Musings From Yogyakarta #2
Musings from Jogjakarta #2
So I am sitting on a train to east Java to see my cousin, and catch up with long time musical collaborator and partner in crime, Reuben Lewis, who is doing some sort of performance. As what the performance is, who knows… but knowing Reuben I am sure it will be real, and weird and wacky.
So I am wedged in between two old ibu (ladies) and a young boy who hold a bottle of Eucalyptus oil to his nose, and they feed me peanuts and deep-fried tofu. And on this 14-hour train ride with seats designed for people with no legs, I have been reflecting on the last month in Indonesia.
After my first 6 months here in Jogjakarta I took a break back home to see friends and family (thanks for that mum). In those first 6 months I slowly adjusted to living in the tropics, and started a study into Javanese Gamelan. While there were times that I was very busy, there were also times that I didn’t do much for a few weeks, and just relaxed on my patio across from the rice paddies reading, and listening and learning. It was pretty great actually.
Since I have returned from my brief holiday however, things have been taken one notch higher. I have barely had time to sleep, let alone sit at home pondering about what I am doing.
I hit the ground running as I returned to Jogja. I was being asked to join projects as I landed in Bali. Within a few weeks I had played my first wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance. For the uninitiated, this is usually an 8-hour performance. The dalang, the puppet master, has a wide range of shadow puppets lined up against a giant screen with a light for the shadows, as well as more behind him within easy reach. He sings, tells stories, jokes and directs the full gamelan ensemble sitting behind him with his voice and a range of small percussion instruments he holds in his hands and feet. Usually the story follows either the Ramayana or Mahabharata. While the story is retold often, the intricacies of the jokes, and interviews and comments differ with each performance. In some ways, it is a little like going to a test cricket match: It lasts a long time, there are always some speeches or songs from the sponsors, and people come and go in the audience and it is about a big battle. Everyone know what is happening but certain moments are more exciting than others. Audience members may go and get a drink while the story lulls. But I guess the difference is everyone knows the outcome already with a wayang. Hehe. While you can watch the performance from both sides of the screen, it is more common for people to watch from the side with the dalang and the gamelan ensemble. The performers play cross-legged on the floor, all night, without a break. There are however, breaks from actual playing, while the dalang narrates, but you have to be ready for a for cue for the music at any time. I have to admit I had no idea what I was doing at first. There are signals as to what song will be played next, but most of these are in Javanese, which I have very limited understanding of. I did have a book of songs, but the ensemble was mostly too busy to help me find the right song, so I pretended. A lot. Then near the end of the night, when my legs felt like they were about to fall off, and the cans of red bull and hot coffee were being passed around, I started to be able to recognise the songs. When I left the dalang’s house after the performance, I was sure I wouldn’t be invited back, as I mostly just looked the part of the bule fool, which might be entertaining for one performance, but surely not every performance. But then two weeks later I was asked to come back. This time I was better prepared, and I even brought a friend who joined in on some impromptu singing. While I still didn’t get most of the cues, I started to recognise some songs immediately so I didn’t have to pretend as much. The instrument I was playing, the saron peking, has to double all the melodies, which was pretty fast in some parts. I also had to sing a song, and do a little interview, which turned into a comedy routine as I mistakenly used the wrong word when answering what my favourite food in Indonesia was. Instead of tempe, I said tempek, which is vagina, so you can imagine the hilarity that ensued. Afterwards I was invited back for another wayang, and also to the Dalang’s house to learn more about Javanese culture, practice some puppetry and prepare our next comedy routine. I feel very privileged to be invited to join this community and will keep trying to learn, even if it means sitting on the one spot on the floor for 8 hours straight
At the same time as this was happening, I was also involved in rehearsing with a local jazz group Adi Wijaya’s Railroad Therapy. I met Adi five years ago when I was in Jogja, jamming with a band he was in called I know You Well Miss Clara. Adi Has since created his own band and made a new record – Railroad Therapy. After so many months of playing a lot of gamelan, it was really great to get my tenor sax out and play some jazz again. The group was invited to play at the Ngayogjazz festival here in Jogjakarta. We played some hard tunes and had some really great moments.
Another project I have been involved with since I got back has been working on a recycled gamelan set. Some good friend Mo’ong and Konde have been building gamelan instruments out of recycled trash and assembling into an orchestra. Now that most of the instruments have been made we are working on exploring sounds and ideas to make a performance for January. This is a project I am hoping to take to Australia next year, so watch this space for more information.
As well as this I have been in a performance joining with many darmasiswa students from ISI and other universities in Jogja. Darmasiswa is the name of the Indonesian government scholarship available to students from across the world to come to Indonesia to study Indonesian culture. I was lucky enough to be a recipient of this scholarship in 2011, and I studied Yogyakartan Gamelan at The Institute Of The Arts in Yogya (ISI). For this performance, we played some compositions by Mas Anon, The teacher for darmasiswa as well as my individual gamelan teacher. As well as playing kendang (double sided drum), I got the opportunity to play soprano saxophone for a couple of tracks, which was a lot fun. We performed at Prambanan temple, a ninth century Hindu temple out of Yogyakarta, as well as Borobudur, The largest Buddhist temple in the world, again from the 9th century. It was pretty special playing at these two temples.
In another vein, I also have been doing some volunteering at a disability centre in Kaliurang in the north of Yogyakarta working with a school for kids with a disability. We did some drumming and singing of Indonesian songs in a special performance for the Sultan of Yogyakarta at a ceremony at the centre.
So I think things will be a lot calmer now in the lead up to Christmas, which leaves me some time to catch up on sleep. But then in January, rehearsals start again…..