Saturday, December 12, 2009

British Gamelan Trail

Yesterday I examined a SOAS PhD thesis on Balinese gamelan theory by Kate Wakeling - who plays with the London gamelan Lila Cita, and has also studied Balinese dance for a number of years. A really well written piece of work, with much of substance, particularly in relation to new compositions and their theorization.

Kate's supervisor is Mark Hobart, a SOAS professor of media studies and a close colleague of mine. After the examination, I sat in on a meeting Mark held with my co-examiner Neil Sorrell, arts producer Hi Ching and Balinese dancer Ni Made Pujawati (Mark's wife). Hi Ching, Ni Made and Aris Daryono (a Javanese musician who plays with the Southbank Gamelan Players) are developing a project for heritage funding called the British Gamelan Trail. If the bid is successful, this will take Aris and Puja around the country (with a particular focus on the London area) talking to people about how gamelan has been embedded in communities. The idea is to develop a general history of gamelan in Britain, with a focus on 6 groups in particular. Documentation will be included in an exhbit on Balinese dance and storytelling planned for the Horniman Museum in 2011-2012.

At this meeting, Neil offered a synoptic overview of gamelan. Neil's own studies go back to 1971 - when he attended one of Bob Brown's summer sessions in Bali. He believes the first gamelan ensemble in residence was at Dartington in 1974- a set of instruments borrowed from Europe. The Durham Oriental Music Festival sparked the interest of the Indonesian embassy to purchase a set of instruments, which was played by the group to become known as the English Gamelan Orchestra (which later morphed into the Southbank Gamelan Plyaers). Neil was able to use the EGO's existence to convince York to purchase a set of instruments for £6000 in 1980. This was the first set of instruments purchased by a university. The Cambridge University gamelan, a gift from an Indonesian cabinet minister who had a child studying at Cambridge, followed a year or two later.

We also spoke about other ensembles - Cragg Vale, the Bow Gamelan and the like - which will likely fall outside the remit of the British Gamelan Trail project.

The project is a clever and fascinating one - hope it gets funded...

Monday, November 30, 2009

RNCM Gamelan Weekend

I spent last weekend (28-29 November) in Manchester, attending a wonderful weekend of gamelan-related events at the Royal Northern College of Music. The event launched the RNCNM's beautiful new gamelan, purchased along with a brand-new set of shadow puppets and a very fancy-looking puppet screen.

I caught an early gamelan-inspired work by Lou Harrison, Suite for violin, piano and small orchestra played by the RNCM chamber orchestra; the second half of Birth, Death and Marriage: A Journey through life in Javanese Music and Poetry - a concert by the Southbank Gamelan Players featuring Ni Made Pujawati in two dances; the end piece of a degung concert by the University of Manchester/Hallé Gamelan Degung; a wonderful and inventive concert of new music for gamelan by Gamelan Sekar Petak from the University of York mc-ed by Neil Sorrell; and performances of youth groups of a shadow puppet Ramayana and a gamelan-accompanied dance drama.

What a treat!

I also performed a 2 hour 15 minute version of Kresna Denawa, with the full forces of the Southbank Gamelan Players accompanying.

My friend and former Naga Mas colleague Simon van der Walt (one of three Naga Mas-ers who came down from Glasgow for the event) wrote in his blog that:

'the wayang performance in English by Matthew Isaac Cohen [...] was more than anything else what I had come to Manchester to see. I've seen wayang in Indonesia, but the language barrier is really quite steep, and it's a big part of what's going on; from high-flown court Javanese to crude street slang, its a form which traverses a great range of linguistic and performative registers. Matthew and the South Bank Players have done a number of wayang recently, and this is the first chance I've been able to see them. It seems to me they are doing a fantastic job of translating waying into a shorter form in a different language, making it understandable and enjoyable to UK audiences while retaining a great deal of honesty to the original. Matthew has a great sense of humour, which was on this occasion slighly lost on a noisy audience in a reverberant space. I look forward to seeing him perform again' (

Didn't manage to get any pictures of the event though...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

WWW stuff

I am missing the stimulation of being in Malaysia and Indonesia, with the range of traditional performance on offer, but have been enjoying attending a London puppet festival over the last week. I am reviewing some of the shows for Animations Online, an online puppet magazine I edit, and also attending a number of seminars.

I have also been checking out various web materials. For example, I read a fine New York Times article published in 2002 on Jlitheng Suparman and Slament Gundhono's experimental wayang work, titled Political turmoil gives new life to Indonesian shadow play : Out of the shadows, a new art. I also saw some nice material from Jlitheng on youtube, including a clip of a sexy dangdut singer puppet and another one showing the same dangdut singer plus a Rhoma Irama type singer-guitar player from the puppet side of the screen (HEBOH DANGDUT GLOBAL WARMING WAYANG KAMPUNG).

A colleague from Australia pointed me to a really fine clip of Wayang Ceng Blok - a popular Balinese wayang company - with a long non-verbal sequence showing various animals at play. Check it out here.

Another friend from New York also told me about a robotic Balinese gamelan in New York,called Gamelatron, which has an interesting website featuring some performance vids and a brief television segment on them. Check out their website at

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Blog review of Kresna Denawa in Cambridge

Blogger Oli O'Shea reviewed my performance of Kresna Denawa with the Cambridge gamelan at

'I enjoyed the shadows much more now I understood the conventions and was more patient. It made me think about perspective and how knowing how something works changes how we feel about it. .... Patience was required to get into this performance but it was rewarding upon giving it a chance ....'

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kresna Denawa at Cambridge University

On 23 October, I gave a a 2 hour 45 minute rendition of Kresna Denawa, a traditional lakon (play episode) with the Cambridge Gamelan and a few guest artists from London's Southbank Gamelan Players at Cambridge University's West Road Concert Hall. Hannah, my daughter, made a cameo, performing a little wayang kancil number (Kancil dan Buaya) that she had learned in Yogyakarta earlier in the year, using puppets made by Ledjar Subroto. The performance was part of Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas, and I performed at the invitation of the gamelan's director, Rob Campion.

I used a basically Solo style for the show, including sulukan, sabetan, and Solo's punakawan (Semar, Gareng, Petruk, Bagong) although the version of the lakon I used is from the Gegesik dalang Bahani (the Solo version is known as Bedahipun Dwarawati, or The Conquest of Dwarawati), and my voices, narrations, patterns of dialogue, tanceban etc remain at the core gaya Gegesik. My interpretation of Narayana, in particular, was done in emulation of the late Basari.

The performance was well attended, and while I chose an intentionally 'light' lakon (with an emphasis on battle scenes, rather than philosophical content; a small number of characters; simple story structure), a couple who had seen me perform in the past said it was far better than past shows - and that they loved the battle scenes in particular.

My drum player John Pawson was unfortunately mugged 6 days before the show, suffering a serious head injury, resulting in Simon Steptoe coming as a last minute substitute. I did not get a chance to run the full lakon with him, and this meant we experienced some problems in communication.

But I was happy overall with the performance, and look forward to getting another opportunity to perform the lakon with the SBGP in Manchester next month. And I was happy to receive a bottle of wine at the show's end!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Wayang in Malaysia, again

Another week for this Indonesian performance-goer in Malaysia. This week, in addition to watching a workshop production of a new dance piece by the English contemporary dance group Evolving Motion (at the Kuala Lumpur Performaing Arts Centre in Sentul Park), I looked at three very different sorts of wayang.

After making a post on facebook that I was looking to see a Chinese opera (known as wayang Cina here in Malaysia) during this Hungry Ghost Festival, I got a call from my colleague Aris that a friend of a friend had told him that there was a wayang going on in Melaka and do I want to go. The next day (1 September) a group of us met up and went down to Melaka in two cars. After driving around the city a bit, trying to find a stage, we called a reporter friend and found out that the wayang was in a temple next to a graveyard on the outskirs of a town.

We arrived at said temple after 10 at night, travelling down a dark, unpaved road. The temple was crowded with thousands of pilgrims. This was the fifth day of a five day celebration- each night with an opera performance by a small Hokien language troupe from Johor (keyboard on one side of the stage, all-purpose Chinese percussion kit onthe other). This was a ritual performance. In front of the stage were empty stools for the ghosts, and behind this a long line of 'believers' who were being blessed by a priest and symbolically whipped. Huge piles of offerings were at the sides of the temple. The opera was supposed to go on until 1am in the morning, but we weren't able to stay to the conclusion of the ceremony - when the believers marched barefoot around the temple.

Next time I'm in Malaysia I'd like to plan a visit to Melaka around this 5-day event, which happens annually during the 7th lunar month.

On Thursday (3 September) I met up at last with Fahmi Fadzil, a Malaysian puppeteer who has been creating wayang variants (wayang cardboard, wayang buku, wayang rakyat, wayang lampu etc) over the last 9 years. Fahmi is a marketing person for a graphic design firm, with a BA in chemical engineering for Purdue. He is also a member of 5 Arts, and is very articulate about his experimental work, using the language of performance studies (picked up from Krishen and attendance at the PSi conference in Singapore). He presented a number of interesting leads for me to follow up on. More research to do....

Finally, today (6 September), I went to The Curve, one of KL's many shopping malls, to see a young Kelantanese puppeteer named Baisah do a short wayang Siam performance. This was actually advertised as a 'wayang rakyat' (a term invented by Fahmi for his shopping plaza shows). But it was a very orthodox (if short) Kelantanese wayang I saw. Basiah studied wayang at Aswara with Nasir, and the musicians were all Aswara folk as well.

The play was a branch story called Bagong Kelimunan that the puppeteer learned from Nasir. Baisah has only been performing for a year, so his puppet movement was just fair and his stock of verbal formulae was limited. The MC for the event said he couldn't follow the story - this was not just because of the language (Kelantanese Malay) but also because he couldn't understand the symbolic meanings, such as the perang scene.

