Friday, December 31, 2010

Pesta Pulau Pinang

Went last night (30 December) to Pesta Pulau Pinang, an annual month-long carnival and night market on the outskirts of Georgetown. This event is particularly popular among Penang's Malays - and is similar in many ways to the Jakarta Fair, Sekatanen in Yogya and Solo and the like, with cheap clothes, household items and trinkets for sale, carnival rides and such.

There are regularly artistic performances scheduled at Pesta - a boria competition, Chinese acrobatics, and such - but we were not in luck last night. We caught a bit of a boxing match, and we also saw a reptile show from Thailand (with a young woman handling snakes inside a glass cage), but though a 'rumah seni' was advertised, we could not find this.

We did manage to get to 3 Indonesian pavilions - from Aceh, Sumatra Barat and Sumatra Utara - with vendors selling handicrafts. The longest-running of these pavilions (which are permanent structures, left vacant 11 months of the year) has been in business for 13 years, and is staffed by 20 people who ship over their goods 2 weeks before the fair, and stay in the pavilion for the duration of the event. The pavilions are organised by the propinsi governments, but the vendors are private Indonesian entrepreneurs selling wares that are designed to appeal to locals (e.g., Muslim clothing). No cultural shows were being fielded by any of the pavilions this year, though there have been such in the past.

Mentioning the snake show and Indonesian pavilions to my colleague Tan Sooi Beng over lunch, she read this as a sign of Penang's cosmopolitanism, and how the island has always been a meeting place of different cultures - Thai, Malay, Chinese, Sumatran and places further afield.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Amin Sweeney

I have just learned that Amin Sweeney, the great scholar of Malay literary and oral culture, passed away in Jakarta on 13 November 2010. An obituary was published in a Brunei website ( and reprinted in H-Asia.

I first met Amin when I was applying for graduate schools back in 1990 - and remember vividly visiting his office at Berkeley, where he showed me the full set of wayang Siam puppets he kept there and impressed me with the way he combined his scholarship with practice as a tok dalang.

He was an important influence on my work in years thereafter - and while we met in person only a few times, he was a significant interlocutor for me. His passing merits further notice.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kecak at Padang Tegal

I attended the nightly Kecak performance at the Pura Tamansari at Padang Tegal in Ubud last night.

This had the feel of a community eventm even if it is staged exclusively for tourists (without even a programme in Indonesian). The floor of the covered open-air hall where it was staged was marked for badminton. A little warung next to the hall sold cold Bintang beer, krupuk, packs of kacang bawang etc. The massive chorus of kecak dancers was in very close proximity to spectators seated in a U shape around the performance area (with the back of the U being a Balinese gate and stairs decorated with janur).

The half-clothed kecak chorus performed with great precision, and was of diverse ages, and if lacking in some of the enthusiasm of a chorus of young men had a great deal of intimacy. There were also quite a range of highly competent dancers (including one penasar each for Rama and Rahwana) in very fine costumes. The lighting - provided by live flame in the middle of the hall - was absolutely stunning. This kecak is associated with Walter Spies, but has obviously been regularly renewed and revamped. It was lovely to hear the Kawi of the Ramayana being chanted throughout, and also to hear the panasar interpret the noble characters into Balinese (even if nobody in the audience could understand Balinese!). A priest officiated - sprinkling performers with holy water before the show.

The Kecak was followed by a staged performance of Sanghyang Dedadi. The music (a chorus of men and another chorus of women) was quite moving-- and I was reminded again of how much the female choral singing resembles the female chorus of brai Bayalangu, clearly one of the most ancient forms of music in the archipelago. But the dancing was not inspired - with no clear differentiation between the dancing before and after the dancers went into 'trance.'

More exciting was the final item on the programme, the so-called fire dance, or sangyang jaran, in which a man on a hobbyhorse is possessed by a horse spirit and walks around in burning coconut husks, kicking them as he goes, making a tremendous effect with jumping sparks etc. It was quite thrilling to be so close to the intense heat of the pire of coconut husks (lit with kerosene) at the beginnnig of this number -- and while the dancing was not very interesting, the horse was nicely constructed and the movement well coordinated with the male chorus.

A fine evening performance - even if not quite long enough for my taste (only an hour in all).

Legong programme at Puri Ubud

Last night (20 December) I attended the Legong programme of dances at Puri Ubud. Ubud's palace has been running nightly dance performances for tourists for decades. The group has toured abroad a number of times, and performances are always well attended due to the central location (opposite the market), prestige venue and the beauty of the setting. Last night was the full moon and was particularly nice to see the beautifully lit palace gate used as an entrance with the moon rising behind it.

While the programme was advertised as Legong, it was quite a smorgasbord of dance and music on offer, with Legong Kraton as being only one item. Other items included baris, a very short topeng tua, a panyembrana (welcome dance) of course, and so on. The highlights of the programme for me was an energetic Taruna Jaya, and the Legong Kraton, which had a superb Condong.

I think the pura would benefit from staging fewer items of a higher quality, and with more 'cultural' explanation. I can understand the appeal of lots of items (more photo opportunities etc) but the special environment of the palace would be better served by a more focused performance event.

Kuningan at Bona, Gianyar

I am spending a few days in Ubud, on way to a family event in Australia. A door prize I won at an Indonesia promotional event at Harrod's means that I can stay at Uma Ubud, a beautiful and very friendly spa hotel on the outskirts of town.

Made Sidia, a puppeteer and dancer who teaches at ISI Denpasar and has performed in many international collaborative projects (including Theft of Sita) invited me out to Bona, Gianyar yesterday for the local pura's big Kuningan festival.

The temple celebrates a large-scale Kuningan karya every 5 years, involving a donation of Rp150,000 for each villager from the 6 banjar served by the temple. This allows 3 weeks of performances staged inside and directly outside the temple.

Yesterday was the climax of this festival - with afternoon performances (starting at 3.30pm) of gambuh, a children's baris group (with boys aged 6 to 12 wielding spears), topeng (dance and comedy, but not a story), kebyar played by ibu-ibu, and a variety of other dance and music. Inside the pura there was also wayang lemah and other performances - but unfortunately we weren't admitted.

