Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!
20 Aug 2017
Reading time ~18 minutes
Derived from the Sanskrit maharddhika, merdeka means independent or free in Indonesian/Malay. I say this because this past Thursday was Indonesia’s 72nd Indepndence Day celebration. More on that below…
In my nearly three weeks of being abroad in Indonesia, I daresay that I feel like I might have cracked the code for planning out ‘microtravel’, so to speak. ‘Microtravel’, as it has panned out for me thus far, is a mode of travel somewhere between short term, shallow touristic modes of travelling and travel for, say, months on end, allowing one to truly plant oneself in a foreign land, giving way to a blossoming of lasting relationships and wisdom. I admit that sentence was unnecessarily lengthy, but I trust that you get my point.
‘Microtravel’ for me thus entails roughly three weeks of stay in any given city, during which I go on a rampage to find interesting musical events to attend and captivating subjects to detai – erhm – interview for hours on end. Here’s the insider scoop for those of you bold enough to embrace the ‘microtravel’ lifestyle.
The Tomal Hossain Microtravel Method For Stay In Any Given City For Roughly Three Weeks At A Time As Part of A Multi-Country Travel Fellowship Research Project.
Not the most elegant descriptor, but it gets the job done.
- Light tourism stuff
- Going out and meeting people as much as possible, whether it be at musical events or parties.
- Contacting people/scheduling interviews on WhatsApp (Not being on WhatsApp is akin to microtravel death)
- Conduct interviews
- If lucky, perform at a concert.
- Wrap up interviews
- Plan travel and purchase flights, etc. for next city
Wayang Orang At Sriwedari
Alright, now to the updates from my past week. First off, wayang orang at Sriwedari Park. Sriwedari is an eclectic landmark in the central Javanese city of Solo. It features multiple attractions such as a modest amusement park, an outdoor venue for musical acts ranging from Dangdutto heavy metal, and an auditorium for traditional acts such as wayang orang. Attending a segment of the Ramayana being performed at Sriwedari along with other events I’ve witnessed thus far in Solo have afforded me several takeaways regarding the arts and performance in Indonesia. For one, a musical performance is not just about the musical/cultural content on stage. Things are also not nearly as performer-centric as in the US and Europe in my experience. Throughout various karawitan and wayang events, it’s become clear that performances are just as much about the fact that a community of locals come together in a shared artistic space as it is about the performance at hand. During performances in the West of both popular and art musics alike, audience members are commonly fixated on the stage and don’t make much of an effort to mingle with others in the auditorium both during and after an event. In Solo, it is very common for both audience members and performers to arrive late, eat food, and talk with each other throughout a given performance. This reflects a couple of things about Javanese society. For one, community building and communal thinking is a strong aspect of daily life. Secondly, art for art’s sake is simply not as common in Java as it is in the West. Lastly, forget about the saying ‘To be early is to be on time.’ I like to say, ‘In Java, to be late is to be early.’
Another aspect of Javanese culture worth appreciating is its bent for humor in art or humor more generally. Javanese people are highly expressive. In the realm of traditional arts, humor from the likes of clown and demon-like figures functions alongside austerity and sincerity from the likes of royal and divine types to round out a representation of society that is dynamic and fully featured. Wayang kulit dalangs (puppeteers) as well as wayang orang actors are expected improvise a sizeable amount of material on stage, much of which is of a lighthearted nature. Its not uncommon for some of this humor to push against the realm of Javanese and particularly Muslim Javanese propriety. During the show at Sriwedari, one of the clown-like characters coyly bid an ironic farewell to a higher up with the Arabic greeting, “Assalamualaikum”, upon which he was quickly reprimanded by his comrades who were clearly in the know that Islam had no place in ancient Hindu mythology. As a performer and composer, I almost always veer towards austerity and formality in my music, so being exposed to a generous dosage of humor through traditional Javanese arts has been refreshing and inspiring.
Upon arriving in Solo over two weeks ago, I noticed that every single street in town was replete with red and white flags and banners announcing Indonesia’s 72nd Independence Day on August 17th. Surely, Solo did not boast nearly as many fireworks as I’m used to in the US, but the amount of visual stimulus pointing towards the upcoming patriotic holiday in the form of cloth is quite remarkable.