I was surprised to see a wayang in a mall during bulan puasa. But there is in fact a whole series of traditional performances going on in the Curve and elsewhere around KL. Right after the wayang, the same group did a short gamelan concert. This, the MC could appreciate - the music he said was very relaxing. A way to draw the shoppers in during Ramadhan, I suppose.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rimbun Daha

Just returned from Rimbun Daha (, a private arts centre located about an hour outside of KL, which is also the home of Hijjas Kasturi, one of Malaysia's most successful and respected architects. Rimbun Daha has a residency programme for visual artists, writers and dancers, and has hosted a fair number of Indonesian painters in recent years for residencies of a few weeks to a few months, including Eko Nugroho. They organise a KL exhibit or performance for their artists at the end of the residency and have purchased work from many of their artists as well.

In the 1990s Rimbun Daha also hosted Balinese gamelan musician I Wayan Rajeg and his dancer wife, who taught a community gamelan group on the premises and Balinese dance. The gamelan, a gong kebyar set, and Rajeg and his wife subsequently taught at USM, with salaries paid for by Rimbun Dahan. Rajeg left USM around 2005 and the gong kebyar was returned to Rimbun Dahan. It is currently sitting unused in the property. Angela Hijjas says she is keen for it to find a new home in Malaysia, where it can be used for teaching. Any takers?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fatwa banning kuda kepang in Johor

Kuda Kepang, the horse trance dance, is today the most significant performing art associated with Javanese and people of Javanese descent living in Malaysia. There is no official count of Javanese in Malaysia, but most scholars agree that it is the largest population outside Indonesia, numbering several million perhaps. Most of the majority Javanese kampung (rural communities, hamlets) are to be found in the state of Johor, where there are also many migrant Indonesians working kelapa sawit plantations.

I learned earlier this month from a colleague teaching in Johor that the state of Johor has issued a fatwa banning all Muslims from 'being involved' with the performance of Kuda Kepang. A google search confirms this.

The fatwa ( state that kuda kepang is haram (forbidden) as it runs against Islam. The fatwa's 'explanation' or keterangan ( indicates that this is due to performers using non-Islamic magical formulae (jampi), being possessed by jin, going into trance (mabuk, the same word used for being drunk) and also cites as well audience behaviour, including not wearing red clothing.

Similar fatwa issued in the past in the northern state of Kelantan banned Muslims from performing or watching wayang kulit, mak yong and other traditional arts. These bans seem now no longer to be in place. A series of wayang kulit performances I attended at the Gelanggang Seni cultural centre in Kota Bharu attracted a mostly local audience.

So far, there has been very little attention paid to the kuda kepang fatwa. One blogger points to a TV9 television show broadcasting a local carnival with kuda kepang post-fatwa (

A kuda kepang troupe leader I spoke to said that the fatwa doesn't concern him - he believes that what he is doing is consistent with Islam, performing an art form introduced by the wali sanga that led to the conversion of millions of Javanese.

However, the fatwa has meant that all instruction of and about kuda kepang has ceased in Johor schools and universities. The future of the art form here in Malaysia is uncertain.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gema Merdeka: Muzikal Tun Abdul Razak

Another slightly off topic post. This time on Gema Merdeka: Muzikal Tun Abdul Razak, which I saw at Istana Budaya, Malaysia's national theatre, on the last night of a 5 day run (20 August).

This was an ASWARA musical production, featuring mostly students from this ministry-run arts academy, but buttressed by some Malaysian pop stars, with professional direction and choreography and a pop score by Ruslan Mohd Imam. With funding from the 1Malaysia government initiative, this was as much a bio of politician Tun Abdul Razak (1922-1976) as a piece of government propaganda about the necessary rise of Barisan Nasional in the wake of the 1969 race riots.

Indonesia features in two scenes. One scene represents Konfrontasi: paratroupers are seen descending from the sky in a video backdrop as soldiers do dance manouvers in front. In a second, Tun mediates a post-konfrontasi treaty between Indonesia and Malaysia. All the Indonesians are dressed in batik-- batik skirts, pants, shirts, head coverings-- and the women take on stereotypical Javanese dance postures.

More interesting perhaps is the use of the gamelan. The orchestra features a full Terengganu style gamelan (kendang, gong, saron, peking, penerus, gambang, and 2 kromong) which plays at the opening. Thereafter the gamelan comes in occasionally as ethnic 'colour' in conjunction with other instruments. Orchestration of the gamelan is very simple - mostly all the instruments play in unison. Repeated gong strokes also features in one moment of the musical to illustrate a sense of urgency. Gamelan is of course part of the ASWARA curriculum and was elevated to a national Malaysian art form in the 1970s. But it has no real connection with Tun's life and times. I wonder what dramatic function gamelan take on in this musical. Clearly it is NOT to signal Indonesia....

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wayang in Kelantan

Just returned today from a trip up to Kelantan, where I saw three performances of wayang kulit at the cultural centre Gelanggang Seni by the Chinese puppeteer Eyo Hock Seng (Sri Campuran, Pasir Parit, P. Mas, Kelantan, tel. 0199984187, 0148256066). I also met with a number of other cultural experts, including Eddin Khoo's informant/collaborator Rahman, who heads a wayang troupe in the area of Machang.

According to Rahman, there are currently about 20 wayang kulit troupes operating in the area of Kelantan, and at least one dedicated puppet maker. A number of the dalang (including, it seems, Eyo Hock Seng) are essentially self-taught, having learned wayang by watching and imitating past masters like Hamzah and Abdullah (aka Dollah Baju Merah). All use jampi but one can get jampi from various sources including from makyong and bomoh, not only dalang.

Wayang was banned in Kelantan for some years by the ruling Islamic party, but now is officially permitted, and ritual dramas including Berjamu, Semah Angin and Main Puteri are practiced - though often covertly.

But interest in wayang has shrunk. One of our taxi drivers said this was not due to Islam but changing habits of work. In the past, most people in Kelantan were farmers and had long periods with little work. Now everyone is working full days all year round. Pejabat will work after hours on projects, coming home, tired, late at night. Rather than going off to a wayang that might end at 1 in the morning, better to stay at home and watch a DVD in the comfort of one's own home, while sipping a cup of Kofi O.

The Kelantan government has a mixed attitude to wayang kulit. They recognise it as a cultural asset, and programme now 8 performances (two series of 4 shows) a month at Gelanggang Seni. Troupes are not well paid- only about 300 to 500 ringgit a night according to one source. And while the Dalang Muda introduction (including various jampi) is allowed, there are no offerings and Ramayana stories seem not to be permitted either due to association with Hindusim.

The performances at Gelanggang Seni were attended nightly by an audience of about 100 locals and perhaps 10-20 foreigner tourists. In the 70s, according to my taxi cab informant Abdullah, there were some 3 or 4 panggung wayang on a Saturday night in Kota Bharu alone.

Wayang is very much a folk art in Kelantan. The palace never seems to have been a big patron of the art, and there is not a strong literary tradition attached to the form. Rahman prided himself as being the only dalang in Kelantan who has read Amin Sweeney's dissertation on the Rama story (via Eddin Khoo's translation). Puppet sets are a match-and-mix affair. While a small number of Rahman's puppets are quite old and elaborately carved (using goat hide for alus characters and buffalo hide for the larger kasar characters like jin), there are many more new ones of quite rough manufacture. Some of these are made of translucent plastic - these take less than a day to make. While looking at the set, one of Rahman's sons took out a faded buffalo-hide puppet and coloured it with magic marker.

Performances are also straight-forward affairs. Puppet movement is simple, and while there is some use of formulaic language (particularly in the Dalang Muda opening), much of the action is dominated by clowns.

Wayang remains a democratic art, open to all. Training is an informal affair. One starts by watching performances while sitting on the panggung and taking over playing when an instrument becomes vacant. Mastering the simple instruments- at least gong and canang- is essential to performing. I was asked to play drum on two occasions (and politely declined). And on my third night of watching Eyo Hock Seng, he asked me before the Dalang Muda section, 'Tidak boleh main?' - indicating that he'd like me to perform the Dalang Muda opening. (To which I responded, 'belum!').

The dialect of Kelantan Malay is hard (for me) to understand, and much of Hock Seng's performance (about a clown who disguises himself as a prince and goes to Java to win the hand of a princess) was impossible for me to follow. But who knows... maybe I will come back to Kelantan again... to study as a dalang muda?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rhythm in Bronze

Before going to see the bangsawan show on Sunday (9 August) I attended the first half of a rehearsal by Rhythm in Bronze at the invitation of one of my MA students, who is a new member of the group and is writing her MA thesis on the company.

Rhythm in Bronze was founded in 1997 and is Malaysia's most prominent contemporary gamelan groups. In addition to playing traditional Indonesian and Malaysian pieces, members of the group write music for the ensemble and they have also worked with a number of composers to create new music. All current members are women - with the exception of a drummer (who is also a Kelantanese dalang) and a guitar player (a jobbing musician who also plays in jazz, pop and rock groups). Like most Malaysian gamelans, their instruments are tuned to a diatonic Western scale (b flat) but were made in Java.

I found their music quite charming, and at times very dramatic. Some of the musicians playing the more difficult instruments (gambang, bonang) didn't seem to exploit the full range of ornamentation and melodic development. But the enemble playing was strong, and transitions were dynamic. And the integration of the guitar was full - it was not a novelty but a core part of the group.

Despite its international reputation, the group doesn't receive core funding from the Malaysian government and depends largely on corporate gigs to underwrite concerts and commissions of new work and guest artists. In the rehearsal I was attending they were preparing to do a dinner-time engagement for a business conference or symposium of some sort. They had originally been promised a 20 minute slot but had been relegated to background music during dinner. The group's leader had said this time was suitable for 3 songs but the conference organisers insisted on the group playing 4 - 'to get their money's worth.'

