Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Portico Quartet + Supanggah

I've just returned from a concert at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre - 'Portico Quartet + Supanggah,' part of the London Jazz Festival. The evening was divided into two halves. Supanggah played kendhang with the Southbank Gamelan Players (SBGP) for about an hour. Then there was a 25 minute interval, followed by a set by the Portico Quartet - a quirky jazz/pop ensemble made up onf sax, bass, Hang (a type of steelpan) and drums, nominated this year for the Mercury Music Prize. Supanggah played in one piece that he co-created with the Portico Quartet.

The SBGP were in good form, and played mostly arrangements and new gamelan work by Rahayu Supanggah. No programme was given out so I can't provide titles. Pak Panggah is an amazing kendhang player, and all the SBGP musicians were listening very closely tonight so ensemble was fine - with the exception of some loud passages and some choral singing. The gender, rebab and bonang playing were particularly fine tonight.

The new piece created by Pak Panggah and the Portico Quartet was a bit of a let-down though, frankly. It opened with a duet by Pak Panggah on rebab plus bass, followed by a long section where the Portico Quartet riffed on Pak Panggah's rebab melody, then a section for Hang & bonang (playing some interlocking patterns), then the Portico Quartet again, and finally a rebab solo. So not very exciting formally, and I am afraid that Pak Panggah's rebab playing was not up to his kendhang playing. Apparently they had a fortnight to prepare the piece, working in the gamelan room in the Royal Festival Hall. I don't think they used all the time rehearsing.

The audience was packed with Portico fans - many of whom arrived late for the concert and missed the first SBGP piece - and the Portico pieces got loud applause and the ensemble played an encore. There were fewer gamelan devotees in the audience. Maybe if the SBGP gets a Mercury Music Prize?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ki Oemartopo

According to a posting on the gamelan list, one of my puppetry teachers, Ki Oemartopo, passsed away yesterday (5 November 2008). Pak Oemar (as I have always called him) practiced the Mangkunegaran style of puppetry and studied visual arts at ASRI in Yogyakarta. He was the first professional dhalang to live and teach in the United States. He taught at Wesleyan University in the late 1960s and later at the American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA) and a number of California universities. He also worked with Bob Brown on his summer programmes in Bali and taught in Hungary.

I got to know about Pak Oemar through Marc Hoffman, whom I assisted in a wayang performance at the University of Hawai'i in 1988. Pak Oemar taught Marc in California in the early 1970s.

If memory serves, I first visited Pak Oemar's house in Wonogiri in early 1989. Pak Oemar encouraged me to study a full lakon as up until then I had learned only sulukan and puppet movement at STSI, but not how to tell a story. He wanted me to do a classic lakon pokok such as Makutharama but I insisted on doing Petruk Dadi Ratu (Petruk Becomes King)- something light and comical and not pretentious. I made the treck out to Wonogiri two or three times a week for months thereafter, working with Pak Oemar and Wonogiri musicians.

My debut came in the summer of 1989, when I performed one pathet of the Petruk Dadi Ratu. Mas Joko Susilo (another of my teachers) and Pak Oemar performed the other two. A small gamelan accompanied this performance in Pak Oemar's front parlour with an invited audience made up in large part of foreign students of karawitan studying in Solo. Pak Oemar was not actively performing in 1989 and 1990 due to health problems, and so it was a special treat to see him in action.

I continued to study with Pak Oemar for the rest of my stay in Java -- through the summer of 1990. He was always a generous host, taking me out to Manyaran to purchase puppets, inviting me to special ceremonies and events, eating with me at his house. He became very dear to me in this time though later we grew distant.

My wife is a distant relative of Pak Oemar - she calls him 'Om' - and thus I mourn not only the loss of a teacher but also a family member. Condolences to Pak Oemar's family. "To God belongs what He takes and to Him belongs what He gives. And there is a set time by Him for everything."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Obama and Indonesian Performing Arts

It is well known that the US's first mixed race president Barack Obama spent 4 of his childhood years in Jakarta and had an Indonesian step-father. Less well known is that his mother was a cultural anthropologist, with a PhD from the University of Hawai'i.

Ann Dunham Soetoro's dissertation was titled Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Hawai'i, 1992). Her dissertation advisor was Alice Dewey, who was a member of the 1950s Harvard/MIT team that worked in Pare, East Java. (The most famous member of this team, being of course, Clifford Geertz.) Ann Dunham Soetoro's dissertation came out at a wopping xxiv + 1043 pages!

The profession of the blacksmith (pande) in Indonesia of course has a long cultural history. Pande have the title Empu or Ki - the same sorts of titles given to dhalang - as they are considered to possess magical powers, particularly important when creating spear heads, keris and the like. I have yet to read Ann Dunham Soetoro's thesis - but I can imagine that as a student of Alice Dewey she was well aware of the cultural dimensions of the trade.

Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half sister, lived in Indonesia until she was 14. She describes in an interview with the magazine Kabari that her level of Indonesian competence in an interview as 'oke-oke saja' (just okay) but that she is raising her daughter Suaila with cultural awareness of Indonesia.

Saya ingin sekali untuk Suhaila mengetahui keaneka-ragaman budaya Indonesia. Saya berbicara bahasa Indonesia kepadanya tiap malam sebelum tidur. Saya bacakan buku cerita anak-anak Indonesia dan sering sekali menyanyikan lagu contohnya “Burung Kakak Tua”, “Naik-naik ke Puncak Gunung” dan banyak lagi. Kamarnya penuh dengan pajangan Indonesia seperti wayang kulit dan wayang golek, patung-patung Hanoman dan Garuda, lukisan Bali, seperangkat gamelan mini, topeng Jogja dan Solo, dan lain-lain. Ia mengerti dan bangga sekali bahwa ia adalah bagian orang Indonesia.

(I really want Suhaila to know about the variety of Indonesian culture. I speak Indonesian to her every night before she goes to sleep. I read her children's books from Indonesia and I often sing her songs like Burung Kakak Tua and Naik-Naik ke Puncak Gunung and many others. Her room is filled with Indonesian decorations like wayang kulit and wayang golek, statues of Hanoman and Garuda, Balinese paintings, a miniature gamelan set, masks from Jogja and Solo and so on. She knows and is very proud that she is part Indonesian.)

Maya herself studied and performed Javanese dance in Hawai'i, and according to my colleague Nancy Cooper, she also studied Javanese dance briefly with Rama Sasminto Mardowo.

Maya has a PhD too in education -- her dissertation is titled: Border pictures: Hybrid narratives for the humanities classroom (University of Hawai'i at Manoa, 2006, 336 pages; AAT 3251072) -- and is married to an Assistant Professor in media studies at the University of Hawaii, Dr. Konrad Gar-YeuNg, who articles include Policing Cultural Traffic: Charlie Chan and Hawai'i Detective Fiction Cultural Values, 6, no. 3 (2002): 309-316; Nuovo Cinema 'Politico', Theory & Event, 4, no. 2 (2000).

Obama has a very strong pro-arts policy statement on his website ( that includes using the arts to fight Islamic extremism. We hope that Obama will do more for the Indonesian performing arts than pose near a gamelan for a photo op as W. did in Singapore in the picture! Who knows... maybe he'll sponsor a wayang in the White House?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Indonesia's Pornography Legislation

The much-contested Undang-Undang Tentang Pornografi was passed on 30 October 2008 by Indonesia's parliament on 30 October 2008. The UUTP will become law when signed by the president. So far, I have only been able to locate one internet source that gives the final version of the bill ( I am not sure how reliable the source is - but media reports confirm that it is not quite as invasive on personal behaviour as the original draft. A keterangan
forbids (in a penjelasan) 'main hakim sendiri, tindakan kekerasan, razia (sweeping)' (literally 'playing at being a judge, violent actions, terror threats'; my translation).

However, other things have snuck in including a penjelasan that defines homosexual sex as 'persenggamaan yang menyimpang' or 'deviant sex' (along with sex with corpses and animals, oral sex and anal sex). This could potentially be used to discriminate against homosexuals in general.

Interestingly 'educational institutions' (lembaga pendidikan) are allowed to house so-called pornographic materials but these can only be used in a place or location that is linked to the institution (hanya dapat digunakan di tempat atau di lokasi yang disediakan untuk tujuan lembaga yang dimaksud).

The definition of pornography remains very broad and can be used to limit expression in all the arts.

Controversy rages on the internet. Even Al Jazeera TV has produced a show about it - with lots of clips from a tourist kecak show (

Bali's governor, Made Mangku Pastika, issued a letter rejecting the legislation.
'We cannot implement the law because it isn't compatible with Balinese philosophy and social values,' he wrote. Additional, 'Several foreign governments, including Denmark, the United States, and the Philippines, have also sent official letters of enquiry about the application of the legislation' (

The worry for the world of the arts is not only censorship by the government, but self-censorship out of fear of the extreme penalties (6 months-12 years in jail; 250 million - 6 billion rupiah fines).

During the New Order, when the public expression of matters connected to SARA (suku, agama, ras antargolongan = ethnicity, religion, race, inter-group relations) was forbidden, many dhalang and other artists self-censored. This can be even more stifling than direct censorship by a censorial board. It seems that a decade after the Soeharto's fall that many dhalang remain wary of expressing any political viewpoint, however mild. SARA-related restrictions is one of the reasons perhaps why sexually explicit (or implicit) content became so important in wayang in the 1970s. 'Rusuh' (vulgar) puppets, jokes and the like were seen as a safe outlet, while even the appearance of a puppet representing the banteng (the PDI mascot) was suspicious.

