magic to harm you, your family or your business. This could be due to different reasons – jealousy, spite, to remove the competition, amongst others. The only way to stop anything bad from happening was to kill the pelesit and remove its head. I wonder how many of us have heard of this, and still believe in it.
I got reminded of this because of Pelesit, a collaborative audio and visual project by eccentric duo NADA and Teater Ekamatra that’s one-part music video, one-part performance art and one-part a friendly spiritual disturbance. The project takes reference from the term “macam pelesit”, which is a saying describing someone who has vanished into thin air. The video features Rizman Putra and Safuan Johari, as beings dressed in black and white, appearing in various locations in Kampong Gelam.
On March 1st, NADA and Teater Ekamatra will also release Placid, the second part of this collaboration, which features a more peaceful exploration of Kampong Gelam. These projects are part of Aliwal Tracks, an online programme of performances, music as well as street art organised by Aliwal Arts Centre.
In this interview, I sit down with NADA and Teater Ekamatra’s Akbar Syadiq and Shaza Ishak to have a casual conversation about our personal encounters with the pelesit, “tuju-tuju” (a black magic offering, usually in the form of eggs) and other colourful apparitions and spirits. We also talk about the most “keras” (haunted) place in Singapore, NADA’s philosophy of hantulogy, and what went on behind the scenes for Pelesit and Placid.
[This interview has been lightly edited.]
Who and what is NADA?
Rizman: Hi, we are NADA. I am Rizman and I perform. Sometimes I write songs with Safuan. Safuan, who are you?
Safuan: I “steal” a lot of music to make it NADA. We do music based a lot on Southeast Asian and mainly music from the past.
If people were to Google NADA, one of the things that comes up is the term “hantulogy”. What is hantulogy?
Safuan: Hantulogy initially was a stolen idea from Mark Fisher based on the idea of hauntology, which in fact he stole from Jacques Derrida. So from hauntology, it has become hantulogy. It is about how the residues, the stains, the echoes from the past just keep reverberating to a degree, whether small or big, like a spectre or a ghost.
Given that NADA has always been shapeshifting, how would you describe your current form?
Safuan: NADA from the start was about very straightforward nostalgia. But recently, especially since COVID, looking back to the past is no longer fun. With that said, we don’t know what the future holds.
I’ve been toying around with the idea of accelerationism as well. If I take a point from the past, fix the parameters and accelerate it, what will the present or the future feel like?
Like a lot of speculating and time traveling without moving? And in essence, this question of what would happen if 100 years from now, we are still like this?
Safuan: Yeah, correct. The whole idea of hauntology is based on the concept of lost futures. For example, back in the ‘60s, where the future seems very “space age”. But then here we are in the 21st century, we still don’t see any flying cars and things like that.
Now that it’s 2021, we don’t dress like how they do in Mad Max right?
Safuan: Neither are we like The Jetsons or anything like that.
The title of the two works is Pelesit and Placid. What are they about?
Rizman: I had this conversation with one of the store owners around Arab Street. He was telling me about how black magic is being used around Arab Street areas. Like how people try to kill each other’s businesses by using pelesit. That was something that kind of struck me.
Aside from the wordplay, Placid describes the area around Aliwal early in the morning. I used to come here every day at 6am in the morning when I was doing CHONTENG, and it was so quiet and peaceful. Unlike the idea of Pelesit which is constantly moving and shifting around in fast motion, Placid is the opposite of that, a duality of sorts.
Can you share some of your personal experiences with the word “pelesit” growing up?
Rizman: I learnt the word “pelesit” at a very young age. When you see grasshoppers or crickets entering your house, the first thing my parents would say is “pelesit, pelesit”. You know, that strange assumption that somebody is trying to send something.
Shaza: When I was younger, I started this group called “Orthodox” in my neighbourhood (I thought the word “orthodox” was really cool because I didn’t understand it). We started this group and we were supposedly ghostbusting. I pretended that I could see ghosts and be possessed by them. But somebody mentioned to me that we were just wasting time, why not use that time to kill pelesit and “tuju-tuju”? We pretended that we were going around killing all these pelesits if we found them.
