As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
“I want it like this, just how it sounds.”
Indonesian experimental duo Senyawa creates some of the most exciting experimental music anywhere on the planet, pairing the extreme vocal techniques of Rully Shabara with the intense virtuosity of Wukir Suryardi on his unique instrument and namesake, the bambu wukir [bamboo spear]. While Shabara originally hails from the island of Sulawesi and Wukir from Malang in East Java, the group formed in the cultural and artistic center of Jogjakarta, where the two fused hardcore metal, traditional folk culture, and free improvisation into a powerful sound that somehow echoes (and distorts) the gritty populist spectacle of Javanese village ritual, the confrontational intensity of punk, and the edginess of avant-garde performance. The exploratory, challenging energy of Senyawa bursts off the screen in videos of their live appearances, including itinerant director Vincent Moon’s Calling the New Gods, which captures the duo roaming the streets of Jogjakarta for impromptu guerrilla performances around the city.
Since their formation six years ago, Senyawa has emerged in various global experimental music networks, with appearances in Australia, Denmark, Holland, Scotland, and Japan, and released several original recordings and collaborations with international artists. I caught up with Rully Shabara at the start of Senyawa’s first tour of the United States in August 2016.
David Novak I’ve been really excited to discover your music recently and want to hear more about your perspective on the Indonesian underground scene. I lived in Jogja for a year in the early 1990s, but it’s been a while since I’ve been back. I was supposed to be studying gamelan, but really I was doing all sorts of other things, including some new music and improvisation at the Institut Seni Indonesia. I have to say that the experimental music scene at that time was not very developed.
Rully Shabara Well, of course. Even now maybe.
DN Yeah. (laughter) I don’t think there was any context for that. So I wanted to know, how have things changed in the Indonesian experimental music scene over the last decade?
RS It’s changed because of the Internet, mainly—especially in Jogja, which is one of the earliest places that had experimental bands or musicians.
DN Why Jogja? Because of all the different schools?
RS In Jogja, you have many students from all over Indonesia. They all have a very short time to be there and it’s a very accessible place, so it’s easier for networking and collaborating with each other. It’s conducive to experimentation and exploring new things. When the Internet arrived, all these new influences started to be accessible. Also, there was piracy, which played a big part in making the scene happen. People bootlegged cassettes, distributed them among friends, and sometimes they sold them. I’m not against this kind of thing, actually! From our perspective, piracy is good. (laughter)
DN It was the only way it could happen, right? And then digital music opened up a whole new circulation. Apparently, people spend more time online in Indonesia than anywhere in the world.
RS On Facebook, you mean. (laughter)
DN But they can also hear so many different kinds of music now that people were always hungry for but didn’t have any way to access in the ‘90s.
RS Yes, around ’98 online information began to flow, and you started to see the results in the music scene in the 2000s. So many new bands were experimenting, and new scenes were growing. Death metal, grindcore, and hardcore were already around since the ‘90s, but that was really underground. It was very hard for experimental musicians to perform. They couldn’t play in the hardcore scene, since it’s very exclusive. People hated anything experimental, especially improv music. “Where’s the structure of this music?” “Can they repeat this?” It’s always the same questions in the beginning.
DN Tell me about the underground scene now. You met Wukir at the Yes No Klub in Jogja.
RS The owner of a label called Yes No Wave, which promotes new and interesting music in Indonesia, made the Yes No Klub as a place for these musicians to perform. They have musicians from overseas at every show, maybe one act at least, to trigger and influence locals. It was like, “Oh, this kind of music exists!” Wukir was playing there because he was just finishing his tour, introducing his new masterpiece [his instrument, the bambu wukir], and the owner of the label called me saying, “You have to meet this guy.” And of course I was blown away, then he invited me up on stage to improvise together. “Oh shit… Okay!”
DN So even though there’s all this online stuff, the live music scene is still really important in connecting people?
RS Yes. Online is really helpful to get information, but so many people don’t have access to this underground distribution. They do come to shows, though. So it’s very important.
