This blog is in reverse date order, so start at the bottom if you want to follow the events in the right sequence
(Principal blogger: Carrie)
After our return to the UK, the English-language broadsheet paper The Jakarta Post published a three-quarter-page feature on Siswa Sukra. This was actually their third article on the group: the first is behind a paywall, and the second is mainly a photo feature. A PDF file made from the three with the original colour photos is available as a download (1 MB). (The paper prints in black and white.)
Translations of the articles in Jawa Pos and Radar Solo will follow: watch this space.
22 August: ‘The End’ aka ‘Depressed foreigners’
All good things must come to an end, and so it is for Siswå Sukrå’s Indonesia tour. A few of the group were headed home on Tuesday morning, with most due to leave the following day.
Contemplating the end of the tour is certainly slightly depressing, but there was a bit of a miscommunication with some in the Javanese media who seemed to think that Siswå Sukrå is some sort of group rehabilitation exercise for people suffering from depression:
Having seen that, we were really quite content with the Java Post’s extremely observant front page headline reporting the performance at ISI:
This is a ‘highlights’ video from the Donjuan team:
Many of the group used Tuesday morning to visit some of the batik shops near the Cakra to stock up on shirts and souvenirs, and then went to ISI in the afternoon for a final set of lessons in our smaller groups focusing on specific instruments. And what better way to follow that up than visiting the home of Pak Cokrik, a gamelan instrument seller?!
A number of rebabs and sulings were purchased, as well as ciblons, a gambang, and – an unusual choice – a slenthem for Glen. (He just likes the way it sounds.) Now we just need to arrange the shipping!
We finished the day with a bit of a party back at the Cakra, to which we invited our teachers from ISI and our hosts at the Cakra, who have been very understanding of the stream of people and taxis passing through at all times of the day and night.
We had a feast and lots of Bintang beer to get stuck into, but before we did so there were some important speeches to make (we’re getting very Indonesian!). Pete highlighted the debt of gratitude we owe to Richard, who has been suggesting a tour of Indonesia for about ten years and whose persistence eventually galvanised us into making it happen. Thanks went to Sammy, Cathy, Dave in his absence, Jonathan, and Pete’s old friend Mas Sen, who have all been instrumental in sorting out the logistics of getting 25 people from the UK to Indonesia, from city to village to city, and from rehearsal to performance and back to rehearsal, whilst keeping us fed and watered the whole time.
Huge thanks also went to our ISI teachers Pak Prasad, Pak Bambang, Pak Widodo and Mas Wawan, from whom we’ve learned a great deal in an incredibly short space of time. A special mention went to Pak Prasad, who as Pete’s mentor and friend is essentially the godfather of Siswå Sukrå, and who has been a major influence on the gamelan community throughout the UK generally. We’re also grateful to Pak Prasad’s son, Kristian, who has been a great advocate for us on social media!
And of course, Pete, who is a driving force behind gamelan in the UK and who has taught most of us everything we know. His warmth, good humour and dedication make our Thursday evenings such a pleasure, and are central to making Siswå Sukrå the welcoming family that it is.
With speeches finished, thank you gifts of shadow puppets handed out, several rounds of applause, and a few surreptitious eye-wipes, Richard took the honoured first plate of the spread. Then we all tucked in and settled down to eat, drink and enjoy each other’s company.
It’s been a very intense and often exhausting 20 days, with some real challenges for us all, but it’s also been incredibly fun and rewarding, and we’ve had such an amazing, unforgettable experience together. Thank you so much to our sponsors and to everyone who supported our crowdfunder (your rewards will soon be on their way!) and those who contributed in other ways to help us realise our dream.
21 August: The Gamelan Famelan
On Monday morning we headed to ISI to rehearse in the venue for our final performance that evening, the Pendhopo Agung, which is ISI’s impressive and beautiful performance space. We were sidetracked slightly when one of the photographers with us asked for a photo of us all playing another gamelan housed in a separate space adjacent to the pendhopo (along with another three gamelans of varying types). We were all very easily persuaded, because it was like no gamelan we’ve ever played before; this was a Gamelan Sekatèn.
This gamelan is used by ISI for experimental compositions, but the two others in Solo are ceremonial gamelan belonging to the kraton, which are only played one week a year to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Gamelan Sekatèn don’t have any soft instruments, have only one (massive) gong and a huge drum that acts as a kempul. The rest of the instruments are also ginormous – the demung were about four feet long, one of the beaters for the sarons was a whole bull’s horn, and the bonang requires three people to play it. Naturally this was a pretty exciting prospect for us!