I’m sure I killed a lot of grasshoppers and not actual pelesits.
Shaza, you should revive Orthodox.
Rizman and Safuan, what do you feel is the relationship between spiritual disturbances and sound or performance?
Safuan: For me, the disturbances come from within. “Tempat paling keras dalam hati” (The most haunted place is the heart).
Everyone: (in shock/awe) Wahhhhh…
Safuan: Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve never experienced any form of disturbances. But then I’m not a very visual person. I think in terms of concepts, text and emotions.
Rizman: When it comes to music and performing, I think it’s more about conjuring or summoning something. You need to reach that state, to get that energy to present this powerful thing that you can’t explain, and share it with the audience. The audience will bounce back that energy.
But performing during COVID is such a strange thing. It’s as if you’re performing to yourself in your room. Normally I will look at the audience to get a response, right? But this time around, I just look outward, to the horizon, but there’s nobody.
A dancing Rizman (and Syadiq) in Turkish Handicrafts and Carpets.
What was the process of making the videos for both Pelesit and Placid like?
Syadiq: For Pelesit, it was quite “run and gun” in the sense that we tried to get to as many shops as possible. It was also quite interesting explaining to the shop owners why there’s a dancing Rizman and Safuan in their spaces.
Process-wise, both videos are as different as night and day. Placid is all about stillness. We shot around the Aliwal area at five or six in the morning. It’s also about not trying to disturb these spaces. NADA was just floating through the spaces. But with Pelesit, it was more high energy. We wanted to disrupt the spaces we were in.
Did you get chased out?
Syadiq: No, everybody was quite nice.
Rizman: And we got two boxes of “minyak attar” (botanical perfumes) for free.
Shaza: From Jamal Kazura Aromatics.
Just to add – Ekamatra has been in that space for almost nine years now. It’s inevitable that you make friends in the area, like Fluff Bakery and Kiah’s Gallery. But there were also new people and places that we’ve never had a relationship with. I think they were all really receptive to us being in their spaces.
Are any of these friends non-human? Or maybe spiritual?
Shaza: Oh, for sure. Rizman has a lot of stories about this. But we have a really playful toyol person/thing in our space. We call it T-boy. It’s mischievous and it likes to misplace things and just f*** with us.
Rizman: Yeah, I got disturbed a lot of times here. It was around 10pm, when I was drawing. Something was pulling my shirt back – like small fingers tugging my T-shirt. Sometimes it’s like a tap on my neck. But I think he is like Casper, he’s friendly. He likes to hide things, like our tools or wallet, but we will find them a few days later.
What’s the most “keras” or haunted place in Singapore?
Shaza: Apparently, Safuan’s heart, right?
Shaza: Ok, maybe it’s not the most haunted place but my room has a “thing”. When I’m sleeping, it will wake me up or when I’m doing things, sometimes I feel like I’m being watched – in a loving, yet scary way.
My mom brought someone to help get rid of the spirit. And the person told us, actually the thing is outside your room, and he’s been here for longer than you have, so you need to respect that it’s his place as well. I thought that was really quite interesting, because we always think that we have the right to be here, right? But maybe they have a right too and we just need to negotiate, in a way.
For me, we’re all in the same space of existence, that’s why there is a lot of crossing. Like something from the future is existing at the same time as something in the present and the past. We’re all sharing space. Some of us are more aware of the other’s presence. Some of us are not. That’s my theory anyway.
Safuan: This goes back very well to the whole idea of Placid. Visually and in terms of narrative, it is NADA being very, very conscious in the video that they are leaving their own stains, residues and echoes.
How did you do that?
Safuan: It’d be a spoiler if I mention it.
Ok, we’ll have to wait to watch Placid.
NADA (and Kopi) in Kiah’s Gallery.