DN What was the music that most influenced you in your development?
RS Of course, metal. Punk and hardcore were very big, too. Huge. And also—though we can’t really call it a “scene”—the traditional scene.
DN Like karawitan [traditional arts and culture]?
RS Yeah, all these aspects of traditional entertainment, like tribal entertainment.
DN What do you mean by “tribal entertainment”?
RS Every tribe, or area, or community has their own way, and people really try hard to make it exist, creating their own form of ceremonial activities that usually involve music. This is entertainment for them. But it’s not just entertainment—it’s a scene in a real way because people interact and communicate. That’s a very important thing.
DN I can really see what you’re saying about bringing those traditional roots into a new style and fusing it with heavy metal in Senyawa. So let’s talk about metal for a minute, and then we’ll get back to traditional music. Of course, heavy metal is extremely popular in Indonesia. In the early ’90s, my Indonesian friends were really into Metallica, Slayer, and also more extreme groups, like Napalm Death, Carcass, Cathedral… Some people say that metal had a role in the student-led revolution against the Suharto regime, like the infamous Metallica show in Jakarta in ‘93, which was an eye-opening experience.
RS You were there?
RS Oh wow, okay. In the riot as well?
DN Yeah. I was with some friends, and we had trouble even getting close to the stadium. We tried to get the bus, but it wouldn’t go. Taxis wouldn’t go. Nobody would take us. We had to walk for miles. As we got closer we saw all these cars burning, explosions, and smoke rising. We ran past a line of riot police holding up shields around the stadium. Of course Metallica didn’t really understand what was going on—there was smoke coming up all around the stadium, just mayhem outside. When they let the audience out, there was a column of military police with antitank guns pointing down at us, making a kind of tunnel from the exit of the stadium to the street. So we ran down this path, and they just beat us with clubs from either side. They were pulling metalheads aside and cutting their hair off… This really opened my eyes to the street culture of metal in Indonesia and what it meant for the political consciousness of young people at the time. It really gave me an idea of what “… And Justice For All” meant to Indonesian kids under the Suharto government! Anyway, I wanted to ask about what metal has meant for you, and how you’re thinking about metal as a technique in Senyawa.
RS Because we were raised with this music, it was the first style we learned to play. Metal teaches us aggression and how to express ourselves technically. It’s the best thing for that, you know. You can’t practice this technique by doing a classical thing. So I had to learn how to express myself vocally with metal techniques first, then that energy became something else. If you talk about energy, that’s what’s in our blood, what’s in our memory. People might say this is not a metal band, but it’s also not traditional. We’re not using gamelan or other such instruments to make it sound “traditional.” I don’t want that. I want it like this, just how it sounds.
DN There have been a lot of experimental music festivals over the last twenty years or so that are focused on gamelan, and different international composers have been funded or connected in Indonesia through gamelan. When people hear Indonesian music in the West, usually it’s some kind of Balinese or Javanese gamelan, and if it’s new music, it’s usually composed on those instruments. Has that gamelan network connected to you at all?
RS No. Personally, that is not my approach for making music, especially in Indonesia. Of course, gamelan is an excellent instrument: it’s acoustic, the sound is very heavenly, and it attracts Western composers, because, you know, “This is the instrument that we’ve been looking for”—very perfect in terms of the sound. But for Indonesians, gamelan is elite. It’s music for royals, music for rich people. It’s very expensive, very refined. We prefer music likekuda lumping [a popular Javanese ritual dance that invokes trance], where it’s for the people, accessible for people. Using broken gamelans, iron instead of bronze… it’s very raw and brutal. But, at the same time, this is our music. This is what we were listening to when we were kids on the streets, everywhere. Not gamelan. Gamelan is on the radio, in the palace. It’s very perfect, too perfect. Maybe if I was raised in a better family, or in a castle… (laughter) Maybe it’s better for such people, but for real Indonesians, I think gamelan is boring in a way. Everybody looks to gamelan, a million times over. People have become overly familiar with how it sounds, the names, the scales, everything. But there’s so much other music in Indonesia! There’s thousands of islands that have so many raw musics that have never been explored or listened to. Not just instruments, but vocal music. And not just from Java and Bali either.