Before all these performances started (in close proximity to each other - leading to a lot of noise!) an excerpt of the Old Javanese Ramayana was chanted (with intepretation into Balinese). This chanting went on in fact as all the dance and music was staged.

The main stage event was the gambuh performance by a professional troupe - who performed in front of an Indian-style image of a dancing Ganesha lit by a swirling gobo.

Made Sidia was in charge of 'seksi kesenian' of the event so very busy and as a result we did not have much of a chance to talk. But I was introduced to a number of his friends and collaborators in a pre-performance social get-together in a neighbouring house (with tea, pisang goreng, poci etc) -- I Wayan Suweca (one of the founders of Sekar Jaya) and I Made Subandi (a composer who toured with Theft of Sita and also plays gender wayang for Wayan Wija and teaches at SMKI and has a group called 'Kelompok Musik Tradisi Radikal').

A remarkable event over all - a true testament to the vitality of Bali's traditional arts today, as well as the sense of community in this village.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, 1905-1952

I was supposed to deliver a talk today to the University of Surrey on Java and Bali in interwar American dance. But the snow blanketing London (well maybe not a blanket, more like a thin sheet) resulted in cancellation. So I find myself with a few extra hours in the week. Enough time to post the book cover for my newest book- Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan. It has been available in the UK for the last month or so, and will be released in the US on 7 December.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Launching of the Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Drama

The English edition of the Lontar Anthology of Indonesia (with volume 1 edited by yours truly) was released earlier this year - but is still awaiting international distribution. That has not prevented Lontar from arranging a series of launch events - one in July at the Luce Foundation in New York, and a number in Indonesia. The picture above shows a reader of the first volume of the Indonesian edition.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Independence Day and Lebaran Celebration at the Ambassador's Residence

I have just returned from the Indonesian ambassador's residence. No, I was not attending a formal dinner (which actually was the case the last time I visited), but the annual celebration of Indonesian independence, which this year was combined with Lebaran, celebrating the end of the month of the fast.

This was a community event, open to everyone- Indonesian expats and their families, domestic servants, students, Indonesia experts etc.

Food and drink was served buffet style on the tennis courts. Food vendors set up shop in tents, selling nasi uduk, sate, pempek-pempek, dodol and other delights. A shop vendor came from Birmingham to sell Indonesian canned and dry products (like kripik tempe). Children played in the woods, bashed each other with sticks and climbed over a high wall separating the ambassador from his neighbour.

A stage was erected on the lawn next to the house, where the London-based degung ensemble Sekar Enggal played (I arrived just as everyone was packing up), a Batak band performed pop Batak songs, and a number of lively tari lepas were staged by brightly-costumed dancers flown in from Holland and also a UK-based Indonesian dancer. A small group made up of Indonesians and non-Indonesians also did a pencak silat demo on the lawn in front of the stage, with hand-to-hand combat and weapons.

The highlight of the cultural programme was a 'singing competition' between a 20-year-old contestant in the 2008 edition of Indonesian Idol from Palembang and a contestant from Indonesia in the Swedish edition of the show. The prize, the MC joked, was a ticket - not to Indonesia, but from Tegal to Pekalongan in Java, third class. The Indonesian singer did a mix of Indonesian pop songs with some dangdut (including Goyang Dombret). The Swedish singer did mostly Western pop. Both were accompanied by the house band of the Indonesian Embassy. At the end they came together for a few numbers, including Poco-Poco. A number of Indonesian women came up from the audience to joget (dance free style) on stage during the dangdut numbers, to the joy of the audience.

Such was the joy that permeated the whole event that the MC's remark that we Indonesians are all 'saudara' (relatives) seemed not TOO forced.

This was not the kind of event which I would want to attend regularly. But as a once in a blue moon thing, pretty enjoyable. And of course the food was good, and the weather thankfully cooperative.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

IFTR Congress , Munich, Germany (25-30 August 2010)

Just returned from Munich, Germany, where I attended the Congress of the International Federation of Theatre Research, presenting on the first Indies Art Evening (The Hague, 1916)as a watershed event in the history of cultural internationalism. The basic argument I outlined will be in my book Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, 1905-1952 (Palgrave, Nov 2010).

There were only a handful of other papers addressing Southeast Asian theatre and performance.

Barbara Hatley spoke about Yogyakarta's lively contemporary performance activities, including the Pasar Kangen (saying that his both sells and celebrates nostalgia) and the many locally based groups that construct community in a relaxed and happy atmosphere and and connect to a global audience via the www, facebook and so on. She focused particularly on Teater Garasi, and its resistance to essentialism (in Waktu Batu) and presentation of alternatives to Islamic modernism (in Its third major piece, titled Tubuh Ketiga (referencing Homi Bhabha's idea of the third space), is based on Tarling Dangdut in Indramayu. Barbara asked that while the piece nomimally deal with conflicted bodies, will it be received in 'party mode'? Tubuh Ketiga is still in rehearsal so it is difficult to say. It is due to tour Java in the autumn of 2010.

In addition to Barbara's presentation, Monica van der Haagen (formerly Monica Wulff) returned to the subject of her PhD research in the New Scholars Forum to show her performance installation addressing Losari-style topeng, Mata Hari and a deconstruction of colonial film of the Dutch Indies.

In the Asian Theatre working group, Kirstin Pauka discussed the reasons behind the decline of cross-gender performance in randai while Kaori Okado, an ISI Solo trained dancer, discussed her MA thesis topic of langendriyan.

There were also presentations in the conference from Catherine Diamond (on the popular theatres of bangsawan and cai luong), Lim How Ngean (on Malaysian tradition-based choreographer Azanin Ahmad) and meLe Yamomo (on opera in SE Asia).

The big issues of the conference revolved around the large-scale research projects of Erika Fischer-Lichte (on interweaving theatrical cultures) and Chris Balme (on global theatre history). There was much discussion about the use of 'intercultural theatre' and whether this was still a useful rubric for thinking about theatrical productions that combine different styles or forms associated with different cultures. Opinions varied, naturally.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Straits Times

I spent a day in September of last year looking at digitised back issues of the Straits Times at Singapore's national library. Now I've learned that the library has provided - free of charge - this same service on the world wide web. Content is even showing up on google. Above is an image from the paper of Raden Mas Utomo's dance group, which performed in Singapore in 1949, a year before it played London. Note that it has water marks on it - preventing it from commerical use, but still making it very valuable to researchers and the curious.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Rahayu Supanggah and the Kronos Quartet

Ran into this nice, short video about last summer's workshop of Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah and the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet.