A question for everybody: If you were a hantu, what hantu would you want to be?
Rizman: Hantu galah (pole ghost). You know, I am short, but a hantu galah is tall.
Shaza: Similar to Rizman: I want to be hantu tetek (breast ghost). I’ve always wanted bigger boobs.
Not that you want to suffocate young children right, Shaza? Just to be clear.
Shaza: I’ll be a really gentle hantu tetek.
Safuan: I don’t mind being a toyol. He goes out at night and gets some money. He gets blamed for everything that has gone missing in the house.
Shaza: Poor toyol. They really get blamed for everything. They are just really misunderstood. I guess that’s where Safuan is coming from.
Syadiq: I like the idea of a penunggu (guardian) or things that rest in places. I feel I won’t do very well scaring people. I would rather lurk. I don’t like to be frightened and I don’t wish it onto others.
Since we are in the mood of sharing, would any of you like to share your favourite ghost story?
Shaza: There was this one time, I was in a studio with a friend and we fell asleep. I was woken up by someone at my feet. I opened my eyes slightly and there was this– what I thought was a Pontianak. I was so tired that I said in my heart “I’m so sorry. I’m really, really scared but I’m also really, really sleepy. So please, do you mind leaving and please don’t disturb us anymore?” At some point I fell back asleep.
When I woke up, I thought that it was nothing. We were about to leave the studio when my friend decided to roll cigarettes for us and passed me one. When I was smoking, there was something in my mouth. I pulled and pulled at it and it was a really, really, really, really long (strand of) hair. Then I realised that it wasn’t a dream. That was by far one of the creepiest things that has ever happened because there was a physical manifestation of what I thought was a dream.
Syadiq: For me it’s anything related to National Service. Personally I had my feet tugged and my blanket pulled before I went to sleep. But then there are so many different stories and it doesn’t stop – it’s linked to some guy’s uncle or another person’s experience a few years ago in the same bunk. The longevity of it will continue all the way, because every Singaporean son will have to go through National Service, and these stories keep evolving.
Rizman: Ok, I’ll share. I recently did a painting project (somewhere) in Kampong Gelam. Normally after 9pm, that particular place has a strange and weird energy. I have this feeling it’s (related to) something that happened in the past. There are stories from people who have seen things like a “panglima” (Malay warrior) or some apparitions there. All these things, they’ve happened in a space where lots of historical things happened before.
I think all these heritage spaces in Singapore are puaka (haunted).
Safuan, you’ve never experienced any encounters?
Safuan: Like Syadiq, it was when I was in camp. There was a period of one week where one of my campmates would get possessed every night. Weird things would happen, like water seeping out the walls smelling like vodka. My campmate got up at night completely transformed into a totally different person. After the second or third night, the rest of us got really tired. So we went up to him and asked him, “so now what do you want us to do?”. The spirit replied that it wanted to be alive again. We told the spirit it was impossible. Another campmate saw the spirit and told me “oh, it looks just like you, Safuan”.
We cleaned up the barracks and our rooms, and a week later, the disturbances stopped. Our officer said that the spirit appears once in a while and does the same thing to the next batch of recruits staying there.
Like a hazing ritual.
Anything else anyone would like to add?
Safuan: On behalf of NADA, don’t take this hantu thing too literally.
The sightings, stories, experiences and possible hallucinations shared in this article may or may not be verifiable. We don’t suggest conducting experiments to find out. The truth might lie somewhere in between.
This article is sponsored by Arts House Limited.
ila is a visual and performance artist who works with found objects, moving images and live performance. she creates alternative nodes of experience and entry points into the peripheries of the unspoken, the tacit and the silenced. With light as her medium of choice, ila weaves imagined narratives into existing realities. Using her body as a space of tension, negotiation and confrontation, ila creates work that generates discussions about gender, history and identity in relation to pressing contemporary issues. She also writes short speculative fiction about the region on her Instagram.