In my estimation, every couple of square blocks of real estate in Solo has got its own little neighborhood council. This past Wednesday was the eve of Indonesia’s 72nd independence day celebration. I was lucky enough to be invited to the neighborhood council Independence eve celebration that my homestay falls under by my host parents, Ibu Yuli and Pak William. There, I noticed another curiously noteworthy aspect of Javanese culture. The evening started out on a formal note with short speeches delivered by members of the council, i.e. anyone who lives in the neighborhood premises and chooses to partake in council meetings. Speeches comprised short notes from the central government regarding Indonesia’s independence, a few Islamic prayers, and general well-wishing for the new year of independence. The women and men were seated on the floor in two segregated rows facing each other on the host home’s patio. Though ostensibly formal, council members were clearly chuckling the entire time at the fact that everything being said was so formal and scripted. People were checking their phones during holy words and, amazingly, hard rock music was playing in the background up till the point that a dramatic short film was played regarding the 72nd Independence Day Anniversary. Mind you, the neighborhood council does not receive money from the government to do its thing, nor was the council mandated to hold an event with a formal section on Independence day eve. The fact of the matter is simply that the neighborhood council discerns that sharing laughs and being awkwardly formal for some time after which the floor is open for infinite karaoke is generally a good way to be social creatures. I, for one, say Amen to that.
Another awesome aspect of Javanese culture in relation to mainstream culture in the States is just how much fun people manage to have with relatively little material wealth. While randomly strolling through the streets of Solo, I’ve come across multiple scenes in which children were having the times of their lives in shared neighborhood spaces or at schools. A whole host of games and competitive activities exist to keep children collaborating with one another and having a blast. Such activities include a competition between teams who must work together to create a path made of newspaper leaves by picking sheets from a stack, placing them one at a time on the floor in front of you, and going back to the end of one’s team’s line until a team has reached the finish line. Sorry that was a horrible description of that activity. Another competition I witnessed entailed a dozen or so waterbags strung on a clothesline in the middle of a basketball court which were doomed to be popped by teams of blindfolded children equipped with sticks at the Madrasah next door to my homestay. Another common scene in the streets of Solo is a bunch of children just singing and dancing together to a boombox playing dangdut or international pop music. Once again, my suspicions have been confirmed that the Javanese are a very fun-loving and expressive people. The environment at the neighborhood council celebration and at schools and in the streets wonderfully combat the stereotype of life in Muslim majority countries as being boring, inexpressive, and etc. etc.
Religious Music Making with Pak Waluyo
Philosophizing and merrymaking aside, one of the most informative parts of my week was completing an interview with Pak Waluyo at his residence in Jebres, Solo. Not sure if I had mentioned this earlier, but the term ‘Pak’ is simply an honorific for one’s elders. The interview was meant to be a follow up for the rehearsal that I had attended a week or so prior. I was lucky enough to employ my new friend JJ as an English-Indonesian interpreter for my interview at the very last minute. JJ just completed a degree in environmental science at Universitas Sebelas Maret, a highly sought after school for the native Solonese. JJ is actually from Madagascar, but he’s gained an impressive handle on Bahasa Indonesia during his three years in Solo. All throughout Summer 2017 before the start of my Watson fellowship, I was a Bengali language interpreter for a transitional living center in Pomona, CA. Having a language interpreter work for me instead really tied up the phenomenon of langauge interpretation for me. In other words, it was nice to see what life was like on the other side. Too bad he boarded a flight back to Madagascar two days after my interview with him…
Pak Waluyo is truly one of the best people to interview on the topic of music and Islam cohere and conflict in Java. He possesses a deep knowledge of Islamic doctrine, traditional Islamic music making in Java, and the religious climate in Solo. Pak Waluyo’s musical life can be traced to his early days reciting verses from the Quran and learning to perform the Azan. In his early adulthood, he became more and more interested in traditional Javanese music including karawitan and explicitly Islamic art forms. He is currently an instructor of traditional Javanese singing (tembang) at the Institute Seni Indonesia Surakarta (ISI Solo), a proper arts conservatory, as well as the more general puropose university, Universitas Muhammadiyah Surakarta (UMS). Most musicians that you speak to in Java will be quick to distinguish the cultural markers in Java that betray Islamic influences from those that do not. Aside from his pure love for music, Pak Waluyo feels that part of his duty as a creative and devout Muslim is bridging the gaps between traditional Javanese and Islamic inflected arts in Java. He’s a strong proponent of the notion that music is perfectly capable of strengthening one’s deen. In the realm of religious music, Pak Waluyo believes that any musical style or orchestration is equally fit to express one’s religiosity given the presence of appropriately spiritual texts and context. I was deeply grateful to get a chance to get to know Pak Waluyo a bit more before the start of his international tour in collaboration with a Western chamber orchestra.