Like many gamelan groups, space also is an issue. Rhythm in Bronze owns its own instruments but not its own space. It is currently 'camping out' in a large storage room in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Malaya - thanks to the good grace of the head of the department. It rehearses there regularly on Tuesday nights, with the occasional Sunday. During the rehearsal, a woman wandered by and asked if this was 'Singaporean music.' Don't know what she meant by that....

KL, Johor, KL

Another busy weekend for this Indonesian performance goer.

On Friday 7 August I went to the Valentine Willie Fine Art, a chique gallery in Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur for the opening of Yogyakarta artist Iwan Effendi's solo exhibit 'Two Shoes for Dancing'. Iwan runs the puppet company Papermoon with his wife Ria, and for the exhibit she created a short solo puppet monologue (with a puppet designed by Iwan) that she performed in the gallery. A blue-faced puppet with a video monitor for a body named Oui articulated English-language texts painted on the wall of the gallery that linked Iwan's paintings and drawings into a narrative. Oui spoke (in English) about being an ordinary hard-working guy trying to make a living and meeting a girl and having 'hot' sex. The monitor inside him flashed images of shoes but without feet these can only cause disconent. A pair of baby shoes descends from overhead, suggesting hope.

The following day I took students from the Cultural Centre of the University of Malaya down to Kampung Permatang Duku in Johor to see a UM-sponsored Javanese wayang kulit performance by Sukarjo bin Supoyo and the Tunas Warisan gamelan ensemble. We arranged for the students to be 'anak angkat' (adopted children) of members of the kampung. We also saw a bit of a katam (a ceremony in which a girl read the Koran for the first time), were introduced to the kampung by the kampung headman and various kampung officials at the Balai Raya (village hall) and visited a tempe factory.

The performance started around 9.30pm with a short talu played by the gamelan and a 'tari Jawa' created by a young local dancer with campursari accompaniment. Sukarjo then offered a short speech. He presented wayang as a 'warisan' from Java. He made it clear as well that he does not use offerings at performances, with the exception of Ruwatan ritual drama.

Sukarjo then began the lakon - titled Wahyu Eko Buwana - which went on until around 4 in the morning to the student's absolute amazement.

The story began with Pathet Nem in Dwarawati. Bomo, Kresna's son, arrives to ask about the wahyu, which will bring victory in war. He gets into an altercation with Setyaki though, who knows that Bomo will use the wahyu for ill purposes, and a battle breaks out.

Pathet sanga begins with a goro-goro with many standard gending dolonan (such as Lumbung Desa and Prau), a penditaan scene in which Arjuna is advised by an old priest to seek the wahyu in Kendali Sabda (Hanoman's heritage) and a prang kembang.

Pathet manyura features the revelation of the wahyu in Kendali Sabda. Hanoman first tells representatives of the Kurawa (Dorna, Sengkuni, Karna) that the wahyu can only be received by someone who makes himself pure (suci) first. Dorna is incensed. How dare an animal talk to him, a priest, about purity? A battle breaks out. None of the Kurawa are able to even lift the cupu (receptacle) which contains the wahyu, let alone take it with them. Arjuna arrives, talks with Hanoman, and then receives the wahyu, defeats the Kurawa and returns to Amarta. Tanceb kayon.

The show is permeated by an informal atmosphere. Gamelan musicians arrive and leave. A number of my students 'have a go' at playing some of the simpler gamelan instruments. Some of them have never played gamelan before. I perform a bit of the prang gagal in pathet nem. Annas, a student with aspirations to become a dalang himself, sits next to the dalang for much of the show. Sukarjo also wants Annas to perform part of the lakon, but he demurs as he has had only a few classes with me so far. Hermantoro, a gamelan teacher visiting from UTM in Johor Baru, plays gender in pathet nem and teaches bonang parts to some of the musicians. Few members of the audience understand Sukarjo's 'basa Jawa alus' and are capable of following the story. But the kampung people appreciate the atmosphere that wayang creates, a perfect backdrop for socialising, eating, drinking and so on. So do my students.

The next day (9 August) I go to the bangsawan show Tot Mamat dan Mimpi Tuanku by the Istana Budaya troupe Nilam Sari at Panggung Bandaraya in the Dataran Merdeka at the centre of Kuala Lumpur. The play is a staple of the bangsawan repertoire, recently made into a musical, and the troupe is first-rate. A number of the actors are also movie and tv stars and the hall is packed. This is not a 'Javanese' play but the character of Puteri Gunang Ledang is portrayed as ethnically Javanese (and performs in both a 'Javanese' dance as an extra turn and a jaipong-inspired number in the play itself). The interpretation of Java is very loose and highly exoticised. But the audience laps it up. Escapism rules.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Field Trip to Johor

Just returned to the flat in Petaling Jaya from a brief field trip to Johor, in anticipation of a 'study tour' I will be making with students and staff from Univeristy of Malaya on 8-9 August.

We travelled first by bus to Melaka and spent some time there (as tourists) before taking a bus to Batu Pahat, a small town near Johor's west coast. We were picked up there by car by our host in Johor, Hairul Hisyamudin bin Mokri. Hairul is a USM engineeing graduate who runs a small computer shop cum internet cafe. Since returning to Johor after a decade in Penang, he also has become involved in local politics and is the 'ketua pemuda' for Kampung Permatang Duku.

Hairul lives now with his young wife in his mother's house in Permatang Duku. Across the road is his brother's house (the former ketua kampung) and nearby is the balai raya - the village hall, with a net in front of it where teenage boys play footbag net. There are about 800 people living in the kampung, and perhaps 80 percent of are of Javanese descent ( Houses are all situated around a U shaped road off of Jalan Pontian.

Most of the people living in Permatang Duku are kelapa sawit (palm oil) farmers, farming land adjacent to their houses. (Hairul's late father owned 3 acres of land, or about 1000 trees, which is typical.) The work is light (two days a month for tapping - mostly employing imported labour from Indonesia) and a small number of households are participate in home industries such as cake or tempe making. A number of houses (including Hairul's) also open up to visitors as homestays on occasion. There are a couple of warung in the kampung (one which sells very nice roti canai) and there is a small market on the kampung's western fringe.

I took a brief motorcycle trip around the kampung with daughter Hannah and saw among other things a model of the KL Menara and KLCC constructed from recycled plastic bottles (the remnant of an illuminate-the-kampung programme from 2007), two schools (one Islamic, one Chinese), a pond for cat fishing (locals fish between 9 and 12 midnight, and collect a pool that goes to the person who catches the largest catfish), and a whole lot of palm trees. The kampung is electrified and roads are well paved - and it has won a number of contests for its 'kecantikan' (beautiful appearance).

What brought me to Permatang Duku was not a taste of rural life in general, however, but the existence of Tunas Warisan, a community gamelan association made up of people of Javanese descent and Javanese. This group plays on a set of instruments owned by Wak Isa (also known as Amar), a second or third generation Javanese man. The instruments - a small set, mostly iron, mostly made in Johor by a member of the Tunas Warisan group back in the 1980s - are housed in his living room. He also owns a set of wayang kulit puppets, again mostly made in Johor and collected from near and far. The group practiced twice a week for some years, though recently such practices have not been so regular, and is made up of men ranging in age from about 40 to 95 (!). Isa's 12-year-old daughter and a neighbouring young woman of about 20 also play with the group.

They play in central Javanese style; a number of members spoke to me in admiration of Anom Suroto, Manteb Soedharsono, Timbul Hadiprayitno. Instruments include kendang (no ciblon), a couple of saron, peking, demung, kenong, kempul (no gong gede or gong suwuk), ketuk. Their repertoire of pieces is small - no large gending - but their enthusiasm is high. One kelapa sawit tapper who is a day labourer (at 40 ringgit a day) says he happily will not work for a day to play with the group, even without pay.

Since 2004, the group has been performing with Sukarjo bin Supoyo, a dalang born in Kulonprogo (Central Java) who moved to Malaysia in 1973 and lives in a neighbouring kelapa sawit estate. I went with Isa on Saturday night by car to Sukarjo's house to speak with Sukarjo. I learned that Sukarjo owns his own gamelan (half of which is on loan to a jaran kepang group) which he imported from Indonesia in 1981, but doesn't own a set of puppets- with the exception of a poor quality Betawi/Cirebon style set (again made in Malaysia) that he is slowly restoring. Sukarjo doesn't have formal training aside from his years of accompanying his father (also a dalang) and mother (a pesinden) to performances, and doesn't own any books on wayang, with the exception of a hand-written book in which he records plots. Sukarjo is approaching 60 years old now. He tried unsuccessefully to train one dalang to replace him.

Sukarjo and Tunas Warisan perform wayang regularly for hajatan (weddings, circumcissions) as well as at village ritual ceremonies (known variously as sedekah bumi or bersih desa). Ruwatan performances, once common, are becoming rarer due to Islamic prohibitions, and as the village ceremonies now are done without offerings Sukarjo says that these are properly 'Sedekah Bumi' or 'Bersih Desa' with an associated wayang, rather than wayang for the sake of sedekah bumi or bersih desa.

Sukarjo recognises a decline in wayang quality, as well as quantity. He could name 3 pesinden in Johor, but 2 have died and one returned to Java some years ago. Almost all of Johor's well-known dalang have died - with the exception of Sogimin (Kelapa Sawit, Kulai), a dalang in his late 50s originally from Pacitan. Another dalang, Haji Misran (Kampung Parit Bingan), is now in his 70s and refuses to perform any more.

On the morning of 2 August we went with Hairul by car to Isa's house, where the Tunas Warisan members gathered before going off to peform together. When we arrived, Isa was just finishing loading his van with the gamelan and kotak wayang. The group members arrived one by one, mostly by motorcycle. They then got into cars and vans and went off to Parit Bachok, a nearby kampung, to perform at a wedding.