I am afraid that even if the UU anti pornografi aren't actively enforced by agents of the government that they will impact strongly on creative expression through an analogous mechanism of self censorship. And the UU certainly legitimise the peraturan daerah (regional laws) that have already made life so difficult for many in places like Banten. (For a good Australian documentary from 2006, see

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Raffles Gamelan

The British Musuem will be displaying the gong and gambang in a small exhibition going up in April 2009, and I was brought in by curator Anouska Komlosy to the BM stores in Hackney to have a look at the instruments and consult on this yesterday. We also had a look at some of the other Raffles artefacts - a selection of wayang kulit, masks and the dolls that Anthony Forge has written about (

The Raffles gamelan at the BM is one of two gamelan collected by Raffles and shipping to England. I have yet to see the other gamelan at Claydon House - though I have read pictures and descriptions. The BM gamelan though is fascinating. All the instruments I have seen are heavily ornamented. The rancak of the gambang, for example, take the form of a peacock, while the gong has two garuda and instead of the customary naga on top of the gong stand has two chimeras - part naga, part bird, part fish. The painting is red cinnabar and gold leaf against a neutral black. It is pretty spectacular and so different from all other gamelan in Java that it is clear that Raffles commissioned this for display/exhibition purposes.

Many of the instruments and tabuh show little signs of use. An exception to this is the tabuh for the gambang - we could only find one of these tabuh in the box, it is not clear if the second will be found. Raffles in his History of Java (1817) records that Raden Rana Dipura (a consultant who accompanied him on his voyage back from Java) did a number of demonstrations on the gambang - including one ‘before an eminent composer.’ This seems to be the first performance in Europe by a Javanese musician. The tabuh of the gambang shows heavy signs of use. Also quite beat up are the 2 gong (gong gede and gong suwuk). I think that these come from a different foundry than the keys of the other instruments and might well have been purchased used. There is some writing inside the gong stand that might contain information about where the instruments were made... More to follow...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Indonesia Design: Kaleidoscopes of Influences

Visual historian and designer Soedarmadji Damais presented a talk titled Indonesia Design: Kaleidoscopes of Influences at Asia House in London last night (22 October 2008). Damais is a former director of the Jakarta history museum (Museum Sejarah Jakarta) and has consulted with the Aman resort group in the design of their neo-traditional hotels in Indonesia. This was the third talk in a series called Indonesia Inspired, sponsored by Asia House and Preserve Indonesia, a private foundation headed by Kestity Pringgoharjono (who used to be based in London, but now divides her time between Bangkok and Jakarta). I attended the previous talk on Indonesian film (by director and lecturer Nan Achnas).

Last night's event was attended by some glitterati, all of whom were recognised by the speaker in his talk: Kartika Sari Soekarno (the daughter of Sukarno and his Japanese wife Dewi), the owners of the Aman resort chain, the ambassador and his wife. There was a buffet supper afterwards (nasi goreng, gado-gado, lumpia, ayam, rendang, various kue, wine) prepared by Satay House (a London Malaysian restaurant that was plugged as the place where ex prime minister Mahathir eats while in London, as well as a popular eatery with one Malaysian 'queen'). The food was pretty good. Also goody bags from Gan To (kecap manis, sambal, a satay kit to take home).

Now about the talk itself. Damais focused on Indonesian furniture design in an architectural context. He showed Indonesian design as a mixture of influences - Chinese, Indian, Dutch among them. Much of the talk was about Java (Damais is a co-author of the book Java Style and also a chapter in the Thames & Hudson book Asian Furniture)- but there was also some attention to Bali, Palembang and other parts of the archipelago.

Rooms in traditional Java did not have fixed furnishings. For example, the throne room of the Yogya court did not have a permanent throne installed. One of the sultan's female escorts would instead carry out a stool for him to sit on and everyone else would sit on the floor. It was considered a sign of the sultan's strength that he did not require a backed chair.

The type of furniture that developed in colonial Java was also found in Sri Lanka, Capetown and the parts of India colonised by The Netherlands. Damais proposed talking about an 'Indian Ocean style' in the c17 and c18. Carvings were likely by southern Indians - the baroque flowery ornamentation is in an Indian style, and the sort of wood (lacquered or stained black wood) was not indigenous to Java-- Java does not have a totally black wood of this sort. Damais pointed out that there were only about 5 million people living in Java in the c17 and there wasn't the body of tukang to produce the work. Typical pieces are the rustbank (rest bench), the burgermeister chair and a circular chair like the Gandaram throne. Caning also can be found in this early period.

Watercolours by the Batavia preacher Jan Brandes provide an excellent insight into the interior world of the c18. Children (both the native son of a servant and Brandes' own son) sit casually on the ground. A glass painting from China hangs on the wall.

