SINGAPORE: All she ever wanted to do was make music.
Dewi Nur Fatikah was happily playing the drums and performing in shows in Jakarta with a band, while working in a factory to save up enough to open a music studio - when her dreams were put on an abrupt hold.
Her mother fell sick, and Ms Dewi had to return to her hometown last year to care for her. She died from lung disease, which left the grief-stricken young woman shattered, lonely and lost.
“When my mother died, I felt that I didn’t have anyone else in this world because all my siblings were married and had their own families,” she said. “At home, I always thought of my mother and cried.”
But when the tears dried, she remembered her mother’s dying wish: For her to find success.
“I thought, I need to go abroad to continue my efforts, to fulfil my mother’s wish for me to succeed. With music, I can."
And so, she forced herself out of the rut, packed her bags, and left Indonesia to come to Singapore in December to work as a maid - hoping to eventually make enough, about 100 million rupiah (S$10,000), to start that studio she always wanted.
It turned out to be a move that almost cut her off entirely from the thing she loved most - her music.
NO MUSIC, NO LIFE
She struggled with her new life in Singapore and her first employer. Not allowed to have a mobile phone and rest days, she was cut off from her friends and relatives. She became homesick and miserable.
Constantly working, the 30-year-old had no time for her music, and it left her wondering whether she did the right thing in leaving home.
“(It was) work, work and work all the time. I felt stressed. I constantly thought of my mother and cried,” she said. But with seemingly little choice, she soldiered on.
Relief came nearly three months later, when she was granted a transfer to another employer, one who was understanding and let her have her days off – and the freedom to pursue her interest in music.
She could, for example, play the guitar (borrowed from a friend) after her chores were done; take strolls along nearby East Coast Park in her downtime, or use her mobile phone to keep in touch with her friends.
She also came across the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST), a non-profit organisation for maids. Its clubhouse for them to unwind became just the thing for her musical journey in Singapore.
Heading there almost every Sunday, Ms Dewi started off practising on the guitar, which gave her “a new spirit”.
And when a talent contest organised by FAST came up, she signed up for the solo singing category, performing a self-composed song.
Songwriting has always been an outlet for this shy woman to express her emotions, and in one of her compositions, Gapai Satu Mimpi (Reach For A Dream), she writes that in “reaching for a dream in your life, facing all trials, don't ever grow weary – life is something to fight for”.
She explained: “Whenever I feel sad or something, I’ll play the guitar and compose my own song.”
She reached the finals of the talent contest, performing hits like Evanescence’s My Immortal, Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up, and Europe’s The Final Countdown along the way. But she did not win.
Something else, however, came out of the contest: She met a fellow maid who played the guitar, and together they helped to form a band with other musically inclined maids.
AN INTROVERT TRANSFORMED
There were some communication issues at first, as Ms Dewi was the only non-Filipina in the band. Her newfound friends spoke mostly in Tagalog, and it did not help that her command of English was poor.
“I wasn’t comfortable with my English,” she said in Bahasa Indonesia. “Sometimes if they spoke English and I didn’t know some of the words, I just kept quiet.”
She never felt isolated, however, adding that “even though we come from different countries, we have one goal: To make music”.
They jam every Sunday. An introvert who comes alive on the drums, the self-taught musician looks every inch the rock chick in her cropped vest, black T-shirt, camouflaged trousers and trendy sneakers, confidently holding the groove with her band.
She focuses on nothing but the music once she starts drumming, her head rolled back as if soaking in every ounce of energy from the music. Now and then, she glances at her bandmates with a glow in her eyes and a smile.
But once she puts down her drumsticks, she is back to her usual self again – bashful, and somewhat sheepish. The transformation is over.
WATCH AND LISTEN: Dewi's music, and her story (5:07)
HER EMPLOYER, HER SUPPORTER
The band has performed a few times in public, including during Indonesia’s Independence Day celebrations in August and at a foreign domestic worker event at Singapore Polytechnic last month.
Next month, a bigger challenge awaits Ms Devi – a Christmas performance where they will be performing festive songs. As a Muslim, she has never heard any of the festive songs before. But, she said: "I’ll follow whatever the music is because I’ll enjoy the music, whatever the song may be.”
Already, she has fans: Her employer Poonam Kaushik and his family, who turned up at last month’s event to support her after she secured tickets for them.
They liked the performance and were surprised at her talent. The headbanging drummer was also a far cry from the helper who went about her work quietly at home every day.
“Initially, we were like, how serious would this be? But she was putting so much into it (playing the drums),” said Mr Kaushik, who has employed Ms Dewi for about eight months. “It makes sense for us to encourage her to go all the way.”
They are even considering buying her a keyboard, so that she can expose their children to more music.
Mr Kaushik said they make efforts to ensure that Ms Dewi is comfortable at home. “If (we) have somebody who’s stressed, depressed or angry, my kids (and) my wife will be impacted."
“She’s very hardworking, and she wanted to pursue music which didn’t hamper her day work. So I felt, okay, please go ahead.”
For Ms Dewi, the benefit of having free time to spend on her music has been immeasurable. “Music is my soul,” she said simply.
A LONG WAY HOME
Her case is “a good example that even domestic helpers, given an opportunity, can express themselves the way they want to”, said Mr William Chew, executive director of FAST.
The idea of having a Fast band was a recent development, as the organisation realised that there were hidden talents like Ms Dewi's among the community.
“I think they (the band members) are very happy that they have (this) chance,” said Mr Chew. “The way they strum away and sing and play the drums, it looks like they’re just venting everything out of their system.”
The non-profit, which started with 500 members some 12 years ago, has close to 8,000 members today.
Among other things, it prepares them for life after Singapore, training them in areas like food and beverage, hospitality and even reflexology skills so that they can operate a small business and be self-sufficient when they return home. Said Mr Chew:
If they can go home and move on to do something better than what they’re doing now, this is what we’d be most happy about.
For Ms Dewi, who paid off her agency fees only recently, it is a long way to her S$10,000 target, but she knows that she will get there, even if she has to continue working here after her current contract ends.
Not only does she hope to earn an income from operating a music studio, she also aspires to cut her own album and sign to a recording label.
She admits that there are naysayers back home, like some of her friends, who do not believe she will make it all the way.
“Before I came to Singapore, sometimes I felt that it wouldn’t be possible too, but I have to achieve it because of my parents’ words, especially my mother’s,” she said. “I love music, and I’d like to show them that I can succeed.”