Meet the Artist Single-Handedly Reviving a Dying Form of Music

After spending a lifetime honing his craft, Imam Rozali is finally taking center stage as the last musician alive performing a style of traditional Indonesian music.

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Oct 17 2017, 5:20pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Imam Rozali spent a lifetime honing his craft as one of the last musicians alive still performing the traditional music of his hometown South Lampung, Indonesia. Well, even more than a lifetime if you looked out across the crowd at this first-ever public performance in the capital city of Indonesia, Jakarta. When the 47-year-old took the stage at Pavilion 28, in South Jakarta, it was the culmination of 34 years of practice. The crowd, on the other hand, was solidly in their 20s and 30s.

How did a middle-aged man from a rural coastal district in Sumatra performing a music that, by most accounts, is all but dead, gain so many young fans? And could they even understand what he was saying? Rozali sings about life, love, and death in a mix of languages: Bahasa Indonesian and his local tongue, Bahasa Lampung.

His songs were delicate and hypnotic—full of haunting melodies and classical fingerpicking. He was following a local tradition of storytelling called "segeta," but the songs themselves were so beautiful that few in the crowd seemed to care if they really understood the nuance of what Rozali was saying. The music itself was enough; especially when you realize that it was almost lost for good.

"When the Dutch came around, they killed a lot of artists and musicians," Rozali told me. "My datuk (ancestor) ran to the top of Mount Batu and hid there with the others who managed to survive."

Photo by Andrew Hartwig

Up there, on the peak of a mountain, Rozali's datuk would entertain the others with a gitar tunggal (solo guitar). When it was finally safe to come back down, he continued his life, eventually playing guitar with the young Rozali sitting in his lap.

Rozali told me that he learned to play guitar through osmosis. He memorized the melodies and would secretly borrow his datuk's guitar to play along. Later, when his datuk passed away, Rozali, eager to carry on his legacy, continued to practice. Today, he might be the last person left to keep the tradition alive.

It's a difficult claim to prove, explained Palmer Keen, of the musical anthropology site Aural Archipelago. Keen was the first person to record Rozali play and put the songs online for public consumption. No one had heard of Rozali before Keen's recordings hit the internet, so his recordings were instrumental in getting Rozali a bigger stage. Even the organizers of RRREC Fest, Rozali's first exposure to Indonesia's hipster set, relied on a recommendation from Keen before booking the musician.

Photo by Andrew Hartwig

But despite his role in raising Rozali up as a guardian of a local tradition, Keen himself isn't 100 percent sure that Rozali is the last of his kind alive.

"These kinds of claims need to be taken with a grain of salt," Keen said. "It's very common for these musicians to also promote themselves as the gatekeepers of a certain tradition. However, it's possible that, in his region, he is the only one left playing it professionally."

Gitar tunggal has interesting colonial roots. The guitar style was brought to Indonesia by Portuguese traders who used to stop by Lampung, a port town, to trade cloves, chilis, coffee, and nutmeg. This was back when the trade routes took a long time to follow, so plenty of Portuguese seamen stayed behind, marrying local women and throwing huge parties.

"A lot of them married locals and during the wedding parties, they'd play their music, so many people got to learn it as well," Rozali told me.

But while the Portuguese musicians played on a longer guitar-like instrument called a guitarra portuguesa, Indonesians preferred shorter guitars and, eventually, the modern acoustic guitar. The music itself, originally an import from Portugal, eventually took on other international influences. When Arab traders arrived in Lampung, they taught local musicians Middle Eastern scales and tones.

"The Arabs introduced Islam to Lampung while doing trade," Rozali said. "During their downtime, they would play Arabian songs to the locals."

Today, Rozali takes the opposite approach. Gitar tunggal was born out of an intermixing of styles and influences. But to keep the musical style pure, Rozali goes to great pains to shut out all other kinds of music from his life.

"My children and I don't listen to other kinds of music," he told me. "We don't have TV or radio at home, so we won't get affected. I'm trying to preserve my datuk's music. Once something loses its authenticity, it loses its identity as well."

But, for decades, Rozali's single-minded commitment to his art went without notice. He was hired locally for cultural events, but the pay was rarely enough to cover his cost of living.

"I only play when there's a request to perform," he told me. "It's usually at a circumcision ceremony or a wedding party. I would get paid anywhere from $7.40 to $14 per performance."

He also tries to inspire a new generation of gitar tunggal musicians. Rozali teaches young children how to play, even when they can't afford the lessons.

"Everything comes out of my own pocket," he said. "When the kids don't have enough money, I have to sell whatever so I can buy snacks for them during sessions."

Photo by Yudistira Dilianzia

Rozali told me that he once asked the local government for help. The result was embarrassing.

"I asked for an assistance from the local government to get me a gambus duha (a Portuguese guitar), and they said they could get me one," he said. "After a month of waiting, I was told to pick it up at South Lampung tourism department.

"But when I went there, they asked me for an administration fee of $185. I mean, I don't have any money, that's why I asked for help. They said that was the rule, so that was it. I don't even know where the guitar is stored now. It's embarrassing."

His first public performance out of Lampung was at RRREC Fest, in Sukabumi, West Java, a music festival featuring some of the hottest names in Indonesian indie rock. Then he was invited to Jakarta to perform at Pavilion 28. The shows were a source of pride for the middle-aged musician.

"Before I left for Jakarta, I told my dad," Rozali said. "He said, 'Thank goodness, Lampung will get more recognition.' Many people will know that we have culture and art as well..."

He hoped the two performances would help raise awareness about Indonesia's diverse, but dying musical heritage.

"Our music may not attract a lot of people, but it's part of Indonesia's identity," he told me. "Please pay attention to our ancestor's cultural successors like us. We're treated like outsiders in our own country. It's sad."

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