Sidetrack over, we had a bit of a shaky rehearsal. The gamelan was spread across a large stage and there was a lot of traffic noise to contend with, so we were really struggling to hear each other. It’s wonderful to play in the type of space that gamelans are really made for, but getting used to the acoustics in these spaces when we’re so used to playing in a our little room in the basement of the Royal Festival Hall has been challenging!
We headed back to the Cakra for a quiet afternoon, and, for a few of us, a quick run through the riff in Rujak Jeruk which we’d been struggling with at the rehearsal. Then it was hair and make-up time for the ladies before we returned to ISI for the performance. We’re now officially professionals at putting on our full Javanese regalia, so we were ready in super-quick time and ready to kick off at the scheduled time of 7pm. Our performance schedule was going to be tight, as there was a freshers’ fair going on all day next to the pendhopo and they would be cranking up the dhangdhut at 8:30pm on the dot. But this is Java, so our 7pm start became a 7:30pm start and we went on stage quietly wondering how exactly that was going to turn out!
This was a really important performance for us – the Minister of Education was attending and we wanted to show that we really are worth the time and money that the Ministry has put into the tour. Without the Ministry’s sponsorship it probably would not have happened. We also wanted to do well for ourselves after all the hard work we’ve put in over the last few weeks, and most especially we wanted to do Pete proud; we were performing at his alma mater with his teacher Pak Prasad joining us, and the Javanese media looking on, so we wanted to show how great a teacher he is.
There were no prizes for guessing our opening number – Ladrang Wilujeng – which went perfectly despite our nerves! That was followed by our new dance piece Gendhing Srimpèn Sangupati, in which we accompanied Langen Matoyo, a group of retired professional dancers and lecturers at ISI, choreographed by Ibu Rusini. We were all entranced as a trail of flower petals appeared behind the dancers as they moved; the petals were secreted in the folds of their kain and gradually fell out as they danced.
Photo credit: Kristian Agung Sastro Kasmoyo
Our next piece was Sri Karongron, followed by the dance Gambyong Paréanom, also danced by Langen Matoyo. We then picked up the pace for our ‘three-piece suite’ with dhangdhut – Ela-Ela Gandrung, Mari Kangen and Ayo Praon. We’d picked up an extra audience of students at the side of stage who particularly enjoyed that section!
We were back to a dance next – Driasmara – danced again by our friends Andrea and Dhian. By this time we were over-running, and the orientation fair’s loudspeakers cut through the quieter sections of the dance, which tells a sweet love story. It was really hard to each other over the dhangdhut, so we were particularly amazed at Andrea and Dhian’s ability to perform so beautifully when it must have been very difficult to hear us out at the front of the stage.
Our final piece was Rujak Jeruk, going into Ayak-Ayakan Pamungkas, and thankfully the earlier extra practice paid off! One slightly messy co-ordinated bow later (something we also probably should put in some extra practice for!), we were finished and ready for the usual round of photos with our fans.
Photo credit: Kristian Agung Sastro Kasmoyo
We were really proud of ourselves: the performance went really well, and we’d dealt with some challenging moments successfully. A lovely moment was when the MC described us a big family. We’re a pretty diverse group of people brought together by an unusual hobby, and amongst ourselves we’ve described Siswå Sukrå as a family (our ‘gamelan famelan’) so it was lovely to hear that sentiment observed independently from someone outside of the group.
ISI live-streamed the whole performance, and if you missed it you can watch the #gamelanfamelan in action here:
and this is another more personal video based on the same event:
More from the Donjuan team:
20 August: Challenge gamelan
Determined to continue challenging our stamina levels, on Sunday we had two performances: the first at 8am in central Solo and the second, our wayang kulit performance, outside Solo near Klaten at 8pm.
Sunday is Car-Free Day in Solo (although the ‘Day’ lasts only a few hours first thing in the morning). We headed west along Slamet Riyadi looking extremely co-ordinated in our Siswå Sukrå t-shirts, dodging joggers, roller bladers and fellow perambulators, and pausing to listen to a band and to watch groups of people doing aerobics. Gamelan Dave did his best to keep up with the aerobics but it’s difficult when you’re attached to a gendèr.