Furniture in this period also shows Chinese influence in carving and the use of cinnabar red colouring.

Damais then went on to talk about Javanese architectural features that emerge or can be found in this period. The pendopo roof with its rafters painted to look like a huge payung (ceremonial umbrella), the 'alter' used for ceremony and display in the Javanese house.

Javanese sat on the ground and so European pieces needed to be adapted to this. A writing desk for example was low down, as Javanese sat on small stools not on chairs.

Damais discussed the chest on wheels - a sort of piece once found in many, many households. This was used to store keris, lances, rice, ornaments use for weedding, other valuables. The eldest son would typically sleep on top of it for security reasons. The wheels were necessary so that the chest could be wheeled out in case of fire.

Furniture of this sort - Dutch design adapted to Javanese tastes and needs - is sometimes called Kumpeni Jawa today. A contemporary batik shop provided an example.

The so-called Raffles chair from the c19, Damais speculated, was not related to TS Raffles but the practice of colonial officials selling off their furniture after their return to The Netherlands.

The size of this furniture - 2m diameter tables made from teak, amboyna or alexandra wood - shows the wealth of Java's forests.

A typical piece from Sumatra is Palembang furniture - a set of armoirs or cabinets used to hold cloth for weddings. Earlier pieces date from c18, and still being made today - especially for Palembang elites living in Jakarta. These cabinets are short - made for an interior where one spends a lot of time sitting on the floor.

Damais then talked about 'Java primitive' furniture - which is now marketed the world over. This furniture is made in areas near the teak estates of Java - Cirebon, Probolinggo, the area around Semarang - and is a simplified version of Kumpeni Jawa furniture. A typical piece is the 'village chief desk'. Somtimes this sort of furniture is painted, sometimes not.

In late colonial Java a variety of adaptations of European styles flourished. Semarangan, for example, is an art nouveau derivative. The so-called Kursi Betawi is in Wiener Werkstate style. There is also art deco rattan furniture etc.

New designs emerge from tourism and continual flux of foreign people and influences. The furniture in the Darmawangsa hotel designed 10 years ago is widely copied. Javanese families still sit on floors - to watch tv for example - and houses of the nouveau riche are designed to reflect this.

Damais concluded with a few general reflections. 'Foreign' refers to culture not race. A Gujarati princess married to the monarch of Japara was culturally Javanese - a story about her that she went to do harsh devotions in a cave clothed only in her long hair until her husband's murder was revenged was a JAVANESE cultural motif.

The problem with Indonesia, Damais said, was that it had TOO MUCH. Too many historically important buildings, too many temples, too many styles of crafts. So in the end it doesn't care enough about any one of these.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Animations online

A short article I wrote on wayang - commissioned by editor Max Prior as a response to a previous piece by Penny Francis -has just been published in Animations Online. See I also have an active research interest in the world of puppetry, and am an editor and frequent contributor to AO. The Indonesia/puppet connections are of course many....

Under the tree

The Times BFI London International Film Festival showed two films from Indonesia this year. I managed to catch one of them -- Garin Nugroho's latest film, Under the treee (Di bawah pohon, 2008). I presented a paper comparing Garin's previous film, Opera Jawa, with the opera Attima at a conference on opera and exoticism in September, and had the opportunity to see Opera Jawa (2006) a fair number of times in various exhibition contexts in London as well as on DVD. I also spoke to Garin, Peter Sellars (who produced Opera Jawa) and the film's composer Rahayu Supanggah about Opera Jawa. My interests in Indonesia do not end with Java though - and I was thus very curious to see how Garin would treat Bali.

The comparison of Opera Jawa with Under the tree is not my own - it is Garin's. Garin said when he was in London for the British premiere of Opera Jawa that he was hoping to do something very similar in his 'Bali film' to what he accomplished in Opera Jawa. While Opera Jawa was based on the Ramayana, Under the tree would deal with the Mahabharata. In Opera Jawa Garin worked with many tradition-based contemporary Javanese artists, Under the tree would feature Balinese artists coming out of a traditional background.

Under the tree had for me a pleasure in recognition. I have not spent a lot of time in Bali in recent years - but have known a number of the actors -- including Ikranagara, Alit Aryani Kriegenburg-Willems, Bulan Trisna and others - and recognised easily their own biographies in their characters. I also enjoyed seeing the contemporary version of Calon Arang that is a centrepiece of the film. I was less interested in the unfolding stories - Nadia Saphira might be a beauty, but her suicide in a tatoo parlor seemed rather a melodramatic ending to a life with little purpose or aim. The film also lacked the deep resonances with mythology that gave Opera Jawa such power. But maybe I need to watch this another time. It was only the second or third time that I saw Opera Jawa that I finally 'got' the film.