Expecatations were high. The room was abuzz with anticipation one could slice with a knife. And the room was filled with a partial who’s who of Penang.
I had gulped down a very quick dinner at Sri Ananda Bhawan just 15 minutes ago. We had made two, no, make that three rounds near the Penang General Post Office, looking for a parking space.
But when gamelan music filled the air in the ABN-AMRO Arts and Culture Centre hall, everyone simply held their breath.
He walked in, almost regal in his crisp white long-sleeved shirt. Blonde. With a hooked nose. A pair of glimmering eyes which stared straight at you.
So this was Folke Tegetthoff, the Austrian whom an Australian newspaper enthused was “a new name has to be added to Aesop, Grimm, Andersen…”.
The brochure spoke highly of him. Folke Tegetthoff is internationally regarded as the founder of a new tradition of storytelling. He is a poet, lecturer, and founder and organiser of a storytelling festival – The Tales of Graz. His “World Storytelling Tour” led him to travel to 28 countries between 1982 and 1984. He is the only German-language storyteller whose work has been entered in the sound archives of the National Library of Congress in Washington.
No wonder people turned up to hear him speak. So many were his accolades that he was a curiosity, if not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Folke began by speaking of expectations, weaving his first spell about his expectations when he visited India’s famous Taj Mahal. He cleverly crafted his story to warm us all up to his stories. Some I had heard before, some I had not.
He did not spend the whole hour telling us stories. He interspersed each 10-minute story session by letting us ‘rest’ with some live gamelan music, courtesy of USM’s gamelan troupe.
But I was enthralled, to say the least. Folke has a magical way of keeping one hooked, right at the beginning. It could be the fascinating way he pauses at the right places, or the way he gives a full stare, as if he were talking to me and me alone.
He told simple stories but ones which led the audience to reflect. The simple stories he told of various peoples of the world presented to me at least, how universal truths of joy, wisdom, patience and gratitude were common binding threads.
It wasn’t all serious either. He could turn from serious to comic in a second. He brought words alive, and stirred the imagination from the way he punctuated each sentence and paused at each paragraph.
That Sunday night, I became a child again. Where someone, albeit a white man, told me a story.
But stories are eternal and a way of transmitting messages from long ago. They captivate and lure, and they allow us to lose ourselves in the land of imagination, freed from our duties as adults, if only for the merest of seconds.
That’s why we indulge in movies, in books. And why Harajuku endures.
I came away quite satisfied, although I had to battle a headache of a traffic jam going downtown (that same night, only a street away was the Chap Goh Meh celebrations in Pitt Street) and hurriedly gulped down a meal at Sri Ananda Bhawan. And I did burn my tongue downing hot tea.
But far more important than telling stories is, says Folke, to find a listener.
Without a listener, there cannot be any story, any communication, unfolding.
Folke says that, “… tales are communication. Talking with one another. Someone stands up and tells a story. That’s all. No costumes, no masks, no stage scenery and no extravagant light shows. Only my words, my eyes, and … the ears, eyes and hearts of my listeners.
Story telling does not simply mean setting up channels between my mouth and your ears – it means laying out very fine threads between my heart and your hearts. In my work I wish to encourage people to stand by their stories and to communicate them to others. Tales must be freed from their cliched image. Tales are not “sweet entertainment for the little ones” nor are they a “world of dreams and wishes” out of reach. They are not an escape from reality, but a longing for reality!”
Find out more about Folke at http://www.tegetthoff.at
Folke’s public talk-cum-storytelling session at ABN-AMRO Arts & Cultural Centre was made possible by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and USM. It was co-sponsored by the Austrian Embassy with support from Cape Poetics, as part of the Penang Global Ethic Project (4 February – 10 March 2006).