Rebab Lesson With Mas Darsono
A rebab lesson this past Friday with Mas Darsono served as a nice buffer between the intense number of interviews that followed this past weekend. Similar to ‘Pak’, ‘Mas’ is simply an honorific for individuals near enough to your age to virtually be a part of your generation. Mas Dar (or Mas Dar as he is conveniently know as - the Javanese are masterfully artful when it comes down to ‘shortcutifying’ language) is the newly wed husband of Maho Ishiguro, my former instructor of karawitan at Smith College, a member of the Five College Consortium in the Pioneer Valley. Mas Darsono has the reputation of a karawitan music virtuoso here in Solo. He grew up in a musical, kejawen family and he even studied for some time with Pak Waluyo during his student days at ISI Solo. He is currently the regular kendang player at the Mangkunegaran Palance in Solo, a highly enviable position indeed as the kendang player in a karawitan ensemble serves as the ensemble conductor. Maho is pretty awesome herself - she’s a lecturer at various universities in the Northeast and she’s also currently a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Weseleyan University. The formidable, newly wed duo will actually be on their way to the US in a couple of days to commence a new semester of teaching clueless and not so clueless university students and friendly locals in the West as I once was.
Aside from tackling an introduction to the Javanese slendro scale for a solid sixty minutes, I was able to do a brief interview with Mas Dar. Of all the musicians I’ve met in Solo thus far, Mas Dar is certainly the biggest proponent for ‘art for art’s sake.’ He described to me that even when he plays karawitan music, which is often highly spiritual (be it in a Hindu, indigenous Javanese, or Islamic vein), he is mostly concerned with the musical processes that unfold in the music he plays. That is, he is not so much interested in the spiritual aspects of often explicitly spiritual music. Apparently, the majority of musicians that Mas Dar plays with are “Apangan”, meaning they don’t subscribe to ritual Islamic orthopraxy very much at all despite possessing a Muslim Indonesian ID card (Indonesian citizens are officially registered as one of six religious identities: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism). I’d already suspected that Muslim musicians who play karawitan weren’t necessarily the most devout of Muslims, but it was nice to get that confirmation from Mas Dar. TL;DR, Mas Dar’s circle of karawitan musician collaboraters follow a farily flexible ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy’ when it comes down to religious commitments.
The Ever-Smiling Imam Hasan At Masjid Riyadh Solo
My first interview with an imam ever went so smoothly that it’s still sort of hard for me to fathom. My meeting with imam Hasan at Masjid Riyadh solo was really the icing to the cake that was this past Friday. Though imam Hasan’s ancestral roots are in Yemen, his family has been based in Indonesia for about three generations now. The mosque that he oversees, Masjid Riyadh Solo, is adjacent to another fairly big mosque, Masjid Jami Assegaf. The imam there, imam Jamal, didn’t exactly want to be interviewed - he directed me to the mosque’s sectretary’s office to learn more about the history of the mosque. Of course, I could care less about the history of that particular mosque given the focus of my research, so I head over to Masjid Riyadh Solo instead after Friday prayers.