The site of the workshop was the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts, and perhaps not surprisingly the resultant piece is titled Purnati.

Doesn't seem like Kronos will be recording the piece. Reports have not been very positive from friends who have heard the result. For a first public play-through see also:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Teater Tetas

Learned recently from a PhD student of mine working on Indonesian theatre that Teater Tetas, a theatre group from Jakarta, is appearing in the Contacting the World festival in Manchester.

As it turns out, another Indonesian group, CuciOtak from Pasuruan, also is appearing. Perhaps a first - at least here in the UK. I can't recall two Indonesian teater groups appearing side-by-side in an international festival. (With the exception of course of specifically Indonesian-themed festivals.) Has Indonesian teater come of age? Or is this just a fluke?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Komedie Stamboel reviewed in

A very fine Indonesian-language review of my book The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891-1903, was just published on the website of C2O, a progressive library, cinametheque and cafe in Surabaya.

The reviewer, who is anonymous, also cites my article on Yap Gwan Thay which appeared in an edited collection titled Sadur: Sejarah Terjemahan di Indonesia dan Malaysia (KPG, 2010). This piece has yet to see print in English, as far as I am aware.

The Indonesian-language translation of The Komedie Stamboel has been delayed by factors beyond my direct control, but it is good to see that the book is being read and discussed in Indonesia.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Asian Performing Arts Forum

I am in the process of setting up a new forum called the Asian Performing Arts Forum ( This is envisaged as a site for researchers of Asian theatre, dance and music to discuss recent research and dialogue with representatives of commuities of interest. The plan is to have monthly meetings in an academic year on a specific theme, leading to a June symposium.

I will be working together with my colleagues Avanthi Meduri at Roehampton (a researcher of bharatanatyam) and Ashley Thorpe at Reading (who researchers Chinese opera).

The hope is to raise awareness in London and around the UK of important issues in the field of Asian performing arts, as well as generate new research collaborations and synergies between 'the industry' and academia.

Have a look at for further info.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gamelan Mendunia

While in Holland last week I was interviewed by the Joss Wibisono ( of Radio Netherlands' world service. Others interviewed were Indonesian composer Franki Raden and Dutch composer Sinta Wullur. The programme is available in both transcript form and also as a podcast at

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tong-Tong Festival

I attended the Tong-Tong Festival again on 22 May in the company of my friend the anthropologist Robert Wessing.

I have been visiting the Tong-Tong Festival, formerly known as the Pasar Malam Besar, with some regularly since 1998. It is a major site for transnational Indonesian performance, a research interest of mine, a contact zone which involves cultural experts; performers from Indonesia and Europe; vendors of crafts, food, service; and the general public. 'The pasar' underwent a name change in 2008 which signals an attempt to move away from the nostalgic mode of 'tempo doeloe' towards a celebration of multi-culturalism and Asia in the world.

Some of the familiar parts of the pasar have been disbanded - there is no dedicated wayang theatre any more. There is definitely less of an emphasis on academic talks on indonesian subjects. There has not been an auction of art and antiques from Indonesia for a decade. The Nusantara Museum (Holland's museum of Indonesia) this year did not have a stand. (It had a stand at every other pasar I have attended.)

I attended two full performances on 22 May - 'Call Me Nyai Ontosoroh' a play from the Jakarta-based theatre company Pentas Teater based on Pramoedya's Bumi Manusia, and a fusion concert of Cianjuran meets tabla and jazz piano.

The former was a fairly straight 'read' of Pramudya. A small cast (4 performers) enacted the narrative of Minke's marriage to a Eurasian woman again a backdrop of seppia-tinted moving images. The actors were amplified and generally melodramatic in delivery, in the style of pre-1990s Indonesian film or sandiwara. English supertitles were projected in very small letters above the stage. Audience members came and went during the performance, which lasted about 80 minutes.

The Cianjuran (kecapi/suling/vocal) concert was also a mixed success. The playing was polished, but balance was an issue. The piano overwhelmed the other instrumentalists on many occasions and seemed unable to accompany the singer. As a result is was less fusion than a Charles Ives like juxtaposition of different musical forms.

I also attended a delightful 'straat' performance of kroncong group Jawara - which was hawking its CDs to 'pay for the cost of transport back to Jakarta' in the words of one of their singers, and saw briefly a 'modern kroncong' group on the main stage.

Robert and other friends reported that the Tong-Tong Festival has been experiencing some tension with the Indonesian Embassy. The Embassy organised a Pasar Malam Indonesia in the same space (the Malieveld fields next to the Central Train Station) in April ( over the protests of Tong-Tong, which has been using this same space for decades. The Tong-Tong people felt that this was a conscious attempt to draw their own audiences away.

The Dutch public seems to have been indifferent to the Pasar Malam Indonesia - they felt it was overpriced, over-full with government propaganda, with not enough vendors and uninteresting performances (despite things on the schedule like 'Miss Indonesische Performance'!).

Because of the Tong-Tong's protests and other tensions, the Embassy refused its personnel permission to participate in the Tong-Tong Festival this year. This meant that oddly the Indonesian embassy's performance group will be presenting a wayang wong fragment at Tong-Tong without any of the regular members who are employed by the embassy.

Tong-Tong has recently published a book celebrating the history of the pasar (Florine Koning, De Pasar Malam van Tong Tong: Een Indische Onderneming, 2009). I have long had the ambition to conduct more academic research on this fascinating, always changing yet always the same event...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dutch Indonesian Encounters Day 3

I'm writing the morning after the third (and final) day of the Dutch Indonesian Musical Encounters symposium in Leiden - a long day in which I chaired two sessions and was a discussant for Sumarsam - the well-known gamelan teacher and ethnomusicologist, author of the book Gamelan (1995). 7 hours of non-stop talk was capped by a trip to the Tong-Tong Festival (formerly known as the Pasar Malam Besar) in Den Haag in the company of Sumarsam, composer Franki Raden, Triyono Bramantyo (dean of the faculty of performing arts at ISI Yogyakarta) and symposium organiser Els Bogaerts.