We arrived at our venue – a stage set up outside Taman Sriwedari, an entertainment park – in plenty of time for the MC to get Pete up on stage for a couple of interviews in between the bands that preceded us.
Due to start at 7:30am, we started only half-an-hour late. We performed the same dance pieces as at desa Waru, followed by some dhangdhut. We attracted quite a crowd, which spilled up onto the stage with us and sang along to our final piece, Ayun-Ayun. We finished to shouts of lagi! (‘more!’), but by that time the cars were already whisking by again and it was time for the stage to be packed up.
We headed back to the Cakra for a few hours before going to ISI for a dance rehearsal in the afternoon. Then straight onto the bus to head to the venue of our wayang kulit performance, desa Sabrang Lor in Klaten, which is the home village of one of our ISI teachers, Pak Bambang Siswanto. The village is out of Solo off the main road to Yogya, and we had beautiful views of the two volcanoes Mounts Merapi and Merbabu with the sun setting behind them.
Pak Bambang had arranged a delicious spread for us, so we got stuck into that while we waited for the performance to begin. There was quite a media turnout so they took the opportunity before everything began to get their interviews with Pete and other Indonesian speakers in the group.
It seemed like all the village kids turned up for the performance, and Cliodna had a solid fanbase of teenage boys hanging out by the kenongs for the whole performance.
It was quite a seat-of-the-pants gig as in wayang kulit the dhalang is in charge of which pieces are played when. We had a general running order but had to carefully listen out for specific cues, which sometimes came quite suddenly. That’s even harder when the story is being told in a language you don’t understand! However Pak Widodo unexpectedly conducted the second ‘act’ in English, which was a lovely surprise.
There were comedic interludes where Pak Widodo asked us all our names and made puns on them (Carrie – kari – curry – chicken curry) and tested everyone on their ability to play a fast riff which ends one of the dhangdhut pieces, Caping Nggunung. That was easy enough for those playing sarons and demungs, as those instruments play the riff during the piece, but not so easy for those playing other instruments like the gong and kenong who don’t usually play it and who had to negotiate large instruments! Our senior member Richard cracked us all up when he was called upon to bang out the riff on the slenthem as, with a knowing smile, he simply played the less complex version usually played on that instrument. Charles managed a brilliant version on the drums, getting them to produce different pitches.
Our sindhen (female solo singers) Cathy and Cecily were also each called upon to sing a section of the song Sléndhang Biru, with the microphone then being passed to Cherie (who did her best to hide behind her notation but wasn’t going to get away with that), on to Pak Bambang’s daughter and then to our sindhen’s teacher Bu Parsih.
Towards the end of the evening we were honoured to have Bu Kris, Pete’s gendèr teacher and a legendary player now about 95 years old, join us. Sammy was totally star-struck as she shifted over to let Bu Kris take her place!
We finished playing close to midnight with a triumphant flourish, before easing ourselves up from the floor nursing dead legs and aching backs. Rejuvenated by another round of food we took the time to admire a praying mantis which had planted itself on the door to the gamelan room, before we got on the bus to go back to Solo.
It was an extremely long and exhausting day, but well worth it. Both performances were really fun and as most of us had never played for a wayang before, it was a really memorable night.
19 August: Rice mountain
On Saturday we spent the day rehearsing for our wayang performance, and in the evening Pak Prasad had very kindly invited us all for dinner at his home.
It was a special evening for another reason also: both Charles and Nick were celebrating their birthdays. Before we tucked into the delicious meal Prasad’s wife had prepared for us we had a special birthday treat for them: a traditional Javanese tumpeng. It’s a perfectly shaped cone of rice with a banana leaf hat, surrounded by all sorts of savoury delicacies. The person whose birthday is being celebrated cuts the top off and then fills a plate with selections of the surrounding foods then gives it to a person who’s most special to them. We just had one, so it was decided that the birthday boys would approach the tumpeng much like a newly married couple approach a wedding cake. It was a beautiful moment as, clutching a knife together, they removed the top.
There were no prizes for guessing who would get Charles’s (it swiftly went to his girlfriend Madeleine) but there were a few minutes of speculation about who would be Nick’s special person. In the end the lucky (and very special) person was Cherie. It was a lovely evening and Pak Prasad was a wonderfully generous host. The evening rounded off with an impromptu Beatles singalong session with Matt and Glen leading on guitar and ukulele.
