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