In the morning session Pak Bramantyo spoke about how the Netherlands has played only a very minor role in Indonesian musicology since Jaap Kunst's time. He hoped that the symposium would revive interest in ethnomusicology and interest in Indonesia in general (!). Pak Bram then showed a video of his 2009 research in Sulawesi Tengah - a small ensemble composed of 3 instrumentalists playing plucked string instruments and an end-blown flute and a singer in a jilbab sung plaintive songs without great enthusiasm while sitting in a row of blue plastic chairs. Pak Bramantyo later said that he was in search of 'genuine' music untainted by the modern world.

His discussant Ben Arps responded that the reason why no Indonesian PhD students had come to the Netherlands to study ethnomusicology wasthat ethnomusicology is 'very poorly institutionalised' in the Dutch academy in general. Kunst himself held an 'extraordinary' position at Amsterdam university, outside of the regular departmental structure, and no strong centres of academic ethnomusicology research had emerged since. In contrast, the Netherlands 'had not fared badly' in the practice of Indonesian music. Music and the performing arts in general have played important roles in keeping public interest in Indonesia alive in the Netherlands. Here Indonesians have been involved - as teachers, visiting artists and so on.

Wim van Zanten, my old colleague from the PAATI project, then spoke about theory and practice in Sundanese music. He argued that models proposed by Sundanese theorist Kusumadinata (stimulated by Jaap Kunst) were overly elaborate and hard for musicians to understand. Kusumadinata's notation system cannot be understood without first knowing modal theory. Sundanese musicians refer to notes by strings (which are either tuned up or down depending on the tuning mode). Musicians don't actually need notation, though it is useful for analysis. He then argued for the benefits of an artist in residence system (as he said is common in the US) whereby an Indonesian musician might teach an ethnic music while studying for a PhD. He gave the example of Uking Sukri who used money gained from teaching in the Netherlands to repair his house, and Yus Wiradiredja, who used his pay check to bankroll 3 cassette tapes of Islamic music. He played one of these tapes Pancering Hidup (2003) which was actually quite nice. He also played some other hybrid Cianjuran musical examples -- a collaboration of jazz pianist Bubi Chen with Uking Sukri and rehearsal footage from Dangiang Perhiangan's work with Dutch jazz pianist Rob Agerbeek (described as 'Soendanese crossover' in the Tong-Tong Festival's schedule).

Wim's discussant Lutgard Mutsaers (author of Rockin' Ramona) picked up Wim's comment that Sundanese musicians don't require theory. She wanted to know whether any Indonesian scholars have contested Wim's work. Wim argued that Indonesians have been hampered from intellectual exchange (including participation in international conferences etc) due to poor knowledge of English. This he admitted is changing - but graduallly. Some pointed to Soeharto as a culprit.

Franki Raden jumped in to say that Soeharto actually neglected arts and culture - which was sometimes a benign neglect. Soeharto should therefore not be blamed for the state of the arts. Much depended on who was the Dikjen for the arts. During Edi Setwayati's term there were many positive changes - she shook up the system for the better. Other ministers and director generals were corrupt and allowed research money to be corrupted. Much research remains of very poor quality. Franki added that the main reason that the government has shown an interest in his own national orchestra project is to prop up tourism. He admitted he didn't care about the government's motives, as long as they provided support.

Wim came back that his own work was not entirely ignored by Indonesians. Uking Sukri adopted Wim's system of notation for teaching, for example. Pak Bramantyo later reported that Kusumadinata's influence in the academies had faded. While he once occupied an important place (and was well known due to his music textbooks taught in pre-university levels), few were familiar with his theories today.

This session on 'Academia, Musicologists and Institutes' wass followed by two artist talks by composers Klaus Kuiper and Sinta Wullur. Klaus argued that his identity was not predicated on his citizenship in a nation-state but rather as a music-maker. He had us look at his piece Golden Rain (1991) score for piano trio plus clarinet. This was inspired by Hujan Mas recorded in the classic album Morning of the World (1967). Another piece titled Sonata da Camera (1997/9), written for the contemporary gamelan ensemble Gending and performed at the Yogya gamelan festival to a constantly laughing and applauding audience, made many gestures to pop music. These were not intentional - they just happened. 'I steal everywhere', Kalus admitted, referencing Stravinsky's famous quote that poor artists borrow while great artists steal.

Henk Mak van Dijk pointed to how Kupiers' music contrasted with his own stereotyped impressions of Indonesia. Henk viewed Indonesia through a nostalgic tempo doeloe lens as without conflict, while Klaus' music emphasises clash. He also referred to Linda Bandara's piece for gamelan written in 1937. Klaus noted that Gending plays on a gamelan slendro as this provides a challenge for the composers in the group. Usually in Holland gamelan provides an inspiration, a starting point. But Kuipers has a deeper engagement - at the level of structure and technique (for example kotekan, which suffuses his music). Sumarsam pointed out that some of the enjoyment of Kuipers' music in Java might be his integration of Balinese techniques - this provides a pleasant surprise. Kuipers said that he had actually been criticised in Java for not being Javanese enough. Kuipers also reported that he has written for Indonesian gamelan ensembles. An ideal pattern for him is for musicians to learn their parts individually and then come together for 2 weeks of rfehearsl. It is important for parts to be first internalised - so that scores are not referenced in rehearsal or performance. He also prefers to work without a conductor.

Sinta Wullur played examples of her music and spoke about her compositional processes. She likened her work to experimentation in a lab. Her harmonic elements are derived from McPhee's transcriptions - she took his 7 scales and used rotation to make chords. She has used these same chords consistently since 1993. She thinks about climax and tension through Bach. Sinta also played a bit of her opera - Sinta's Liberation for chromatic gamelan, orchestra, Western-trained voices and wayang kulit (performed by Joko Susilo) and spoke about her attempts to integrate Indonesian, Indian and European music in Indi Go.