18 August: Independence!
We were up bright and early on Friday to head to ISI for 9am to continue working on material for our wayang kulit performance, this time with our dhalang (shadow puppeteer), Pak Widodo. After a quick lunch we spent a couple of hours in the early afternoon rehearsing the dance pieces for our final performance on 21 August.
Our schedule for the day was packed: after rehearsals we only had a couple of hours to get back to the Cakra, have a quick wash and get ready to leave for our evening klenengan.
We were consequently a bit concerned when, on hearing that we needed to get to Cakra Homestay, one of the taxis we’d ordered refused to take us and sped off into the traffic. The main east–west road in Solo, Jl. Slamet Riyadi, was shut for a parade to celebrate Independence Day, and we would need to cross it to get back. The taxi driver was not amused with that prospect. In the end the taxis dropped us just north of Slamet Riyadi and we rushed across the road in between the parade floats. It was a shame we didn’t have time to stay around and watch the whole parade go by, but we did get to see a giant zebra head and someone clutching a live chicken.
The klenengan, at Dukuh Tlumpuk, in the village desa Waru, kecamatan Kebakkramat, was a more formal affair than our recent village performances, to mark the opening of a new arts centre. We were performing for a crowd of around 700 people – our largest ever audience? It included Bapak Yuliatmono, Bupati (≈ governor) of the Karanganyar Regency (a division of Central Java province, something like a county), in which desa Waru is situated. All the village headmen from the district were present in formal dress. The Bupati had several other events to attend in the same evening, but stayed longer than expected.
In honour of that we got decked out in all our Javanese finery again. We got ready in the home of Pak Suyoto, taking time to admire the Sistine Chapel-esque dome in the living room ceiling, which Val and Cliodna honoured with a recreation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. We walked from there round to the pendhopo where we were playing, causing a bit of a stir with the locals. There was a huge banner of the Bupati and Pete hanging from the entrance to the village, which we all had to pause to take photos of.
We’re all getting used to expecting the unexpected, so when the MC made a speech and sang over one of our pieces (which apparently is completely usual) we took it in our stride, as we did when we were suddenly asked to play Ladrang Mugirahayu, which is a staple for us but not something we’d particularly prepared.
The event was to celebrate Independence Day, so there were some patriotic and uplifting speeches as well as several rounds of crowd participation in a chant that went: ‘Independence for me! Independence for you! Independence for everyone! Independence!’ The local village girls also performed a traditional dance, we all stood for the national anthem, and then there were more speeches!
Some highlights of the evening were the dance piece Driasmara, Cathy taking a selfie with a couple of soldiers, the fans that Jonathan brought which saved us from the heat, Val spilling soup on the kendhang (we really enjoy being fed at performances but passing food around the instruments is full of danger!) and the bright green dessert.
It was a really enjoyable evening, and a great experience playing to such a big crowd.
More from the Donjuan team:
16 & 17 August: Rehearsals
We began Wednesday by visiting Mangkunegaran Palace again, this time to watch the regular dance rehearsal in the main pendhopo. (To give the dancers time to arrive, the players always start with a gendhing bonang, and Sammy was allowed to sit in and play a saron.)
The first dance, Srimpi Moncar, depicts Javanese and Chinese princesses having a fight, with the Javanese princesses of course winning out.
The second dance was a warrior dance, Klana, and the third was Gambyong Paréanom, which we played during a couple of our recent performances. It was a real treat to actually have the opportunity to watch the dancers instead of having our heads buried in notation! They played a slightly different variation to how we have been playing it, which was really interesting to hear.
Then it was straight on to ISI to work on pieces for our final klenengan. We then split into smaller groups for some concentrated work on specific instruments: ciblon (drum), gambang (a sort of xylophone), suling (a bamboo flute), rebab (a two-stringed upright bowed instrument) and sindhenan (female solo singing).
Our heads full of new information, we headed back to the Cakra for a relaxed evening. An hour-long power cut made for an unexpectedly atmospheric impromptu gamelan rehearsal for some of the group.
A small, much more energetic group led by Sammy returned to Kitsie Emerson’s home for some more gamelan. The event was to celebrate Indonesia’s Independence Day on 17 August, and in between speeches and a delicious six-course dinner a group played mainly cokèkan (a small group of soft instruments).