An elevated panggung (perhaps a meter off the ground) belonging to Isa had been sent up underneath a rented tenda. There was a buffet under another tenda and tables where guests could eat. A caterer (Mas Chicken Rice) was roasting chickens - the rest of the food was made in the kampung. The dalang was already there - he arrived on his own steam and was talking to the host. The gamelan group members quickly set up the puppet screen and the gamelan instruments, and then the wayang were unpacked under Sukarjo's supervision- a small simpingan on both sides of the screen and most of the wayang in a big pile on the dalang's right.

As this is a wayang awan (daytime performance) no light is used. There are two microphones - one for the dalang, and one for the gamelan (hanging over the kendang) - and a pair of low-quality speakers. One is perched on a chair, another positioned on panggung. Both die during the performance, with no visible effort being made to replace them.

The Tunas Warisan members have a quick meal and then mount the panggung to begin the performance. Most are dressed in a simple seragam (red embroidered shirts, black pants). The dalang opens with a speech in Indonesian about the importance of wayang as a warisan from Java. Then one of the group members (the 95-year-old gong maker) leads in a recitation of al-Fatehah. They then play a few srepegan - with different musicians, including the dalang, taking turns at the kendang.

Then Ladrang Wilujeng as the dalang dances two kayon and positioned the puppets for the first scene (Jejer Dwarawati) - with Kresna, Samba, Setyaki and Udawa. (No parekan apparently as the set of puppets doesn't have them.) The ladrang ends and the dalang then launches into an opening narration of perhaps 10 minutes in classical Javanese. It is apparent that few in the audience, or among the Tunas Warisan members, can understand him. Little attempt is made to accompany him in sirepan style. Some chat, a few even practice their instruments. He then sings a fragment of a pathetan (out of tune and without accompaniment), and launches into the scene.

The dalang performs a lakon sempelan, apparently of his own invention. He had been asked to perform the lakon in which the meaning of Kalimasada is revealed to Puntadewa, but refused as he said this was a lakon of the ruwatan genre and would require offerings. (He does perform ruwatan but requires at least a month's notice for preparing himself spiritually, as well as a full assortment of offerings.) Instead, at the host's consent, he performed a lakon in which the meaning of Kalimasada would be discussed.

In the first scene, Kresna reveals that Puntadewa is trying to find out the meaning of his jimat layang kalimasada - though this is not in fact the time. This will only take place during the time of Jayabaya. A guest arrives (represented by a Cirebonese dewa puppet- Dewa Basuki) and tries to force Kresna to come to Amarta to reveal the jimat's meaning. A fight breaks out, which ends in the retreat of the guest. There is a brief pause (perhaps 15 or 20 minutes) in the battle for the mid-day prayers.

Then a goro-goro scene with Gareng, Petruk and Bagong. The dalang interviews me in Javanese (as a sort of bintang tamu) and the punakawan joke around in a mix of Javanese and Indonesian and Malay. The group also plays the lagu dolanan Caping Gunung. Unfortunately it is at this moment that the second of the two speakers goes and the goro-goro ends abruptly. (A musician later tells me that they had been playing to do Prau Layar and other gending dolanan classics.) Then follows a perang kembang. Arjuna fights with Cakil but in the middle Gatotkaca intervenes and kills him along with a group of assorted buta.

The action continues into pathet manyura when Semar discovers that it is Bathara Guru and Bathara Narada who are behind the plot to prematurely reveal Kalimasada's meaning. There is no amplification, and few can hear the dialogue. In the middle of this pathet, a bridal procession arrives - the bride and groom dressed in white underneath umbrellas with a group of parents with babies in arms and a kompang (frame drum) ensemble. The dalang at first tries to continue the performance but then tancebs the kayon as martial arts are performed in front of the couple and babies presented before them (apparently trying to bring fertility to them).

The whole atmosphere, on stage and off, is very informal. Musicians come and go during the show, and switch around instruments. There are lots and lots of srepegan, an attempt is made a sampak, and also the beginning of an Amsarandana is played. I am encouraged to play along with the group and briefly play peking during pathet nem and then play saron for most of pathet sanga and manyuro. I am hardly a great gamelan player - but am complimented for my skills. Trays of snacks, coffee, tea etc arrive sporadically. A single vendor sells ice cream at the end of the driveway - I buy popsickles a couple of times.

The show wraps up at around 4.30pm (about 30 minutes over time), the puppets are put away and the van loaded and then more food for the group before departing in a convoy.

I do not see money changing hands and am not sure how much (if anything) the group is paid. The best information I have been able to find is that the group typically gets about 400 to 500 ringgit (under 100 pounds) for gigs. This is real community art - art of Malaysia's Javanese diaspora, done for love. The gamelan might not have much of a repertoire. The dalang's sabetan (puppet movement) might be simple. The gamelan group might not be able to start and end srepegan in an orderly fashion. The puppets and gamelan might be simple but they are functional. And everyone enjoys playing together.

It was a pleasure to participate in this scene for a day - and I think people in Kampung Permatang Duku and Parit Bachok also got some pleasure in speaking to a 'wong putih' in Javanese and seeing that their own traditions are present not only in the Java of memory, but also loved by people around the world today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wayang and Gamelan in Malaysia

I spent much of yesterday investigating the vicissitudes of wayang and gamelan in Malaysia.

Wayang comes in two major variants, the so-called wayang Siam (based on the Thai shadow puppet theatre) and wayang Jawa (based on Javanese wayang kulit). The former, according to Kathy Rowland (whom I met for coffee), was recognised in the 1970s by the national cultural policy, and was embraced as an authentic form of Melayu culture. It is now known as 'wayang Kelantan' or 'wayang kulit'. A number of famous dalang from Kelantan, such as Nasir (who teaches at ASWARA), survive almost entirely on state patronage.

The Javanese wayang variant largely escapes notice. Javanese are invisible to the state - they are part of the Melayu ethnic group, though many are recent migrants and a large percentage speak Javanese at home. Javanese arts in Malaysia fall largely outside of the direct purview of the state.

After much searching and enquiry, I located a Javanese dalang who lives in Kampung Permatang Duku in the state of Johor named Sukarjo bin Supoyo. Wa Karjo, as he is known, was born near Parangtritis in Yogyakarta in 1952. He had no formal training in wayang, but learned from hiis father Supoyo, a dalang (long deceased) and his mother was a pesinden. He migrated to Malaysia in 1973. Karjo performs regularly in Javanese villages around the west coast of Johor with his 10-piece gamelan group (all slendro instruments, no pesinden). Both the gamelan and the wayang puppets were made in Permatang Duku; all the musicians in his group Tunas Warisan are also from Permatang Duku. He performs both siang (daytime) and bengi (night-time) shows. A brief clip of the group performing a talu ( suggest that this is wayang as folk art. I hope to travel down to Johor to see Wa Karjo perform on 2 and 8 August. Watch this space for more information.

Gamelan has a related history. Gamelan was imported from Java into the Malay courts, prominently the court of Trengganu, in the pre-colonial era. During the 20th century, the Trengganu-style court gamelan began to be taught widely outside the court context, and there are a number of sets around the country used for instruction in Malay music for university students and others.

The Trengganu gamelan at the University of Malaya was made in Solo. It is a small slendro set tuned to a diatonic pentatonic scale (do re mi so la) with kendang, a couple of saron, a couple of peking, a demung, one bonang (called kromong, like in Betawi), kenong, gambang kayu and two gong (gong ageng and gong suwuk). The instructor Othman has recently retired from the Istana Budaya troupe. He studied briefly at ASTI Bandung around 1990. According to Othman, there are no gamelan being made today in Malaysia. Even the gambang beaters, now broken, will need to be replaced by ordering them from Indonesia. Othman explained that the pieces are easy to learn and while the UM students have only 14 weeks of instruction (once a week, 2 hour sessions) and won't be able to practice outside of class, they will be able to pick up the basics quickly. I sat in on the start of yesterday's class, and hope to see more. The UM gamelan is also used for a class in contemporary music - hope to find out more about that too....

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Nostalgia X'travaganza: Semalam di Malaysia

Writing now from Malaysia, where I am based until the end of September. I attended last night a musical concert called Nostalgia X'travaganza: Semalam di Malaysia at the Life Centre on Jalan Sultan Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, a featured event in the KL Music Festival.

Though titled 'a night in Malaysia' it featured a backup band from Singapore (Singapore Explosion) and a lineup of 10 pop and dangdut singers popular in Malaysia during the 1970s - 6 of whom were in fact Indonesian. My wife, who grew up on this music, was ecstatic to see in the (sagging) flesh pop icons of her youth and dragged along me and my daughter (who slept through practically the whole concert). We sat in the cheap seats all the way in back of the hall (48 ringgits a seat).

The concert lasted about 2.5 hours, including an intermission. Each singer sung two of their hit songs from the 1970s and 80s, one in the first half an one in the second. A VCD of these songs (also for sale outside the hall) was played before the show and during the intermission.

It was an intimate affair, despite the large audience numbers (at least 1000, by my count). A number of singers entered from the audience and some danced with audience members or presented the mike to individual audience members and had them sing lines from their songs. One (male) audience member was invited on stage to dance and sing with a singer. One of the singers, aged late 50s, dressed in tight-fitting outfits and made comments on her own sexy appearance. Another (male) singer repeatedly requested that the audience applaud him. Singers spoke about their past appearances in Malaysia (one Indonesian singer first sang in Malaysia in 1967) and offered personal anecdotes.

The audience mostly consisted of people in their 40s and 50s. Some brought their children along. There were many jilbab among them - and few Chinese or Indians or DLLs visible.