Reporter Joss Wibisono spoke about how he was 'pangling' - in between recognising and not recognising - when confronted with Sinta's music. He had difficulty recognising gamelan due to chromaticism of sounds, and European structures. Sinta described herself as 'a child of two cultures' in her presentation title and said she saw herself as a new race, a new entitty. She said her music appealed particularly to percussionists. The vibraphone or marimba is a very poor cousin to the bronze instruments of gamelan, with their rich sonic qualities. She said she would like to bring her chromatic gamelan to Indonesia and see how Indonesians might use it. She is looking for partners.

Discussion returned again to Linda Bandara, whose own specially made gamelan (apparently diatonic) was constructed in 1925 and is now housed in the ethnological museum in Vienna.

Franki Raden said that much of the interest of gamelan was lost by tuning it to a Western scale. Sinta said that ehe wanted to experiment with Steve Reich/Phillip Glass like figurations in combination with gamelan patterns - the chromatic gamelan was ideal for this, she argued.

Jos Jansen applauded Sinta's opera - saying that in it she no longer felt she had to prove herself, she just makes the music shet wants to.

Sumarsam offered the finding that Raffles' gamelan in Claydon House is probably the first diatonic gamelan.

Renadi said that retuned gamelan is not unique to the West. Krakatau uses a 10 toned slendro-based gamelan with tuned synthesizer to make chromatic effect. Reference was also made to the Gamelan Supra.

After lunch, Lutgard Mutsaers offered her thoughts about parallels between choro, a popular music of Brazil, and keroncong, and showed a documentary about choro off youtube.

She argued that choro remained a music of the streets - the origin point of keroncong, which was gentrified in the 1930s. A music video Choro Novo was like a keroncong street performance. In contrast the 'krontjong baru' at Tong-Tong was very tame and domesticated.

This was, she said, kroncong as 'high art'.

Discussant Peter Keppy, himself also a kroncong researcher, criticised Lutgard for emphasising connections with very distant musics of Portuguese origin (choro, Hawaiian music etc). He urged her to look at closer connections - gambang kromong and Chinese music particularly. He told an enecdote about how he was talking once with a Chinese friend over a kroncong tape. The conservation stopped and his friend shouted out 'wow, this is a chinese song!' The song was Gambang Semarang, well known as based on a Chinese melody.

Peter said that to him choro music was very different than kroncong. Lutgard was unclear whether she saw a direct genetic relation between choro and kroncong, or whether she just was inspired by the analytical approach taken to choro in Choro: A Social History of a Brazilian Popular Music (Indiana UP, 2005).

The final paper of the symposium was presented by Sumarsam. Sumarsam commented on gendhing mares - a gamelan form that includes trumpet and drum. Sumarsam asked that if gamelan was a sign of Javanese power, why incorporate European instruments? Was this a domestification of exotic sounds or intercultural dialogue? He pointed to the contrasting example of tanjidor, wherein European instruments are fully domesticated (playing an excerpt from Yampolsky's album, In contrast, trumpet and drum play very simple role in gendhing mares. Sumarsam saw this (in line with John Pemberton) as a symbolic means to resituate the Dutch as tolerated guests.

The revival of gendhing mares in a restoration of Bedhaya Semang was at the instigation of a high-ranking prince, who over-ruled the authenticity drive of the scholars and dancers of the court to insist on a more 'sigrak' accompaniment for the entrance and exit of dancers. Sumarsam linked this to the Yogyakarta gamelan festival, which places a stress on hybridity, to demonstrate that gamelan is in-step with the world.

I acted as Sumarsam's discussant. I pointed out that gendhing mares were probably intended not just for Javanese ears but also to impress European visitors to the court with Yogyakarta's martial power. Sumarsam's Javanese ears heard the trumpet and drum as simple embellishments of a complex Javanese musical structure. In contrast, my own ears heard ONLY the trumpet and drum. I alos pointed out how drum-and-trumpet was linked to military bands (oempa) which were omni-present in urban Indonesia in the late colonial period.

The last session, led by symposium organisers Bart Barendregt and Els Bogaerts, focused on future plans for a volume. We were told that contributors should pay more attentio nnto musical materials - not just context. An attempt will be made to balance Indonesian and Dutch perspectives. Peter Nas urged a theoretical integration of the book - with a focus on themes such as hybridity and mediation.

In the evening, as already mentioned, I went off with the Indonesian ocnference participants to the Tong-Tong Festival, where we saw Tohpati Etnomission (jazz fusion uit Indonesie) and a Balinese dance workshop delivered by I Gusti Raka Rasmi and friends.

The concert was fun - the combination of jazz drumming with Sundanese kendang was particularly interesting for me. But Sumarsam and Els found it overly loud.

It was lovely to see Raka in action. I had only seen her previously in old footage and photos from 1952 - when she toured the US and Europe in the Dancers of Bali tour produced by John Coast. Her dancing remained energetic and sprightly, and she interacted with grace and charm with the participants (mostly women and girls of Indonesian descent).

I spoke afterwards briefly with Raka - she spoke about her 'mother' Laura Rosenberg. Els presented Raka with a series of articles written by tour producer Soeprapto about the 1952-3 tour that were published in Mimbar Indonesia.

A tour of the festival's 'Indonesian pavilion' and a meeting with the dalang wayang golek (who remembered me from the 2008 festival) brought the evening to a close.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dutch-Indonesia Encounters Day 2

The symposium on Dutch-Indonesian Musical Encounters continued for a second day on Thursday 20 May. Today was quite a mix of papers - from obscure performance forms in Indonesia's outer islands to a postcolonial critique by Indonesian composer Franki Raden to theatre in Suriname and pop music in the Netherlands.

Anthropologist Gerard Persoon spoke about versions of the Wilhelma as sung in Mentawai. The national anthem was learned in colonial schools and sung annually at the Queen's Birthday (a major celebration in the Indies, often involving 'folk games' like climbing greased poles and the like). The song was still proudly remembered in the repertoire of one of Gersoon's chief musical informants and recorded in a CD. A number of Mentawai language versions exist, with different lyrics etc.