Both Masjid Riyadh Solo and Masjid Jami Assegaf are located in Pasar Kliwon, a district in Solo noted for its relatively high concentration of Arab Indonesians. The neighborhood in which the mosques are situated in the Pasar Kliwon district is known to have a comparatively left-leaning religious ideological orientation, meaning that imam’s are more likely to approve of both religious and secular musicking alike. I hear that nearby areas aren’t so friendly in this regard. I look forward to interviewing imam’s in such areas in the coming week. Imam Hasan, though, is a lovely guy. Throughout my interview with him, he kept assuring me that music was all fine and good, interrupting his answers by directing me to various clips of religious music making on YouTube. His son plays in a takht-esque Islamic music ensemble. He also mentioned to me that there are frequent takht music and rebana music nights at Masjid Riyadh Solo. Aside from his efforts as an imam, imam Hassan supports his family by working as a merchant and raising goats.
1st Performance in Indonesia!
Of all of the awesome things that uniquely happen in Java that I’ve mentioned thus far in this blog, the most awesome thing in my eyes is musicians’ and audiences’ willingness to engage in cross-cultural artistic collaboration and consumption respectively. In my short time in Solo, I’ve met remarkable, largely self-taught musicians with whom jamming and collaborating with musically has been a true pleasure and eye opener. The Solonese have been all ears for musical experimentation and fusion. Audience members, with or without musical education, make it out to all sorts of experimental and avant-garde musical performances of both Western influenced musical concoctions and more so indigenous experimental musickings. The willingness that musicians have displayed to let go of their pretenses and make great music in Solo has been really inspiring for me. I believe this behavior can directly be traced to the larger paradigm of syncretism in Java, which really sets itself a part from that of other parts of the world. Additionally, I imagine that part of the reason why the general public is down to go to check out esoteric gamelan-metal noise music is the community aspect of attending musical events that I mentioned earlier.
Alright, cushy stuff aside. What I really wanted to tell you all is that I had the first performance of my Watson fellowship this past Saturday, which was a total delight. The venue we performed at is a rather well esteemed haven for the arts in Solo called ‘Taman Hutan Lemah Putih’. Our ensemble comprised two vocalists, two guitarists, one flautist, one suling player, and one darbuka player. I was one of the vocalists, and I also had the nerve to pick up a spare kendang and play it like a dholak because why not. Our musical troupe accompanied a trio of dancers performing a contemporary and highly patriotic piece, as the theme for the event was of course Indonesia’s day of independence. I’ve gotten to know most of the performers I shared the stage with over the past couple of weeks jamming out into the wee hours of the night. The end product was fairly awesome, if I may say so myself. Aside from our lovely performance which we had only rehearsed a single time for the night before, the event featured real-time abstract painting, a couple of fashion shows, a drumming duo, and much more.
Tasty Treats in Solo, Indonesia Pt. 3
Lots of typical, convenient foods here…
- “Meatball” Gorengan: A type of gorengan with filled with dough and meat.
- Ayam tim goreng (fried chicken, not breaded): This classic meal was served at the semi-legendary Indonesian chain “Bu Better”, which purportedly translates to “Better Mom.” Sorry mothers, but this meal was indeed better than many a meal I’ve had cooked by moms. You’ve probably begun to realize that the likelihood of an average meal in Solo to include rice, sambal, and es te (iced tea) is extremely high. I imagine this phenomenon extends beyond Central Java. The es te that one finds in Java is commonly a blend of teas with a generous helping of brown sugar. If consumption of es te is left unchecked, it can very easily become an addiction. The same goes for sambal with a slight addition of gastrointestinal disturbance.
- Soto Ayam: In solo, a hearty dish with rice, chicken strips, and chicken broth. Also an excellent go-to meal. This one is depicted with sambal and kecap (pronounced ‘ketchup’, but actually not ketchup at all).
- Steak and Shake: So I totally didn’t actually eat at here, but I had to snap this dining establishment’s facade particularly for the sake of my co-op mate last year, Isabella, who faced innumerable trials and tribulations as an employee with the US chain, “Steak n’ Shake”. The knock-off restaurant phenomenon is amusingly palpable in Indonesia. In my short time here, I’ve encountered several charlatan eateries including “CFC: California Fried Chicken” and “DFC: Donald Fried Chicken”. Amazing.