On the way back to our hotel we took a cab driven by a driver who turned out to be from Serang, Banten. In a Malaysian accent, he explained that he had lived in Malaysia sinc 1980. Most everyone working in KL, he told us, were migrants from elsewhere - many of them from Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Friday, July 3, 2009

June Round-Up

My last 3 weeks in Indonesia were a whirl of activity and sadly I found it impossible to keep up with this blog. So much to do! So little time!

I attended the Pasar Kangen at Taman Budaya Yogyakarta - a wonderful new initiative to revitalise traditional and folk arts in a pasar environment, complete with traditional foods, craft vendors, used book vendors etc. It was a lovely environment for seeing such kuntulan and ketoprak lesung (pictured above) and the like. Emha and Kyai Kanjeng made an appearance as well - endorsing the event and commenting on its merits.

I was in Cirebon between 13 and 20 June - attending and speaking at a national arts festival (15-20 June), sponsoring a macapat event at Kraton Keprabonan (17 June) and performing Arjuna Sasrabau at Kraton Kacirebonan (20-21 June). At the last of these, I received the gelar of Ki Ngabehi from the sultan, a tremendous honour. I managed to get in three rehearsals in Krandon, and also performed Pendhawa Nyawah once again in Suranenggala Lor as a wayang awan (13 June) prior to an all-night show by Nono Suryono. My talk at the national arts festival - on the connections between Sundanese and Cirebonese performing arts - was well received, and generated much debate related to Cirebonese aspirations for province-hood.

I returned thereafter to Yogya and attended a number of the wayang performances in a small wayang festival that was part of the Festival Kesenian Yogyakarta. This included a wayang gethuk, a lovely wayang wong presentation of Jitapsara which was performed by a gabungan of 5 Yogya-style groups under the direction of RM Kristiadi, wayang thengul from Bojonegoro, wayang kancil and wayang sasak. Unfortunately I missed out on a Japanese wayang group and wayang ukur.

In between, I attended part of a ketoprak festival, a teater kontemporer performance about the upcoming presidential election, and a sarasehan budaya on Hegemoni Budaya: Represi Politik di Dunia Seni that was part of the monthly dance seminar (every 22nd of the month, in different locations around Yogya).

After five months in Indonesia, I still am astounded by the variety and vitality of artistic activity in Yogya. What a pleasure it has been to be an observer, and occasional participant, in this.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

World Environment Day

I attended a simple commemoration of World Environment Day at Lemah Putih, the retreat and arts centre of Suprapto Suryodharmo on the outskirts of Solo, Central Java on 5 June.

This featured a series of performances -- an improvised anti-smoking dance piece without music by 4 dancers from ISI Solo, a short contemporary wayang beber performance, a community percussion ensemble and a new mask dance piece based on three regional styles by Fajar Satriyadi (Surakarta), Wangi Indriya (Tambi, Indramayu) and Sitras Panjalin (Tutup Ngisor, Magelang). This last piece, which was developed at Lemah Putih in consultation with Suprapto, will be touring the UK in June and July 2009. There were also a few moments for ritual and reflection on the environment. (Wangi Indriya, pictured above, offers a prayer at the mandala that the earth will be healed and people will become conscious of the need to dispose rubbish properly.)

There was an intentionally small, invited audience - no real publicity was undertaken for the event - and a great feeling of intimacy among participants, with a shared meal and time for discussion.

Indonesia Performing Arts Mart

I attended the fifth Indonesia Performing Arts Mart in Solo from 3 to 6 June 2009 as a 'presenter' and was charged with giving some closing remarks on behalf of the group of presenters. Below is the speech I delivered. Pictured above is IPAM presenter Keiko Murakami, director of the Japan Gamelan Music Association of Tokyo, singing with the Hotel Sahid Jaya's lobby gamelan gadhon.

I would like to thank the organisers of IPAM for inviting me to give some closing remarks. We have seen a remarkable range of new work over the last days. More importantly, perhaps, we have had the chance to meet the artists who made this work, and others around them. In the Seminar Global Creative-Industry Opportunities in honor of Indonesia Performing Arts Mart we heard from Marie Pangestu and Professor Sri Hastanto about issues confronting the creative industries today. Presenters have also gone on trips to see the Hindu-Buddhist remains and the living traditional cultures, in order to better contextualise the world of Indonesian performing arts.

We have seen 21 performances, including both fringe shows and showcases, from Java, Sumatra, Maluku and Sulawesi. Speaking to curator Ratna Riantiarno, I learned that there were some 75 groups that applied to this year’s IPAM. The curatorial team did their best to insure that a variety of work would be seen. Curator berusaha supaya representative. Many of these shows have been folklorico – very loose glosses on traditional art forms that have lived in communities for hundreds of years. Courtship dances and sacred rituals have been packaged for mass consumption. Some of these shows are very slick and will appeal, no doubt, to certain international audiences. We have also seen a few examples of lively folk performance that retain authenticity, charm and energy – I think here especially of Calung Kaulan by Calung Banyumasan Mudha Utama. More interesting, to me, have been the many shows we have viewed that draw their techniques and forms from tradition, but have reinterpreted them for the contemporary world. Many of the presenters were greatly impressed, for example, by Rantau Berbisik by Nan Jombang Padang, which brought an entirely new understanding of the traditional plate dance; and the juxtaposition of spinning tops and bedhaya like grace in Eno’s “Samparan: Moving Space” held a unique fascination. The dynamic rhythms funky harmonies of Sonoseni demonstrated that this ensemble is one of Indonesia’s best neo-ethnic groups going. And while the verbal play and physical comedy of Sahita is hard to follow for those not strongly versed in Javanese culture and language, the intimate communication they created with the Teater Kecil ISI audience could be missed by nobody.

One of the points that came through in the seminar and conversations is that creative industries is not about product but about process. One presenter told me that she was looking for shows to bring to her country, but with the hope that she will be later able to engage their creators in long-term bi- and multi-national projects. The shows offered for her in IPAM are thus not the end of a search, but rather an introduction or a calling card to future collaboration.

We can only hope that this presenter’s desires will be thought about in relation to future IPAM. There has been a worrying tendency for the nation of Indonesia to claim exclusive rights to so-called intellectual property, resulting in strife between Malaysia and Indonesia. Speaking as an historian of Indonesian performing arts I can say that the traditions here are not exclusively Indonesian property, but rather instantiations of long-term processes of exchange and influence. Suandi from the Black Arts Alliance, who spoke at the IPAM seminar, put this beautifully when she said ‘your drum is my drum.’ And few of us present will forget the wonderful moment when Keiko Murakami, director of the Japan Gamelan Music Association of Tokyo, sang along with the gamelan gadhon in the Hotel Sahid Jaya lobby. We hope that future IPAM will present opportunities for further exchange and growth in an open, non-competitive spirit of cooperation. Congratulations to IPAM and thank you.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Barikan at Astana Gunung Jati by Suganda

During my last trip to Cirebon (29-31 May) I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of Barikan at Astana Gunung Jati by Dl. Suganda from Gegesik. I was in fact originally scheduled to perform this sacred drama, which I have studied since 1994, myself but for complicated reasons not worth going into in the blog Suganda substituted for me at the last minute and I ended up playing saron II and taking pictures.

While in Gegesik and surrounding hamlets and villages Barikan is performed during the night, in Astana the custom is to perform it during the day with a wayang before and after at night. The ritual drama is proceeded by prayers and distribution of food in the pendopo where the wayang is performed.

Suganda's performance was very solid and followed the same basic story structure and dialogue I have transcribed and translated in my book Demon Abduction (Lontar, 1998). The people of Amarta are threatened by siluman (spirits) who kidnap them and spirit them off to Tunjung Karoban to work as pengobeng (labourers) in a wedding celebration. The mysterious Begawan Jojohan intervenes and recites a kidung (pictured above) and bonds the siluman kings into a promise that they will not disturb Amarta or the people of the sponsoring village (in this case Astana) ever again.

There were a few attempts at updating and making the lakon timely - as when the forces of Tunjung Karoban offer to bribe Arjuna (how many triliyar do you want?) to get the people of Amarta as workers for the siluman's wedding celebration.

After the show, Suganda asked me (why I don't know exactly) whether there was anything that needed to be marked in red (ie wrong) about his performance. I said no, but was curious why he had Begawan Jojohan's petapan (hermitage) as Sekar Gading. He said that this was his father's (Dl Warsinta) version and that other dalang Gegesik had other placenames. There remains a huge awareness of even minor variations among Gegesik puppeteers.

Revitalising Topeng

The topeng troupe of Mulya Bhakti (Tambi, Sliyeg, Indramayu) performed at Astana Gunung Jati on Friday 29 May 2009 before a set of wayang performances by two dalang from Gegesik for the annual Barikan ritual.
The topeng performance, under the direction of Wangi Indriya, differed from 'normal' topeng on two counts. One is that it was part of a suite of performances by Mulya Bhakti funded by Kelola and Hivas (the anti-AIDS organisation) to revitalise topeng as part of acara desa (mapag sri, unjungan etc), village rituals in the Indramayu, Cirebon and Majalengka area (see Astana does not normally sponsor topeng for Barikan - and it was perceived as a 'hiburan' (light entertainment) by Suganda.
The second was that Wangi brought with her a few dozen topeng students of various ages from a number of different kecamatan in Indramayu who performed rampak-style the various mask dances. Wangi concluded the show herself. This inclusion of students of different abilities, Wangi told me, allowed her topeng students to experience the ambience of village rituals, AND also gave local audiences the chance to see that topeng could be learned by young people. Wangi encouraged accompanying parents to sawer - offer money in the former a shower of coins or bank notes stuck into costumes.
The dancing was of a surprisingly high quality, and Wangi was the attentive teacher, fixing costumes during performances, cueing musicians as necessary, mirroring dance movements, and making minor corrections.
The pendopo outside the royal graveyard of Astana Gunung Jati was packed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Karang Tumaritis

On Tuesday of this week (26 May) at the invitation of Mas Kristiadi I attended the live broadcast of the weekly talk show Karang Tumaritis. I knew both Mas Kris and the main host Mas Altianto from Mas Alti's Wirobrajan arts lab sessions. Mas Alti invited to appear as a guest on the show, and Mas Kris thought it would be a good idea if I came once to observe the format.