Miriam Brenner, a young ethnomusicologist who works for a music festival in Nijmegen and a world music venue in Utrecht, spoke about research she did in Buton for a Bandung NGO on a drum and dance military style band known as galangi.

This band - which features a small ensemble of drummers (3), spear holders and flag bearers form a military kompaniya that appear in processions. Formerly a war dance, it is now typically used as a welcoming dance.Dutch sources going back to 1640 describe the use of drums to intimidate the Butonese. In an inversion of this, Butonese dress in the trappings of the VOC. Up until the late colonial period, galangi's flags displayed the VOC emblem.Drawing on Homi Bhabha, she described galangi as a sphere of activity where colonial power exerted its influence.

Franki Raden went back to materials in his PhD dissertation (2001) and linked the work of Ki Hadjar Dewantara to his own work as a composer (specifically his recent concert with the Indonesian National Orchestra). He argued that by having a national anthem in a Western diatonic mode, a European element was embedded in Indonesian national identity from the start. Ki Hadjar Dewantara's hybrid Kinanthie Sandoong (which has a piano part based on gender figurations and a vocal line that calls upon the singer to improvise cengkok wilet) was a sign of resistance against the hegemonic culture of Europe. He described and showed a DVD of the recently-launched Indonesian National Orchestra - working with 'masters' from around Indonesia and developing a few new instruments (incluindg a bass rebab redolent of Suryoputro's late colonial work) he continues Ki Hadjar's tradition of notating and allowing for self-expression. This is a big ensemble - 45 instrumentalists plus a choir of 15 - and Franki is still looking for funding to support the work. It is a nationalist projecgt - Franki rejects European instruments (he says he will only use them as soloists), wants to return to indigenous tradition and explore resources and develop tradition as a composer.

Discussion focused on the role of notation and what it means to be a composer in Indonesia. Wim van Zanten said that notation was only an aide memoire - in contrast to Judith Becker who argues (with Walter Ong) that notation fundamentally changes the way we think. Henk Mak van Dijk said he knew of only 3 compositions by Ki Hadjar (Franki knew only one) and questioned whether Ki Hadjar could then be called a composer. Ben Arps countered that Ki Hadjar wrote many other pieces - but used a cypher notation of his own devising. Dutch composer Jos Jansen questioned how innovative Franki's work is - he says he has heard much similar music in Yogya and Solo over the years. He urged a more radical approach to gamelan.

This lively discussion was followed by a paper by Fridus Steijlen on the Maluku band H-Gang, the Merantau choir and a theatre of liberation play titled Degnan Harapan. All were part of a radical moment in Maluku cultural politics in the Netherlands in the 1980s in the wake of the violent highjacking of trains, as the community moved from being exiles to reconciling themselves to the position of migrant. The community in their arts made strategic alliances with other communities of struggle - the gay rights community, South African anti-apartheid activists, East Timorese activists, ex-PKI. This is legible in their arts - through singing South African songs, singing song such as N Bomb (a nuclear protest in reggae style) and Indonesian-language songs such as Buka Mata Sama-Sama (1981) - in which Indonesians are called upon to vote against the Soeharto regime. Interesting ironies emerge. A South African song turns out to have lyrics urging people to kill the Boers - this was sung without knowledge at the time. The speaker presented as a musician participant in this early 1980s scene - speaking from direct knowledge. This inclusivity has been a characteristic of Maluccan bands in the Netherlands for years. Discussang Wim Manuhutu (himself also a musician) said that the Maluku community generally found H-Gang and affiliated organisations 'weird' both musically and in terms of their political alliances.

After lunch, we heard a paper by Annika Ockhorsst on Javanese elements in the Surinamese multicultural theatre companiy Doe Theatre (1974-1983). Annika wrote her MA in history on this company, basing herself on historical documents as well as interviews with suriving ompany members, some of whom live in the Netherlands. Doe (from a word meaning song-and-dance performance as well as 'do' - a sense of political action) was a postcolonial theatre that aimed to define a national Surinamese identity by drawing on elements of all the major ethnic groups and enacting stories addressing real issues confronting Surinamese society. Gamelan instruments were used, costume and set elements (including a gapura) were incorporated, mythological figures (including a wayang wong Hanoman) could be found. Dancers returned from dharmasiswa in central Java taught the company dance. The company played for middle class audiences in the capital. Few Javanese attended, despite the fact that 2 out of the 10 core members were of Javanese descent. While touring in the provinces, it played sometimes for Javanese audiences. It was noteworthy also for introducing gamelan instruments (played in a non-idiomatic way) to indigenous people in the interior. The company resisted the European style of theatremmaking by drawing on indigneous elements, inspired by the black theatre movement in the US (the director had studied in the US before founding Doe) and a variety of other cultural influences. It also worked strategically with a number of other organisations - including at least 2 Javanese NGOs. Other performances (to date) have people present their own cultures. But Doe showed people from different ethnic groups enacting each other's rituals and dances and expressive arts. Franki Raden wondered in the discussion about the influence of Amir Pasaribu, who lived in Suriname for 30 years.

We also heard two papers on pop music in the Netherlands by people of Indonesian extraction. A and R manager Harry Knipschild showed clips from youtube of a number of bands famous in the 1950s and early 1960s - speaking about them from the perspective of the music business.

Lutgard Mutsaers, author of the book Rockin' Ramona (1989), described the bands in a discussion afterwards as 'unDutch' (meaning excellent). They made their fortune playing in Germany to soldiers in American army bases desparate to hear rock 'n roll and returned to Holland in cadillacs and gold chains. Knipschild was not only nostalgic for the past - he also promoted the Sarawak singer Zee Avi, showing a clip of her 'Just You and Me' (2009), and spoke about singers of Indonesian extraction who are still making music today. Rein Spporman argued that Maluccan musicians are not defined by musical style (though they share a core repertoire of 150-200 folk songs). Rather they are 'the gypsies of the Netherlands' playing whatever music is in vogue.

