A Hodgepodge of Music
17 Sep 2017
Reading time ~15 minutes
So, remember how I said that Jogja is the most awesomest city ever in my last post? Turns out with super awesome cities comes the need for super awesome responsibility. Over the course of my past two weeks in Jogja, I’ve actually produced nearly as much footage as I had in my four weeks in Solo, yet I would not say that I have been as productive as I was in Solo. For one, there’s simply more to see in Jogja, and I’ve also just gotten more efficient at conducting research. In Solo, I was living at a homestay and only got around through using the popular Indonesian ride sharing application “Go-Jek”. I mostly came home before 10 pm to appease my host parents, and I accordingly got up before 6 am each morning. Because I was paying on a per ride basis for transportation, I only travelled to places that were absolutely essential for me to travel to. Over here, I’ve been renting a scooter, which has entailed zero travel limitations. Also, back in Solo I was surrounded by people quite younger or older than myself. The people here at FrogStay and FrogHouse, most of whom are nearly the same age as I. Top this newfound freedom and relatable social circle off with a city full of arts making and an infamous thirst for knowledge and you’ve got yourself a stellar recipe for anti-productivity. All of this is to say something obvious yet remarkably difficult to deal: the environment in which one chooses to base one’s time at while abroad really impacts the character of one’s time in any given country. With this in mind, I’m now aware of the radically different experiences I could be having, have hand, or will have depending on the the kinds of people I happen to meet and the kind of place I happen to stay at.
Jamming Out At A Jamtastic Jazz Jam Session
So this bit isn’t really related to my research, but I could not resist visiting one of the swellest regular jazz jam sessions in Jogja on Monday nights at the Bentara Budaya (the same place that Kiki Epea’s event was at from last week’s post). The event was chock full of super talented musicians. I was surprised to witness the caliber of peoples’ self-taught musicianship as compared with many of the musicians that I’ve played and studied with back home in the States. This is not to put down my friends or US musicians whatsoever. I simply mean to highlight the fact that many of these musicians, without having very many other obligations or responsibilities, simply have the time and headspace to really dig deep into whatever music they may be passionate about. As a graduate from a liberal arts college in which extreme focus on any single subject is not so common, I must say that I was rather envious of their abilities.
Another Trio of Interviews
Emha Ainun Nadjib (aka. Cak Nun)
Pretty much ever since my first interview with musicians and religious leaders here in Indonesia, I’ve been urged to meet up with a mystical/mysterious/mighty man who goes by the penname Cak Nun (aka. Emha Ainun Nadjib). During the course of my initial conversation with him, it became clear to me that his arguments for why music making is perfectly tolerable and enjoyable in light of the Islamic canon were on the unconventional side. My initial impression of Cak Nun’s world view was a rather confusing one. At his core, he is quite the fundamentalist Muslim. Unlike the kinds of Islamic fundamentalists who join jihadist organizations to wage war against kafirs (disbelievers), however, his approach to interpreting essential texts such as the Quran and Hadith is a remarkably universalistic and humanistic one. I hear that Cak Nun offers an “alternative interpretation” to a given selection from key Islamic texts on a daily basis. That literary activity is on top of the 90 books or so he’s authored to date dealing mostly with religious and philosophical topics. One of many unique arguments he shared with me regarding the permissibility of music making in Islam deserves a mention: to suggest that music making is intrinsically haram (forbidden) is rather nonsensical given that musical sounds, which in Cak Nun’s fundamentalist view are entirely authored by Allah SWT, are entrenched in our every day living - sounds of animals in nature, sounds of our own movements, sounds of traffic whizzing by, and the sounds of our own internal organs. To state that music is simply haram is to suggest that what Allah SWT has created and maintained on a daily basis is haram. Thus, if one wishes to pick a fight, they ought to direct their grievances to the Almighty himself. On an unrelated note, I learned that Cak Nun, as the iconic director/band leader of Kiai Kanjeng, has no musical training/knowledge whatsover. There’s Indonesia for you right there in a nutshell.