On Friday we headed straight to ISI to start rehearsing for our wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance. It was an intense few hours with lots to learn! In the afternoon we split into our small groups again for a couple of hours. In the evening around half of the group went to see a wayang kulit performance at the cultural centre Taman Budaya Surakarta – marking a special date (Jum’at-Kliwon) in the Javanese 35-day calendar – and the other half took some time to relax and prepare for a very busy day on Saturday. Except for Cliodna and Charles, who went for a run.
14 & 15 August: Amongst the paddy fields
On Monday we went to Solo’s arts institute ISI Surakarta (alma mater of Pete and most Siswå Sukrå members who’ve studied in Java) for the first time to rehearse and learn from the teachers there. We started working on a new piece, Gendhing Srimpèn Sangupati, which has been specially requested for us to play at our final klenengan on 21 August, and then went over pieces already in our repertoire.
We rehearsed most of the day and then had a free evening. Many of the group went batik shopping (it seems you can never have enough batik shirts) and out for dinner (it seems you can have enough of Indonesian food no matter how delicious it is, because McDonalds was on the cards for some!). Then some got an early night and others headed out for cocktails at the Royal Surakarta Hotel to bid farewell to peripatetic Siswå Sukrå member Maria Mendonça. Maria teaches at Kenyon College, Ohio, in America, but we were able to meet up with her here in Java as she is currently making a documentary about gamelan-making.
On Tuesday we had an early rehearsal before heading off to desa Wirun, the village of gamelan maker Pak Sahli, for a klenengan. Situated by a canal, with rice paddies stretching to the mountains in the distance, it was a beautiful setting. The gamelan was in a room with large open doors looking out onto the view, and our audience gathered outside the room with kids spilling in a side door.
We began with some of the more refined pieces in our repertoire and then paused for some speeches. The village head spoke very movingly of his appreciation that a foreign group are helping to keep a fading part of Javanese culture alive. Pete did a shortened version of his usual speech explaining who we all are, and then we ate with our hosts (bakso, a selection of vegetable and chicken dishes and lots of tempeh). Then back to the gamelan – which we found out was only a week old, and we were the first group to play it – to finish with some loud and energetic dhangdhut pieces.
One of the dhangdhut pieces features a lyric about the beauty of nature, and just as that part of the song came around the haze over the mountains cleared and the mountains appeared framed in the open doors … perfect. As we waited for our taxis to arrive we watched the sun go down and the stars come out over the rice paddies.
13 August: Fertility temples
Today a visit to two fifteenth-century Hindu temples was on the agenda: Candi Sukuh and Candi Cetho. The temples are up on Mount Lawu in the mountains an hour to the east of Solo, amongst tea plantations, rice paddies and intensive vegetable-growing, with incredible views back down the mountains. The roads are very steep in places so we had to transfer from our normal bus to two smaller, older buses that could handle the mountain roads (bus company name: Putri Gunung or ‘Mountain Girl’), and which gave us the opportunity of watching the landscape go past the open side door. As we watched Nick doze in his seat just behind the open door we were all sufficiently reassured by his strong grip on the window bar that we let him snooze on.
Both temples have a fertility theme, so as you may imagine, that involves quite a lot of phallic imagery. We’ve had a camera crew trailing us for much of our trip and they seemed to enjoy our attempts to place Wisata Dave in vaguely compromising positions amongst the statues.
In between admiring the carvings and the views at Candi Sukuh, we also took some time to watch the local village men attempting to best each other at a game that would have British health and safety officials pulling out their hair. A pole about 30 feet tall was set up, and teams of men were competing to get to the top by standing on each other’s shoulders. The first man would approach the pole with another on his shoulders. Man at bottom hugged the pole tightly, and the man on his shoulders would stand up and also hug the pole. Then another guy would climb up their backs and stand on the second guy’s shoulders, and so on. A stack of five men was just tall enough for the top guy to grab prizes that were attached to the top before shinning back down again. It was a really impressive sight!
We also had a fun moment when one of a group of Indonesian tourists asked for a photo with us. After striking up a conversation with Madeleine, who speaks a little Javanese, she explained to them that we were here to play gamelan, at which point they asked whether we were the group they’d seen on TV. To which the answer, apparently, is yes! Struck by new-found fame we’re now in the process of working out an extensive rider for all our future performances.
Some of us took a brief walk in the forest above Sukuh, to get a feel of the environment where wayang stories are set. No ogres, but a giant spider.