A festive dinner at the Prentenkabinet followed in the evening.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dutch-Indonesian Musical Encounters

I am writing from Leiden, at the end of the first day of a symposium on Dutch-Indonesian Musical Encounters sponsored by the KITLV and the Professor Teeuw Foundation. The Teeuw Foundation is planning to award a prize to a musician or scholar of music who has contributed to the mutual cultural understanding of the 2 nations, and is holding this event to generate a context for the award. It is planned that a volume of conference papers will be launched at the prize ceremony - and there might be another conference on the same theme in Indonesia in the future.

Today, I gave a paper (actually less a paper than a display of audiovisual examples as papers were distributed in advance of the symposium) titled 'Indonesian Performing Arts in the Netherlands, 1913-1944'.

I presented a clip from the only film made of an Indische drama, The Sugar Lady (first staged in 1917 and filmed in 1935), some kroncong by a Dutch student group recorded in London, a short slice of Jodjana's film God Shiva, a short clip of a 1949 Dutch-Indonesian conference on West Papua featuring Javanese dance.

The paper was well received - participants seemed most interested in Jodjana particularly.

Henk Mak van Dijk spoke on Constant van de Wall, showing some images that did not make it into his book, as well as a clip from a DVD of the 2008 production of Attima and some tracks from his recording of van de Wall's music.

He was concerned in particular with van de Wall finding a place in Indonesian music history and for Attima to achieve its place in the cannon of exotica. He thought about van de Wall's compositions as a way to make history come closer to Indonesians- they could appreciate them as they are familiar.

Renadi Santoso, a Cologne-born composer and dancer of Indonesian descent who lives in Holland, and Dutch composer and sound technician Jos Jansen spoke about their relation to gamelan. Renadi spoke about art as a way to discover aspects of his self. Gamelan provides him with a way to understand his roots. He is also interested in the kendang's relation to dance and puppetry - providing him with a model for how to have an extra layer in his music, a friction that is not resolved. Jos Jansen described his intimate familiarity with gamelan - a music that is not strange to him as he has been playing it for decade3s. He spoke about his use of chance compositional procedures (modelled after John Cage) and his experience of working with Miroto - seeing his dancers repeat a movement for the duration of a 52 minute pre-composed score until they found a moment when it was cocok with the music. They built up the dance score in this way.

The afternoon was a public session in the Tropen Museum. We heard three talks. The first was by Liesbeth Ouwehand (photo curator at the KITLV) on performance photographs in the KITLV archive (with a concentration on photos from the court of Yogya in Groneman's book on dance and ceremony, and photos of the large 1906 exhibition in Surabaya). Madelon Djajadiningrat and Clara Brinkgreve did a double-act presenting on the correspondence of Jaap Kunst and Mangkunegara VII. Wim Manuhutu spoke on songs from Maluku and concluded his presentation with a charming trio presentation of an Ambonese song. The talks were punctuated with compositions by Sinta Wullur for piano, flute and voice. Many in the audinece were elderly ex-Indies hands, and there was a great sense of nostalgia for the colonial period that permeated the whole afternoon.

In addition to the talks, like at many conferences, I've been hanging out and catching up with old friends - Ben Arps, Sumarsam, Pim Westerkamp, Freek Columbijn, Rob van Albada and others. I've also had the opportunity to spend some time with Franki Raden - who is staying in the same suite of room at the Ethnological Museum. This is a rare treat as this famous Indonesian composer has only just returned to Indonesia after a decade living abroad and has recently founded a self-proclaimed national orchestra composed entirely of indigenous instruments. Franki divides his time now between Jakarta and Ubud and I hope to see him in one place or the other when I visit Indonesia in December-January.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Nike 'Wayang'

An unusual piece of shadow animation has popped up in my weekly google alert.

Simon Cassels and Justin Blampied, the creators of this 'Spec piece' - a proposed ad for Nike - discuss being inspired by wayang kulit's clean and straightforward storytelling capacities (see

Friday, April 30, 2010

Remarkable Indonesia

I attended last night (29 April) a tourism and trade promotional event at Harrod's, London's most 'iconic' shopping emporium located in the fashionable Knightsbridge area. Called 'Remarkable Indonesia', it marked an effort that began in 2009 to 'rebrand' Indonesia to make the international public (including potential tourists and investors) aware of the economic and political strides Indonesia has made over the last 12 years, since the fall of the New Order.

Throughout the month of April, Indonesia occupied several display windows at Harrod's, there were black cabs parked outside the store bearing the 'Remarkable Indonesia' logo, a range of Indonesian food (ayam panggang, rendang, tahu isi) was avaialble for sale at the Harrod's food court and the Remarkable Indonesia campaign was also featured in a two-page spread in the Harrod's magazine. The Remarkable Indonesia gala dinner was a kind of conclusion to this month-long celebration. The overall budget for the initiative was 5 billion rupiah(

The gala dinner was originally scheduled for 22 April, but because of flight disruptions to the eruption of the Iceland volcano, had to be postponed until 29 April. That was backup plan A, joked Indonesia's ambassador to London at the gala affair. Plan B would have been to have had embassy and Harrod's staff join together to dance and sing for the public.

As it happened, the Minister of Trade and Minister of Culture and Tourism were unable to attend the rescheduled event due to clashes with previous committment. They were represented by director generals from both ministries. Also in attendance were an assortment of ambassadors from London (as well as Indonesia's ambassador to The Hague), various VIPs in the British Indonesian community, people based in London with Indonesia interests (including government and business people) and many, many Indonesians flown out especially for the event. (I sat with Professor Wiendu Nuryanti from Gadjah Mada's MA programme in Tourism, who advises the government on tourism affais.)

The event began at 6pm in the Georgia Restaurant, decked out with a fashion show stage, starry walls and ceiling, and Indonesian motis (including wayang golek from Sarinah on each table). Tickets were priced at 300 pounds a plate (though of course I was there as an invitee).

The MC was a Dutch woman of Indonesian descent Lindsay Pronk, Miss Netherlands 2004, who presented a programme including a slide show of the Harrods campaign to a pop version of a Javanese lagu dolanan, Cendrawasih performed by 4 dancers from the London-based Balinese dance group Lila Bhawa directed by Made Pujawati (to recorded gamelan music), a fashion show by some of Indonesia's famous contemporary designers (Oscar Lawalata, Ghea Panggabean, Andi Lim), a music group combining a Batak vocal-instrumental group with a musician playing a stringed instrument from Nusa Tenggara Timur and Didik Nini Thowok, who did an 8 minute selection of some of his comical dances. Two members of the London-based Balinese gamelan group Lila Cita played as guests arrived.