Having interviewed completely anti-music ex-musicians such as Mas Rizki in addition to his counterparts having undergone the opposite transformation, I was excited to interview Mas Rahmat this week because his relationship with music making is somewhat of a compromise between the aforementioned two poles. Like Mas Rizki and some others I’ve met along the way, Mas Rahmat considers himself a hijra (the Islamic analogue for a “born again Christian”, if you will). He was sure to make this transformation clear by constantly reiterating the fact that he was now operating under Allah SWT’s hidayah, or guidance. The primary form of hidaya for Muslims, of course, is the Quran, but clearly not all individuals born into Muslim families necessarily embrace its message in its entirety necessarily. As with the other hijra’s I’d met in Jogja, Mas Rahmat felt compelled to leave the all-nighter rock/blues musician lifestyle for good when his relationship with his parents began to sour especially badly. He described to me just how pained and disillusioned his mother in particular had become with his lifestyle choices. Mas Rahmat was born and raised in a religious family, so the fact that he was skipping prayers and abusing substances at his gigs was a big concern for his immediate family. Interestingly enough, Mas Rahmat still prayed most daily mandatory prayers during his full-time music phase, and his belief in Allah SWT and Islam was unquestionable. In other words, he would certainly consider himself a Muslim in those times as much as he currently is. The main differences with his “Muslimness” now is that he happens to miss prayers much less frequently, commonly dons Bedouin apparel, and actively tries to bring lesser aware Muslims and non-Muslims alike to the fold of Islam. Mas Rahmat told me that his only motivation to continue playing music is in order to sustain his ties with old friends and subtly approach them for the sake of dakwah, or Islamic proselytization.
I asked him if he ever considered forming an Islamic music group to supplement his efforts at dakwah, but he made it very clear to me that forming a band would inevitably be a diversion to the pure cause of promoting closeness to Allah SWT. Thus, he’s completely disassociated ambitions for fame, money, women, etc. from his music and now solely plays music for Allah SWT’s sake. I attempted to have him clarify if he believes that music making for personal purposes was halal as long as such activity did not incite sin, but I was not able to get the clearest answer on said matter.
The third of four interviewees I had the good fortune to interview this week was Mas Nur, incidentaly also a member of Jonoterbacar as with my now good friend and interviewee from last week, Mas Jono. Aside from playing shaker and providing backup vocals for the trio, Mas Nur is currently completing a masters degree in management. Like Mas Jono, he grew up in a fairly religious family and attended Islamic day and boarding schools throughout his primary and junior high school days. He attended a public school for senior high school, in which he was exposed to a rather radically different social environment that what he was previously used to. It wasn’t until he began his undergraduate eduction, however, that Mas Nur started to question his faith, eventually leading him to his current agnostic state. In some ways, Mas Nur experienced the opposite transformation of the several hijra’s I’ve interviewed thus far. The comparison is not perfect though, because he certainly considered music making neither haram nor unadvisable while he was a religious Muslim. Needless to say, it’s not very easy to come out as an ex-Muslim in Muslim majority communities. I didn’t have the chance to ask him very much specifically on that matter, but I look forward to touching base with him to learn more at some future point in time.
Gambus Music Rehearsal with Afnan
I’ve probably lingered on this next point one too many times, but I can’t help but reiterate just how absorptive Indonesian artists are. In my month or so abroad in Java, I’ve encountered a number of truly world class, self-taught flamenco, pop, jazz, kirtan, and qawwali singers. Local musicians are remarkably interested in and excellent at picking up traditional musics from around the world with the trusty help of youtube.com. This week, I met up with a gambus music ensemble at the student center Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University. If I’m not mistaken, all the participants in the ensemble were self-taught and also students at the university. Gambus music, featuring the Arabic language, has its origins in the Yemeni instrument qanbus/gamubs. As a musical genre, though, gambus’ history and current day performance practice is firmly rooted in Muslim Southeast Asia. Afnan’s ensemble, as most typical gambus ensembles, consists of oud, bass, darbuka, Indonesian style bongos, a couple microtonally-abled synthesizers (for those juicy quarter tones), miscellaneous percussion, and a lead singer (Afnan). Gambus melodicism is rooted in Arabic maqamat, while its rhythms feature more of a blend of Arabic grooves and rebana rhythms native to Muslim Southeast Asia. I was able to interview Afnan about his background and gambus music after the ensemble had finished rehearsing for an upcoming concert. One of several interesting facts that Afnan shared with me was that the lyrical content of much of the gambus music that he performs is not religious at all, despite the sizeable amount of religious gambus music in existence. Quite often, Afnan’s ensemble finds itself entertaining guests and attendees at wedding and circumcision ceremonies. On the other, Afnan’s ensemble is perfectly fine with performing both religious and secular gambus music alike in the Islamic contexts of pesantrens (Islamic boarding schooles), Islamic day schools, and even masjids. Of course, not all Islamic organizations would approve of gambus music nights. Afnan described to me that most Nahdlatul Ulama leaning boarding schools, day schools, or other instituions would be rather ecstatic to have both religious and secular gambus music making alike in their premises. The rationale behind this open mentality is that at the very least, students and audience members are exposed to the Arabic language and Arabic melodicism, both essential components of Quranic recitation.