There are 3 regulars on the show - the famous kethoprak actress Yati Pesek, Mas Alti and a siter player who also plays a kind of servant named Robet. They led off with some comical dialogue (written by Mas Kris) and then two guests from the kraton appeared and spoke about the status of the kraton lands in relation to certificates. One of the guests was the sultan's younger brother.

Mas Kris shared a copy of the script with me before the show and I noted the appearance of Semar. I asked him what actor would play Semar and he said it was someone very famous. As it turned out it was Mas Kris himself, who did two brief monologues with a wayang kulit puppet (shot in shadow). Mas Kris kept closely to the written script, but the other actors diverged wildly, with much improv.

All dialogue in the show, and costumes, are Javanese. After the show, Mas Kris spoke about this as a 'not for profit' part of the station's profile. Guests are not charged for appearing - though they commonly use the show to promote their own interests and businesses.

Mata Hari, the opera

Last night I attended a vocal rehearsal of Vincent McDermott's opera, Mata Hari, at ISI's pascasarjana campus. Originally performed in English in the US, the opera has been translated into Indonesian and will receive two performances in Taman Budaya Yogyakarta in July. The opera features a cast of 5 principals and a chorus of 16, along with an orchestra of 10 gamelan players and 5 Western musicians. The music is complex, with frequent changes of metres and much use of dissonance. There are 8 scenes and the running time will be about 90 minutes. The conductor is Ed van Ness and the director is Joned Suryatmoko.

I met Vincent before the rehearsal and had a chance to talk to him about his work and life. Vincent has been living in Yogya for the last 5 years, and has a Batak wife and a two-year-old child. An academically trained composer, Vincent was introduced to gamelan around 1965 while he was living in Amsterdam for a year by Ernest Heins. Heins brought him to the Kunst sound archive and Vincent promptly fell in love with the rich sonorities of Javanese gamelan. Trained at Penn, he taught for many years at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, and founded the gamelan programme there. He also established the William and Mary gamelan. Vincent originally came to Yogya as a Fulbright professor of musical composition at ISI after his retirement from Lewis and Clark. He had previously visited Solo on a number of occasions, with stays ranging between 1 and 3 months. He realised quickly though that Yogya was a better destination for long-term living, due to its mixture of modern/Western and classical/Javanese musical scenes, and has stayed on.

Mata Hari is one of two operas that Vincent has written featuring gamelan. (The other has a libretto by Kathy Foley and is about Panji.) Mata Hari puts forward the conceit that the dancer Zelle received a boon of dance from Nyai Roro Kidul, goddess of the south seas. When she becomes too arrogant, the goddess abandons her and she is executed.

I found the singers to be very strong, the rehearsal pianist quite sharp, and van Ness very sensitive musically. There was a real sense of purpose in the rehearsal - no fooling around. At van Ness' request I spoke to the singers for a few minutes about the historical Mata Hari and answered a few questions. A shame I won't be able to see the performances....

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Diskuski with Pardiman at Wirobrajan

Last night (18 May 2009) I attended a Monday night performance/discussion event at Jl Gatotkaca 7, Wirobrajan, the house of Alianto. This was another intimate, small-scale exploratory event attended by leading Yogya figures in dance, music, theatre, art and tv/film. The night was rainy and not everyone who had intended to come arrived. We started late as well. Pardiman, leader of the vocal group Akapela Mataraman offered a beginning for an interactive performance. Actually, two beginnings - the performance had to restart when Alianto left to get a video camera to record the event.

In the first event he introduced himself (in a mix of Javanese and Indonesian) as a servant of the master of a royal house. Restarting, he said he was a seeker of mystical knowledge, who had just completed studies of the esoteric art of prasasti under a respected guru figure. He asked us first to clap. Then he showed how a birth day can be turned into sound. For example '3 March' was two repeated sung 3 figures (3/3). We each presented our own interpretation of our dates of birth, then sang these together and Pardiman improvised a melody over this. He then said that objects also have a sound. He made a number of sounds that mirrored architectural forms. He then approached a pillar, with both hands outstretched in front of him, and an Islamic melody emerged. He explained that the saka was bekas mejid (once part of a mosque). We were instructed to applaud agin. This ended the event.

A discussion slowly got under way. Alianto said that this was a good way for Pardiman to travel as a solo performer - while his full group required at least 7 performers, in this way he could draw sounds out of an audience. A number of people spoke about the need to develop this dramatically in order to make an audience engage with the concept, and also to think further about the structure of the event. Pardiman said that he thought clapping itself could be played with - and conducted us in clapping.

A rather more free discussion followed - in which I spoke briefly about my book-in-progress for Palgrave, and others present (some of whom had heard me speak at Garasi, others at Sanata Dharma) chimed in their thoughts and impressions and provided valuable research leads. Alianto then suggested that I lead a discussion at Wirobrajan on the theme of performing Java in Europe. I left Wirobrajan well after midnight but the discussion was still going on, facilitated by the introduction of Korean alcohol. One event leads to another, leads to another....

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cirebon: 12-17 May

I spent 12-17 May in Cirebon, during which time I managed to see two wayang kulit shows by senior Indramayu puppeteers (one by Ki Dalang Haji Anom Rusdi in Losari, the other by Ki Taham in Tugu, Sliyeg), met with friends and colleagues including Opan, Santoso, Purjadi, Kartani and played tourist in visits to Kraton Kasepuhan, Grage Mall, Sangkan Urip and Linggajati. I visited the house/sanggar of Sujanapriya (currently living in the pusat informasi right next to the kelurahan in Astana Gunung Jati). Sujana leads a wayang wong troupe and makes very nice wayang wong masks- I purchased two of these. We also visited the workshop/house of Abdul Bari, who lives in Gang Mesjid at Astana. Abdul Bari is best known for making small and life size replicas of various pusaka kereta (such as Singa Barong) but when we visited was busy making tasbe. I also delivered an Indonesian-language talk at STAIN -- based on an old-ish paper of mine on culture in Cirebon during the late colonial period.

Rusdi's performance showed many signs of influence of Central Javanese wayang - gamelan 2 prangkat, a large specially-designed panggung, impressive sound system, flashy lights, two comedians (one a little person) who performed very crude comic interludes, Central Javanese dalang outfit complete with keris, a prologue featuring a jin, kayon bolong, use of Central Javanese terms of address (eg koko prabu), flashy sabetan, Central Javanese musical pieces and a number of new instruments (including a drum kit and a beri special ordered from Jakarta). Rusdi spoke about how he devised this new style of performance with the assistance of Ki Enthus. He performs to 'melayani konsumen' -- an openly populist attitude - and, he says, his consumers 'doyan' this style, showing it is effective. This is lowest common denomintator wayang. There are bound to be people who find offense in a dalang slipping a rope over the neck of a little person and slamming him against the kotak in rhythm to the gamelan music.

Taham's performance in contrast was much more low key. Taham, according to his daughter Wangi, hasn't performed at all in the last two years due to his advanced age. The occasion was a kaolan of a haji from Tugu (a village that is absolutely fanatical about wayang) who vowed to sponsor a performance by Taham. Taham was in fine form - and while some of his puppet movement was weak and his sulukan and puppet voices were also not strong - he remained a fine story telling and his characterisation (particularly of Kresna, Gatotkaca and Cungrking) was superb. Rusdi and his son Dian were in attendance (they came in the sidnen Duniawati's car) and Wangi also brought along a few guests staying at Mulya Bhakti - a couple of film makers making a film on TKI and their Indonesian guide, a woman named Uji who works at Via-Via. The performance ended at 2am. Sadly the sound system was poor and I had trouble following much of the dialogue as a result. But it was an honour to be present at the show - Wangi commented that she did not know whether her father would perform again, and thus she videorecorded the whole performance.

Selingan at Sonobudoyo

When I originally thought about coming to Yogya for my sabbatical, I recalled the Yogya of the 1990s, a time and place when there were many venues for touristic performance. I performed wayang kulit occasionally in Yogya during 1990-1991 - there was not much money, and tourist audiences were small and not always appreciative, but I enjoyed the experience a lot.

The multiple crises starting in 1997 brought about the near end of this vein of performance, and today there is only one venue where tourists come to see wayang kulit performed nightly - the Sonobudyo Museum in the alun-alun lor.

I approached Sonobudoyo (at the recommendation of the local branch of the Culture and Tourism ministry) shortly after arriving in Yogya and was given the opportunity to perform a single 'selingan' show - one of two slots that Sonobudoyo has annually that are outside of the normal schedule. This show was not for tourists, as I initially expected, but for school children, mostly 10-12 year old kids, that is the same age as my daughter Hannah. It was a way to increase the 'apresiasi' of wayang kulit. All local schools in walking distance from the museum were invited. I also invited some 'friends' from facebook and others via hp.

I was instructed to do a Ramayana lakon - this is the regular fair at Sonobudoyo and all the puppets are set up to do this - and chose to the classic 'Sinta Colong' (Abduction of Sinta) episode, an abbreviated version of a lakon I did at the British Library in May 2009.

The performance coincided with the opening of a topeng exhibit, which meant that the kids (and me) sadly had to sit around waiting for an upacara to run its course.

