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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qe6HN65y4k&feature=related) 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.