DN What you’re saying was exactly my experience twenty years ago. I would go around traveling and say, “I’m here to study gamelan, your national music.” And people would say, “Gama-what?! That stuff? We don’t have anything to do with that.” (laughter) I had that experience so many times, and it really opened my eyes to all the other musics in Indonesia. But let me ask about your movements out into the international experimental scene. I was really impressed to see your strong connection with Japanese underground performers. How did that happen?
RS Through Uchihashi [Kazuhisa, of Altered States and Ground Zero]. We played together in Singapore in 2012 in a festival there. He wanted to jam, so we did a collaboration. Then he came to Indonesia and we recorded an album, then we went to Japan to promote the record on a tour, and he said, “Do you want to collaborate with Japanese musicians? Who do you want to play with?” We named our favorite performers, then in one night they’re all there! The concept was that we Indonesian musicians would come there and challenge them. We’re new players, and we’re here to challenge you guys, one by one. So the whole night, like, Keiji Haino will perform with me, then perform with Wukir, then KK Null performs with me, and then everyone with Senyawa… We played all night!
RS Then we did it again the next year, the same concept but with different musicians. It’s nice, and very challenging.
DN How does the Japanese scene for underground music compare to Indonesia?
RS So different. First, they don’t mind if it’s really loud. They know how to handle it, and people know how to react. In Indonesia, they’ll either make the sound really bad, or the neighbors won’t like it, or the audience won’t like it. You always have to compromise. In Japan, I think the audience is very educated, enough to understand the music and appreciate it. They all go there like they’re watching a concert, like opera… It’s just noise music, but they treat it the same, like it’s music. I really like that approach.
DN Let me ask you about vocal improvisation.
RS Improv with voice is very personal, because it’s not like a normal instrument where you can see and touch and learn how to do it. You master it by looking inward. The more you know yourself, the more you’ll be able to control and manipulate the sound. But improv is a different thing, because you need to hear other peoples’ sounds, not just your own. You don’t have to worry about your sound in the moment because the most important thing to do is listen to others.
DN You have a very intense and unique vocal sound, but I also wanted to ask you about the words in your songs, the lyrics. Do you improvise them, or are they poems that you’ve written already?
RS I normally write them beforehand. I have a bag full of different texts for Senyawa, a bag full of different texts for another band, Zoo, with different themes and writing.
DN Can you give me an example of one of the fragments that you might pull out?
RS For Senyawa, it would be like, chants to say to a pregnant wife, for example: Grow this flower in front of your house / plant all the onions by the river…
DN Let’s include one of your verses to close out here.
RS Here’s a song we wrote after the 2010 volcanic eruption in Jogjakarta:
Matahari terkubur senja di ujung hari
awan meriak mengiringi mati
sinar pergi tanpa suara
sisakan kecup di ujung mata
(The sun is buried by dusk at the end of day
clouds ripple shadowing deaths
lights left without any sounds
leaving kisses at the edge of eye)
Abu mereda debu dan pasir menyingkir
ucap selamat tinggal pada hujan dan petir
bencana, usai di sini saja!
sisakan cita cita di ujung doa kita bersama
(Ashes fade, dust and sand clear away
saying goodbye to rain and thunder
disaster, just end right here!
leaving wishes at the end of our prayers)
Matahari merekah cerah di awal hari
daun bersorak mengiringi pagi
masih ada usai bencana
sisakan cinta di ujung mata
(The sun is cracking bright at the earliest of day
leaves cheer as the morning is here
still here after the disaster
leaving love at the edge of eye)
David Novak is Associate Professor of Music and co-director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Music at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of the award-winning Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation and co-editor of Keywords in Sound, and has published essays and multimedia pieces in Public Culture, Cultural Anthropology, Sensory Studies, and The Wire.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.