Once the show got off the ground though it went smoothly with three or four blunders on my part (a mix up between two puppets, tangled up puppets in the fight scene, a mistaken voice, a suluk in the wrong pathet). Again, at the request of the Museum, I performed in a combination of Indonesian and Javanese, with some English thrown in.

The highlight for the kids was definitely the Limbukan, which featured a contest with door prizes. The kids eagerly rushed forward to identify puppets, musical instruments and musical pieces. My daughter Hannah also appeared in the Limbukan as a guest star, doing a little wayang kancil story (Kancil dan Buaya) she has been working on with Nanang for the last couple of months. The kids cheered enthusiastically at a little trick I taught Hannah with a monkey puppet.

A photographer, Denny Wijaya, took pictures and generously sent me them after the show-- for which much thanks! -- and a reporter from the Jakarta Globe will be covering the event for this English language paper.

There is a chance I will perform again at the Museum - either next month or possibly next year. Thus: to be continued....

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Anoman Obong

Ki Seno Nugroho performed Anoman Obong at the monthly Ramayana wayang series sponsored by RRI, TVRI and Pepadi at Sasono Hinggil last night (Saturday 10 May 2009) to a large crowd. Seno said in the Limbukan said the ticketed audience (I paid Rp 8000 for my seat) was made up of real wayang devotees- different from the odd assortment of people who show up at his performances 'outside.' Indeed, Seno is one of the few Yogya puppeteers with a fan base, and many of them were in attendance.

It was an enthusiastic performance, with a strong supporting gamelan and 8 very attractive pesinden (a number of whom were ISI Yogya students). Mas Seno commented in the Limbukan about the importance of rehearsal (latihan)-- with training/studies (sinau) one can become competent (bisa) but only with rehearsal can one become good (apik). It was clear that the group has been rehearsing - there was a tight action-packed prologue showing Anoman's capture and numerous fast musical transitions.

Characterisation as always was strong. An angry and self-centred Dasamuka insulting everyone left and right; a beleagured Gunawan Wibisono left half-dead after being struck by Dasamuka and attacked again by the monkeys when he goes to help Rama. Sabetan, sulukan and language were all polished as always.

Again, the Goro-Goro went on too long for my taste but at least Mas Seno had the good sense NOT to include a perang kembang. In general though I think there was not enough plot development in this lakon - it felt to me like half of Anoman Duta elaborated to a full night's performance. This was perhaps not Mas Seno's fault entirely - the lakon was given to him by the organisers of the series I believe.

There was also a group of students from one of the parawisata academies handing out a very simple audience survey for a skripsi. I filled it in - and was gratefu to get a little snack box after for my efforts. The shoe is on the other foot.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


'Don't mock me, that's how kolaborasi [mixed media collaborations] go,' said Fitri Setyaningsih, one of the four performers in a fashion-dance performance to a fellow dancer from the audience after the show.

The occasion was a dance performance sponsored by the French cultural institute LIP at the upmarket Sasanti Restaurant (neary Yogyakarta's Hyatt Hotel) on 8 May. Three dancers Nita Azhar (from France), Fitri Setyaningsih (an ISI Surakarta-trained dancer who lives in Yogya) and Emily White (an American studying dance at ISI Yogyakarta) danced around Sasanti's garden in the high fashion of the Spring 2009 Paris season. Choreography (such as it existed) was by Marie Barbottin and dresses by Marie Labarelle. Tickets, though free, were very limited (available for one day only at LIP a week before the event - one ticket per person), and the audience was a combination of Yogya's glitterati, expats and artists.

The dance, which featured also Didik Nini Thowok as a 'guest artist' (appearing at the start and end in a noh mask and a long gown), was vague and spontaneous, with little in the way of technique, drama, or meaning. Fitri explained before the show that the concept behind the dance was a banyan tree with its long roots. What we saw instead was a series of costume changes. A dancer climbs a tree. Another dancer splashes around in a pond. A dancer imitates a bird. The semi-improvised movement was accompanied by rather bland neo-ethnic music improvised by the musical trio Enola & Improvasi. Marie Le Sourd, LIP's director, explained that this was the result of a 5 day workshop and was only 'work in progress'. But the question is progress to where?

My sense is that most of us at Sasanti were present for the occasion - not the performance. It was a meet and greet sort of event - and there certainly were a lot of attractive, rich, interesting and talented people present. Mas Didik's photographer explained that one of the major purposes was to get a video of Mas Didik performing in noh style to post on youtube. 11 videos on the Didik channel and counting....

Apparently the two Marie-s have created like dance-fashion events in France in the past. More rehearsal, better lighting and a lot more dancers and a faster pace might have helped.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Miliran, where I am living, was apparently once known as a kampung of artists. It still is, I guess, to some extent: our Pak RT is an ex-wayang wong dancer and kethoprak actor, and a neighbour practices saron daily. But it is also part of a perumahan, a modern housing project, and I have had less interaction with my neighbours here than my neighbours in London.

One of the pleasures of living here has been the constant flow of itinerant salespeople with their different cries and sounds (of infinite interest to my daughter) and the performers who pass by. Some have little talent, but the drummer and singer from Banyumas (pictured above) who have been touring by foot around Yogya for the last 2 weeks or so and performed here last week are exceptions. With all the talentless beggars singing songs at intersections, it felt good to hear a nicely executed Javanese lagu dolanan...

Tiga Perempuan

Yesterday (2 May) I spoke to Pascasarjana students at Universitas Negeri Semarang and rushed back to Yogyakarta in order to see Tiga Perempuan, a new play by the Padangpanjang-based theatre company Teater Sakata, at Teater Garasi.

I arrived late and thus missed the opening but saw enough to make it worthwhile blogging about it.

Teater Sekata was formed in 2000 and has performed a mixture of Indonesian and European plays by Ionesco, Wisran Hadi, Genet, Riantiarno etc. Tiga Perempuan (Three Women) was the first script by Sakata actress Via Suswatia, directed by Tya Setiawaty. This play performed by three youngish actresses concerned three Minang women living together in a traditional house (rumah gadang) - one with many boyfriends, another who is preparing to leave Sumatra to study, a third who is a faithful wife.

Much of the language was in bahasa Padang - which made the play difficult to comprehend - and the acting style was prone to over-the-top melodrama with shouting, crying etc.

What was wonderful though was the integration of live Dendang Saluang music - a constant backdrop to the action. The final scene in which one of the three women is left alone on stage in a state of emotional distress near to terror. She is joined by the two Dendang Saluang performers who rock back and forth with her as they make music. Her emotions, her lifestory and confusion, becomes mixed with the music of tradition. A stunning tableau.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Keluarga Tut

Last night (30 April) I saw Teater Gandrik Yogyakarta perform their adaptation of Keluarga Tut (The Toth Family) an absurdist comedy by Hungarian writer Istvan Orkeny.

Gandrik, one of the best known theatre groups in Indonesia, is well known for its folky satire and topicality. While Orkney's play is set in Hungary during set in WWII, the Gandrik production routinely references local (Yogyakarta) culture, with frequent semi-improvised comments in a mixture of Javanese and Indonesian. Acting drew upon some of the conventions of kethoprak style clowning.

Briefly the play concerns the visit of an army Major on furlow to the rural house of the Tut family. While initially taken as a great honour, the Major overstays his welcome. The Major drives the Tut family's patriarch to despair after he insists that the family stay up night after night assembling cardboard boxes.

I really liked Djaduk's jazzy live music, appreciated the shadow puppets battle scene that opened the show and enjoyed the comic acting of the leads. But the singing and dancing was rather rather amateur and the pace was plodding (more than 3 hours without an intermission!). I also didn't get many of the jokes pitched at the 'lesehan' audience sitting on the ground in front of the stage, and the jokes I did get weren't all that funny to me. Tired from the Hari Internasional Tari, I found myself dozing off at moments.

There were some definite highlights - one of which was a mime-filled scene in which the Major and Tut family patriarch sat down together for a man-to-man chat in the latrine. Tut sprays the toilet basin first and tells the Major that it is all clean. The Major feigns shock though when he sees there is still a lombok in the basin. Tut picks it out and pops it in his mouth, saying 'tidak pedas' (not too hot) as he chews on it.

Wayang kulit at Sono Budoyo

I am performing a wayang kulit at the Sono Budoyo museum on 11 May, and in preparation for this visited a tourist performance of a Ramayana play on 28 April. These abbreviated performances, which run about 2 hours, are held nightly - though sometimes they are cancelled for lack of visitors, it was explained. The company has three dalang in it - who take turns performing. (The dalang not performing play gamelan - apparently the drummer at this performnace was the best of the three dalang.)

Tickets for the show cost Rp20,000. Nearly everyone attending was a foreign tourist - with a few guides along for the ride. While a leaflet was handed out at the start, there seemed to be little comprehension of what was going on. Many were more interested in getting pictures than in seeing a dramatic performance. The gong player encouraged a young boy to step into the gamelan so he could photograph the simpingan from up close. While some of the audience sat and watched the puppets, they were encouraged to go round back and watch the shadows. Not everyone stayed for the whole show.

I found the performance to be dutiful rather than spirited, and with one or two exceptions was very conventional. A slip by the pesinden in the execution of the gending dolanan Slendang Biru during the goro-goro gave the puppeteer a chance to rib her - which caused the gamelan players to laugh. Otherwise there was very little humour.

There was also a stand outside of the venue (a small air conditioned hall) where wayang making was demonstrated before and after show. I presume there were also puppets for sale - but didn't get a chance to see this myself.

Plencung Two

I attended the monthly performance at Padepokan Seni in Kasihan, Bantul on 27 April. This month it was Teater Ruang from Solo performance performing Plencung Two, the second version of an intense physical theatre work for 2 adult and 4 child actors. (The first version featured just 2 adult actors.)