On the way back we stopped to eat at the Balé Branti, a tea house/restaurant scenically located among the fields on the slopes of Mount Lawu. As the sun went down, we were treated to an obbligato chorus of frogs in the fields.
12 August: Frogs and chickens
Saturday morning allowed us our first chance to venture out into Solo itself properly. Unfortunately several members of the group were ill, due to tiredness or stomach complaints, but those remaining were led by Sammy on a trip to see Pak Hartono’s Pakormatan rehearsal at the Mangkunegaran palace. Just like in Yogya, there are two royal palaces, and the Mangkunegaran is the junior one. However, it does have the second largest Pendhopo in Java, and in this we went to see some of the archaic ceremonial gamelans being played. These comprised the Gamelan Cåråbalèn, which has the largest repertoire of pieces, and then the Gamelan Kodhok Ngorèk (‘croaking frog’) and Gamelan Monggang, which have only one piece each. These gamelans have fewer instruments (e.g. only one kenong), and are exclusively loud-style.
Sammy and Cathy were recognised by the musicians and allowed to join in playing the Kodhok Ngorèk and Monggang. Sammy in particular spent a lot of time hanging out at the Mangkunegaran during her two years in Java, and was clearly in her element, catching up with friends amongst the musicians, who were just as excited to see her again. At least four of the players had also been at Pujånggå Laras the previous night, once again demonstrating the apparent Javanese ability to survive on very minimal sleep.
Given the mixed healthiness amongst the group, afternoon rehearsals were cancelled, but some people used the opportunity to swim, or head to the batik shopping district. In the evening, the group headed out of Solo in a convoy of taxis, to desa Jatitekan, the village of the gong-maker Mas Tarno, who has previously been to England to tune gamelans. At his house, we played a lovely, relaxed klenengan, under a tin roof with chickens clucking about in the background and a packed audience of villagers and their children. Given that this was clearly the highest concentration of mind-bogglingly tall white people ever seen in the village, Nick and Calum got the now-usual attention and selfie requests due to their height, and Matt’s long hair was as popular as ever with the village’s teenage girls. This has taken a little getting used to, but is done with the utmost good humour, and we are now well practised at posing. As ever on this trip, the food was tasty (or as we have learnt: ‘Enak’) and plentiful. Once again, another evening proved the unbridled hospitality of Javanese people – plus, of course, their extreme willingness to laugh at Pete’s well-honed cheesy jokes at the expense of members of the group.
11 August: Prambanan and Klenengan Pujånggå Laras
On Friday we set out from Yogya towards Surakarta aka Solo, perhaps the main goal for most of the members of Siswå Sukrå. Enroute we called at the Prambanan Hindu temple complex, built by the Mataram kingdom in the ninth century. This was a scorching hot day, and as there is little shade on the flat plain on which the temples sit, we moved slowly and several people used sun umbrellas. We examined the carved friezes showing the various gods and inspected the statues within the temples. These included the main temple, dedicated to Shiva, along with that dedicated to his transport, the bull Nandi. Apparently, traditional practice at Hindu temple complexes is to touch the testicles of the statue of Nandi, for good luck, before going to pay respects to Shiva. However, in this case, Nandi was sitting down, preventing us from doing so. However, Jonathan and Richard showed us how it was possible to slap the side of Nandi’s jawbone and make the stone ring. We reckoned it was the note 2.
Having seen Prambanan, we proceeded down the Yogya to Solo road, though the town of Klaten. In Klaten we passed the statue of Ki Narto Sabdho, perhaps the most successful twentieth-century composer for Javanese gamelan, who was born in the town. Continuing down the road, Pete assured us that the road was now much safer than in the days of his first trip to Java. There is now a central reservation, preventing rival companies’ buses from racing three-abreast towards oncoming traffic to get to the next stop first.
It was very noticeable how the road was built up in ribbon development, but buildings and advertising were very close to the road. Beyond was a sea of rice fields, and in the distance, beyond the haze, the volcanoes Gunung Merapi (active) and Gunung Merbabu (extinct).
Finally, we arrived in Solo, to noticeable smiles of excitement to be ‘home’ from the former Dharmasiswa students in the group. Of course, for one member of Siswå Sukrå, Cecily, this is now home, as she begins Dharmasiswa studies at ISI Surakarta next month.