There was also of course food - soto ayam, a small rijstafel assortment with nasi kuning and desert.

The event ended with a door prize - free tickets on a sponsoring airline and hotel vouchers. (I won one of the vouchers - and will now be staying in a very nice hotel in Ubud in December.)

It is difficult to estimate the effectiveness of events of this sort. The director generals and representative from Harrods who gave opening talks emphasised the number of visitors to Harrods, the prestige of the Harrods brand and the like. Director general Siregar from the Trade Ministry described this as a sort of 'cultural diplomacy'. He also described Indonesia as testatment to the fact that democracy, Islam and 'Asian values' can go hand in hand. It was a way to 'tell the world' of the 'progress' Indonesia has made over the last 12 years.

The use of the arts and fashion, Siregar reported, was a way to mark Indonesia's strengths in 'creative industries'.

The event was, I think, a mixed success. It was a bit rushed (Harrods insisted that everyone had to leave by 8pm) and suffered somewhat from under-preparation.

An example of this was a 7am phone call I received on the day before the event from Didik Nini Thowok, acting on behalf of the panitia (organisers). Lila Cita was originally due to provide live accompaniment for the Lila Bhawa dance group but had been told at the last minute that they had to arrive by 4pm, and the group (with day jobs all) could only be there by 5pm at the earliest. So the panitia tried to scrounge for alternatives - other Balinese gamelan groups that might be able to accompany Cendrawasih or other music-dance groups (jaipongan was mooted). In the end, after many phone calls, the panitia decided to 'allow' Lila Bhawa to perform to recorded music.

Mas Didik's dance left an impression on the audience - through the reversal of the Dwimuka opening, the onstage costume change that revealed 'he's a bloke!' (as one person at my table audibly remarked) and the ending in which Didik in a Mr Bean mask dragged a suitcase decorated with a Union Jack. But it felt rushed and the use of recorded music limited the possibility of interactions with the audiece.

The overall effect struck a careful balance between modernity (one of the designers reminded a person at my table of Issey Miyaki) and tradition (delivered largely via the performing arts groups), local colour and global appeal.

I also made a connection with Sapta Nirwandar, Director General of Marketing for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and had the great pleasure of spending an evening with Didik Nini Thowok (on 27 April), who remains one of Indonesia's most talented and vivacious performers. 'P2P connections' (to use the language of diplomacy) make official promotionals worthwhile.

Ruth St. Denis: Javanese Court Dancer

A posting on the SCUDD list revealed that some generous blogger has at last uploaded most of Phillip Baribault's short film 'Moments from Famous Dances' (Paramount, 1932-3) to youtube. This dance features several short solos by American dancer-choreographer Ruth St Denis, including 'Javanese Court Dancer’ (1926) with music by Clifford Vaughan. St Denis created this work in Singapore after a tour of Java sponsored by the Kunstkring. It is an American impression of serimpi.

Approximations to the traditional dance vocabulary, such as sembah, ukel and dolanan sondher, can be seen in the film, but as dancer and dance scholar Deena Burton notes the dance ends ‘with a pose most uncharacteristic of Java—Miss Ruth gracefully reclining and languidly tossing her sampur (the ubiquitous Javanese dance scarf) over her shoulder on the final gong.’ The court dancer’s obsequious final pose, with her gaze directed on the floor in utter humility and deference, is an act of obeisance to Orientalist stereotypes of the prone and vulnerable Asian dancing girl.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

President Obama on Wayang

Barack Obama has had to delay his long-planned trip to Indonesia this month due to ongoing debates around his health legislation. He now plans on going in June with his family - with stops in Jakarta as well as Yogyakarta or Bali.

As a sort of consolation, and by way of apology to the Indonesian people, Indonesian journalist Putra Nababan was offered a one-to-one interview, which Obama suggested was the first ever interview of an American president by an Indonesian journalist in the White House.

Part of this interview concerned the standard issues (economic cooperation, Islam etc) but Obama also reflected nostalgically on his years in Indonesia. He pointed out that he has few opportunities to practice his Indonesian due to the small population of Indonesians in America (which also, he said, meant that there are not enough good Indonesian restaurants in the US).

He also was asked specifically about wayang and Indonesian comics.

OBAMA: I used to love the Mahabharata, I used to love Ramayana, I used to love wayang. And I still do. I am inspired by the stories of Hanoman.

We ask again: any chance for wayang being performed in the White House, Mr President?

Friday, January 22, 2010

'Dalang bule' in the news... again

An article about me appeared titled 'Dalang Bule Ki Matthew Cohen' (Albino Puppeteer Ki Matthew Cohen) appeared in Kabari, an Indonesian-language monthly that describes itself as an 'information bridge between Indonesia and Amerika' See

The information was collected by the reporter, Yayat Suratmo, via the www and email, and as I didn't see it before it went to press there are a number of factual inaccuracies.

The 'dalang bule' label which was bandied about in the Yogyakarta press seems to persist. It's not one that I like, for obvious reasons. A legend has it that the designaton of 'bule' for Caucasians was started by Ben Anderson when he was living in Jakarta in the 1960s. It was meant humorously at the time, but since has been used in a racist or racialist manner.

A google search reveals that the following puppeteers have been described as 'dalang bule':

- Gaura Mancacaritadipura (an Australian who became an Indonesian citizen some years ago, who lives in Jakarta and is active in Senawangi and a number of heritage organisations (see

- Larry Reed (a San Francisco-based puppeteer, puppet director and film maker with long experience performing as a Balinese dalang and best known for his massive wayang spectacles)

- Tamara Fielding (a New York-based puppeteer, born in West Java of Eurasian descent, who performs her own idiosyncratic version of wayang in community settings, cruise ships and the like)

There are also, of course, references to the various 'dalang bule' who control Indonesian politics - in various articles by conspiracy theorists.