The only illumination for the work was fire - first matches struck by performers and then a single lamp that illuminated parts of the actors' bodies - heads, legs, hands. There was little text - the most memorable being a monologue spoken by a child about a flood.... not of water but of technology -- playstations, cell phones, televisions etc. Actors walked around the stage mostly on their hands. It was difficult to see what body part belonged to whom, and occasionally grotesque combinations of parts were formed. This was dystopia - a world where people fragmented, technology replaced human relations, and the vision of the spectator was unable to bring clarity or wholeness. I was reminded of Bali's leyak, the witches whose bodies fragment, and basic Balinese fears (described so richly by Bateson and Mead) about the fragmentation of the self.

Before and after the performance, the company's director and some of the actors spoke in a moderated conversation. They were asked why they had such long hours of rehearsal - including rehearsals starting in the evening and going on to the morning. The director answered that it was out of imposed boredom (kejenuhan) that ideas originate. He admitted there was some truth to the accusation that he is anti-humanist (anti manusiawi). The adult actress in the production spent so much time rehearsing on her hands that she cried and begged for time off - which he offered (for 2 days). However, he asked, what is more anti-humanist - the slumped postures of a person at a playstation or riding a motorcycle, or the intense physicality he requires of his actors?

UNIMA Indonesia

For the last couple of months, I have been helping out a group of young Yogya-based pupeteers, namely Maria "Ria" Tri Sulistyani of Papermoon Puppet Theater, contemporary dalang Catur 'Benyek' Kuncoro and animator and dalang Ananto Wicaksono. Together, we arranged a planning meeting to establish UNIMA Indonesia, a national centre of the international puppet organisation. I am a member of British UNIMA (BrUNIMA), and was appointed to sit on the exec committee of BrUNIMA. I also currently serve on two international commissions.

Only one Indonesian puppeteer, I Made Sidia from Bali, attended the last UNIMA Congress in Perth, and it was my feeling (and Made's) that Indonesia needs a greater voice in this international organisation. UNIMA has made repeated overtures to establish a national centre in Indonesia, without success.

This meeting took place at Taman Budaya Yogyakarta on 26 April, and attracted perhaps 35 puppeteers, puppet experts and cultural organisers from all over Java, with Dewa Wicaksana (head of ISI Denpasar's puppetry department) representing Bali. Both Senawangi and Pepadi, the two existing national wayang organisations, were represented, and there was much lively debate about the place of the local (particularly emphasised by Slamet Gundhono and Jlitheng Suparman), the need for autonomous expression, the value of exchange and cooperation. Enthus Susmono offered many humorous comments along the way.

The day before the meeting a small group of participants from out of town and the organising committee toured Yogyakarta puppet sites.

We visited first the wayang museum Kekayon, located about 7 kilometers out of town. The museum is basically the work of a single collector- with puppets in glass cases displayed to make scenes. Most of the major traditional wayang genres are represented, some by new puppets, some old. Many of the puppets, perhaps most, were commissioned by the collector. Thus there is a room dedicated to the 100 Kurawa siblings, with sketches and puppets of them all. (Most kotak or sets of puppets have no more than 10 of these, and very few dalang will have their names memorized.) There are also a scattering of more traditional puppets - one representing a rock star; a small set of puppets from an experimental wayang produced circa 1975 in Yogya. Puppets from other traditions are also represented and around the museum there are statues and ornaments of a variety of cultures (Chinese, European etc) to illustrate that wayang is a meeting place of different cultural streams.

Kekayon has volunteered space for a UNIMA Indonesia secretariat, and this offer is being seriously considered. The present owner of Kekayon said that this would be a way to 'menghidupkan' (bring life to) the museum, which is looking rather tired and desolate - there was some structural damage during the 2006 earthquake, and visitor numbers are low.

We then visited the studio of legendary puppet creator Sukasman, best known for his daring new buta, setan and punakawan figures and his wayang ukur productions. Sukasman has been experimenting with wayang for decades; his wayang ukur was performed at the UNIMA Congress held in 2000 in Germany. His studio has a full working theatre in it - with a gamelan, a raised podium for a stage, provision for lighting and sound equipment - and is decorated by stone carvings on the walls and a huge unicorn statue.

Sukasman spoke to us at length about his approach to making puppets, bringing out various diagrams (see above) and puppets - including 4 different Gareng puppets. He also interpreted many of the figures and other aspects of wayang in terms of sexual symbolism. Formerly, Sukasman was very angry about his figures being imitated by other carvers and used by puppeteers without his permission. He now has a more laissez faire attitude, and recognises that he is part of a larger tradition, and that he can always make new figures.

From Sukasman's studio, we visited Papermoon. Ria showed her work on her computer and spoke about a range of community projects she has conducted in Sumatra, Papua and Java- including teaching kids how to construct puppets out of recycled goods.

The final stop was Ledjar Subroto's house on Jalan Mataram. Ledjar brought out many of the puppets he will be bringing with him to the Tong-Tong Festival in Holland - ranging from portrait puppets, puppets in the Willem series, wayang revolusi, wayang kancil, Batman, different sorts of kayon etc etc. It was an impressive assemblage.

Djaduk Ferianto on Rhythms Meeting

Composer and musician Djaduk Ferianto delivered an informal address (obrolan) at Padepokan Seni on 24 April about his experience touring Indonesia, Thailand, Morocco, India and Switzerland with Rhythms Meeting, a group of nine musicians from six countries (see also Djaduk, who plays a variety of wind instruments (including sax) and also sings, was one of two Indonesian musicians in the group. The other was Purwanta, a contemporary gamelan musician who was in the audience for the event and also spoke briefly about his experieces.

Djaduk's talk took the form of slide show in which he explained various photos taken in the journey, mostly not of performances but of sights and social gatherings. He spoke eloquently about jazz as a metaphor for social interaction, the hardships of touring (food, inadequate equipment), the joys of friendship and free exchange among artists.

The musicians in the group spoke English to each other, but none had English as a first language. Yet somehow through signing, laughter and guesswork they communicated. Djaduk saw music everywhere - even in the dhobi women of urban India (a popular tourist destination). His constant companion was a bottle of kecap manis - which he spread over everything he ate, including pizza, bringing the sweetness of Yogya cuisine to exotic dishes. (Stuffing down a pizza before a gig, Purwanta commented, 'what is important is to be wareg' -- or have a full stomach.' Not all the gigs provided adequate equipment - speakers in a restaurant-theatre in India fell well below par - and some of the musicians complained loudly about this. But Djaduk coped and was proud of the fact that the group enjoyed most the warm intimacy of Indonesian audiences.

There were many surprises along the way. The group spent some time rehearsing in Patravadi's art centre in Bangkok, a centre which Djaduk said was very much like the Padepokan Seni in many ways, except that Patravadi had erected two statues of herself. Thais working and studying at the Patravadi Theatre would bow before these statues went they went by out of respect. Djaduk said he was initially astounded that anyone would be so vain to erect statues of themselves while still alive. But then he reflected that many Indonesian artists now are writing their own biographies and life stories, another sort of monument to vanity.

After the event, I spoke briefly with Padepokan Seni's director Jeannie Park, who said how important it was for Indonesian artists to speak about their experiences of touring in these sorts of formats. Only then will realistic expectations be possible, and plans drawn up for future international collaborations that build upon past experience.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cembengan at PG Madukismo

Yesterday (24 April) I attended parts of the Cembengan ritual celebration at Pabrik Gula Madukismo, a factor that processes sugar and spiritus (a kind of alcohol) located in Bantul, on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, just south of the ring road. The factory is in fact owned by the kraton, but Cembengan is very much a rakyat affair, and a legacy of colonialism.

The ritual is meant to insure a good harvest of sugar cane and the proper functioning of equipment in the processing (gilingan) into refined sugar. A sugar cane bride and groom are symbolically married, a buffalo head is decorated and buried near the factory, various offerings (including flowers and burnt honey) are given and prayers in Javanese and Arabic offered. Various performances also happen before or after the ritual. A machinist I spoke to said the ritual appeases spirits of the land associated with rice plants and disturbed by the transformation of sawah to sugar fields. My colleague Wisma Nugraha Christianto describes this ritual (known by different names in other parts of Java) as a conscious effort of Dutch colonials to insure that Javanese workers invested in their work, treated the machines (which were given lofty Javanese names) with respect and were conscientious and docile labourers.

Madukismo has only been operating since the 1950s but the ritual of cembengan is very much alive. The factory is one of the largest in Java, with over 500 permanent employees (and a larger number of seasonal labourers) producing 40,000 tons of sugar annually.

This year there was a lively pasar malam complete with stands (where I purchased a copy of an Enthus Susmono VCD) and a ferris wheel, various cultural performances (ketoprak, wayang kulit, campursari, band) staged over a period of 4 or 5 days and a festive procession. I attend the start of the procession, which featured a number of floats on agricultural themes, a small jathilan troupe, a colonial army marching platoon with gongs and drums, a host of people in Javanese costumes and so on. One of the participants spoke with pride about how the buffalo head is decorated in HIS village before being transported to the factory. There was a real sense of popular participation.
The wayang performance by Seno Nugroho (Yogya's most popular puppeteer) was a major event. Invited guests sat in rows of folding chairs underneath a canopy. Behind the screen there was a buffet dinner for them. Thousands watched the wayang from a distance and on large projection screens. I was tired and only managed to stay until the end of the Limbukan (which ended after 12 midnight!). In the opening jejer Duryudana spoke with force against the inadequacy of his senior advisors - blaming Astina's problems on their ineptness and holding up Amarta as a model of development. One sensed behind his words Seno's passion for reform and justice. But the audience seemed more interested in the Limbukan. One of the nicest moments was an interaction between Seno and his own daughter - a sinden-in-training who sung one song. They joked about her payment for participation. There was clearly lots of affection there, and also the hint that she was more than just her father's daughter but also an aspiring artist.