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.