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A Conversation with Experimental Indonesian Duo Senyawa

Despite growing international interest in their music, Senyawa have played only one Jakarta show this year. We try to find out why.
October 12, 2015, 7:21am

Images: Dawid Laskowski

Earlier this year Indonesia went into a mild frenzy when English electronic rock duo Arkana released a cover of the beloved Indonesian folk song “Kebyar Kebyar” to commemorate the 70th-anniversary of the country's independence.

While some put this down to ‘inlanderism’, a term used to describe the nation’s cultural inferiority complex, it is curious that Arkana (a band whose career has been on a noticeable slide since the mid 90s) has millions of gushing Indonesian fans.

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Around the same time that Arkana were invited by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to perform live at his inauguration, Indonesian duo Senyawa played a show in Melbourne to unsurprisingly zero fanfare.

Granted the music of vocalist Rully Shabara and multi-instrumentalist Wukir Suryadi is not ‘easy’ with the noise act grounded in the traditional bambuwukir instrument combined with black-metal aesthetics but Senyawa's international profile is growing with shows in Melbourne, Copenhagen, Beijing and most recently, London. Despite growing international interest they’ve played only a single gig in the Indonesian capital Jakarta in the past year.

I was curious to see what Rully thinks of inlanderism, traditional music in 2015, the contrast between Indonesian and overseas audiences, and what’s next for Indonesian experimental music.

Noisey: Is the opportunity to book overseas shows the most prized target for Indonesian musicans?
Rully Shabara: I don’t really know what most Indonesians think. I’m sure there are some who share this belief, but not all of them do. Indonesia is actually a part of the world, so your band doesn’t need to play shows overseas to call yourself an ‘international’ band. The point of international recognition isn’t how many shows you play but how your work resonates with an audience. How do you see this phenomenon?
This isn’t a phenomenon. It’s natural. Every artist wants to draw an audience with their work. So it makes sense if large crowds became a parameter. Musicians abroad also like to pay us a visit for mostly the same reason: spreading the word about what it is they do or, to put it unwisely, ‘going international.’ But it shouldn't be the primary target; it’s just one way of doing that.

Is there much difference between Indonesian and international audiences?
European and Australian audiences don’t mind expressing their appreciation towards our music so it makes it easier for us to know that they like it. Also they ask for us to come back. It’s the same with the Japanese though they’re more reserved. We don’t really know much about China as we’ve only been there once. We’d really like to be appreciated in Indonesia. But we still think there’s still a lot to do about the promotion so that we could be invited to play in Jakarta and other cities. Old-timey Indonesia music has been re-discovered and re-released by international labels like Sublime Frequencies. What separates them from the records on stands now?
Scouts are looking for the most legit Indonesian music or music with a new formula. I’m sure they’re not looking for Indonesian music that sounds like theirs or is written in English. But when the band or the musicians feel satisfied with their own work, that’s the most important thing regardless of formula. Having the chance to draw a huge audience is just a bonus. Is it more difficult for the experimental scene to flourish in Indonesia?
There is an audience especially in big cities. Widening the circle is what needs to be done. This is what local experimental musicians have been doing, either by building communities, curating specific programs or even creating new venues. The direction is getting better.

How do you see experimental music?
Experimental is not a genre; it’s an approach. If pop music is made to be accessible then experimental music is made to push buttons for the sake of expanding the definition of music itself. Of finding shapes and figures that slowly seek to enrich and challenge it. So it makes sense if it’s not accessible and most experimental musicians couldn’t really care less about that. Are you ok with traditional instrument like gamelan or keroncong sampled in modern music?
It’s fine. It’s just a shame that traditional instruments wind up as mere exotic tools. When you strip Senyawa of vocals, as weird as it sounds, all that’s left is dissonant, jathilan chords, thick rhythm, and singing melody of tribal people. Listeners don’t need to know that, because we’re not trying to make our music as something exotic; we even try to hide it. You can hear our energy and that’s about it.

Stanley Widianto is a Jakarta based music writer who operates the music site Sounds From the Corner.