Sholawat Evening With Ilham
Having talked about Habib Syeh in the past three posts straight, I was really hoping that I would not need to mention his name yet again in this post. Thankfully, this next bit is not about him, but rather one of his lead backup vocalists in previous times: Saleh Ilham. This past Saturday, I attended a sholawat concert featuring Pak Ilham and his troupe of rebana percussionists in Jogja. Before Pak Ilham’s group took center stage, a group of female vocalists and rebana percussionists performed several classic numbers as an opener to the evening. This detail is not insignificant for a number of reasons. For one, I’ve been relatively hard pressed to find female sholawatan groups in Java, so getting to see an all-female group open for the night was sweet. That being said, I must say that it’s pretty unfortunate that the women in said group were solely openers for the night. Promptly after finishing their third song or so, the group was applauded by the male emcee for their contribution to the night, only to be swiftly replaced by Ilham and his troupe to control the content and momentum of the rest of the night. It goes without saying that the lack of female musicians in industrial and traditional musical contexts is a global issue that cuts across musical genre, i.e. it’s very much not just limited to Islamic music making in Muslim majority communities or countries. As an ethnomusicological researcher, I feel that I ought to do my part to accurately represent the performance practices and musical cultures of the musical communities I get to know and participate in. Thus, I feel that I should not have to make an extra effort to discover female acts in a given community for the sake of fabricating a more gender balanced ethnography out of musical environments which are clearly highly gender imbalanced.
I should also mention that sholawatan events are much more than just musical concerts. As the music/worship leader for the evening, Ilham’s primary function for the evening was undoubtedly to serve as lead vocalist for the core set of sholawat tunes that were performed this evening. Having studied vocal music with his father and had extensive experience as an imaam, the exquisiteness of his singing wasn’t the biggest surprise to me. In addition to singing, Ilham delivered a short sermon, led the audience in dhikr, and even conducted a real-time judgement of an audience member’s mastery over conducting the mandatory Islamic prayer (salat) on stage.
Kiai Kanjeng Live @ The Forum Maiyah Rutin Bulangan Mocopat Syafaat
Based on my experiences with and conceptions of music in Islam prior to the start of my Watson fellowship, I doubt that I’d ever guess that the event I’ll describe next was an explicitly Islamic one. I hesitate to even use the descriptor “Islamic”, because for someone like Cak Nun, everything and thought is “Islamic” in the sense that Allah SWT authors and oversees all activities on this planet. The final event of the week was Kiai Kanjeng’s monthly all-nighter show held at the rustic environment of the Forum Maiyah in Bantul, Jogja. The main event space was large enough to hold just about 300 people seated on the ground. Two hours into the show, however, the areas surrounding the main stage were completely packed with an additional 1500 odd audience members enjoying the evening with the aid of HD cameras, live screencast technology, and mammoth video projections. The sounds, vibes, and performance practices of the night weren’t quite 1:1 with your average rock concert. It also was quite unlike your typical village/suburb sholawatan show, most obviously because of the presence of free gender mixing (i.e. non-segregated seating by gender) in the audience.
The show started out on a highly comical and catchy note(s) with the opener group, Jodhokemil. Several things were remarkable about their performance this evening. Foremost, about every 30 seconds of their music was interrupted by some comment, joke, awkward silence, etc. etc. by one of the band members, especially the band leader. The group has an extraordinary ability to incite laughter and lightheartedness all while discussing key issues and trends in religion and society. I was equally impressed by their unique sound, featuring unconventional instrumentations and arrangements. The effect that this band had on me felt oddly familiar to other musical experiences that I’ve enjoyed in Java. Most directly, Kodhokemil reminded me of Jonoterbacar - though only a trio, they too routinely punctuated their quirky musical arrangements and textures with nonsequiter statements, ad lib ramblings, scolding other band members, etc. Given the bent for humor in social and performative settings that I’ve noticed here in Java, I suppose I’m now a bit desentized to Javanese performance culture. In my former days though, I imagine I’d have a tricky time trying to make sense of all the performative madness.
After Jodhokemil’s opening act which consumed 1.5 hours of the night, the evening continued with the format of Kiai Kanjeng’s regular monthly shows in which musical selections are juxtaposed with QA sessions with audience members, general discussions on a given topic, mini sermons, and whatever else the night may conjure. First off, Cak Nun’s son Mas Sabrang (aka. Noe), an influential speaker and celebrity unto himself and band leader of the group Letto commanded the stage. He offered a few pop/rock numbers punctuated by QA with the audience and ruminations on fascinating topics, some involving a fair amount of mind bending or mental gymnastics. Noe was proceeded on stage by his father Cak Nun whom I couldn’t help unsee as a patriarch of the whole endeavor. I actually was not able to stay to see Cak’s performance, but I hear that he played several of the numbers that I’d already seen him rehearse with Kiai Kanjeng. He also talked at length about music permissibility in Islam, repeating several of the responses that I had elicited from him during our interview earlier this week.
Tasty Treats in Jogja: Pt. 2
Round 2 in Jogja…