After settling in at the Cakra Homestay, we headed out to a real treat: Klenengan Pujånggå Laras, an event held about once a month at different venues and hosted this time at the beautiful new home of Kitsie Emerson and her husband Pak Wakidi. It is a chance for some of the most esteemed members of the Solo gamelan community, including teachers and palace musicians, to get together and play some of the longer and rarer pieces in the repertoire. The Pendhopo was packed, with a full turnout from interested locals and westerners. As well as Siswå Sukrå, there were also members of a Japanese group, Gamelan Lambangsari, in town. We chatted to them both in English and, in the case of Cecily and Sarah, in Japanese. One member from Okinawa, mbak Tomo, attended the gamelan course at the Southbank a decade ago, whilst living in England.
Klenengan Pujånggå Laras had a great atmosphere and we are grateful to our hosts for the food and music. In particular, after a very hectic schedule of concerts in the first few days of the tour, it offered some very, very tired but happy group members a chance to take a break and listen to some great musicians playing.
10 August: Kids and culture
After a very busy and tiring schedule given the early concerts on this tour, Thursday brought a mostly free day, and several of the group took advantage by sleeping in late. Others were made of sterner stuff, and set off to play with schoolchildren at Taman Siswa school.
Many people on the trip said it was the highlight of the tour so far, seeing such excited young people enjoying playing gamelan. (Few schools now take the gamelan as seriously as this one does.) Other members of the group hit the market stalls and shops around Jalan Malioboro to do some shopping for batik.
Later in the afternoon, a small group guided by Richard set off for the Pakualaman, the junior royal palace in Yogya, to watch a dance rehearsal. The palace was noticeably more relaxed than the kraton, without the tourist crowds. As the only Westerners there, we were made welcome by the gamelan musicians and the prince’s servants (abdi dalem) and given tea. We sat on the pendhopo steps as the sun went down, listening and watching as the dancers rehearsed a super-refined srimpi dance.
However, this was clearly not nearly enough Javanese culture for one day, so afterwards we walked over to the nearby Taman Siswa venue to watch a Wayang Wong. This is a dance drama with people rather than puppets playing the characters. The night’s story was from the Mahabharata. Palguna wishes to train as an archer so as to become better than Arjuna, the best warrior of the Pandhawa brothers. The teacher Durna refuses, so Palguna learns from a statue of Durna, and eventually becomes the best archer. Durna is upset, but he says that it is traditional to grant your teacher any graduation present requested, and that the teacher is effectively him. Accordingly, Durna makes Palguna cut off his thumbs.
The atmosphere at the Wayang Wong was great, with some lovely refined dancing from the dancer playing Palguna in particular, and some brilliant evil gagah (strong male style) dancing from the Kurawa, various beasts including a lion and an alligator. And perhaps the best costume yet seen in Java for the giant bird Jatayu:
Many Javanese people were there enjoying the performance, including many friends we have made during our days here in Yogya. In particular, Mita’s and Seta’s parents have been extremely generous to us during our time in Yogya, and we are very grateful to them.
9 August: A temple and a Pyramid
After frankly far too few hours sleep, most members of Siswå Sukrå (the intrepid ones? the foolhardy?) were up at 4am to go and see the sunrise from the Buddhist ‘temple’ of Borobudur. The sunrise in Java is fast: it goes from dark to light in about fifteen minutes, and similarly in reverse at the other end of the day. The light on the mist, with Mount Merapi in the background and the stupas of Borobudur to the fore, made for some spectacular photographs. Even bustling with tourists there was a real serenity to the place.
It is beyond impressive that the Buddhist kings of so many centuries ago could summon up the manpower to build something so large without modern machinery. And of course, we made sure we got our required group photo in front of the monument, including an integral member of the group who is not in Indonesia with us: Dave. As well as having him with us in spirit and social media, we also managed to bring him here in cardboard cutout form. Gamelan Dave (Dave playing gendèr) has been accompanying us to latihans and performances, and wisata (tourist) Dave has been with us on all our outings.
After leaving the temple we stopped off in Borobudur village for some breakfast where we were serenaded by gamelan musicians playing slenthem, gendèr and siter. We hummed along to Ladrang Wilujeng as we ate, and birthday boy Pete joined them for a while.
On arriving back at desa Peté we had a few hours of free time to grab some more sleep before rehearsing. Then we said our goodbyes to beautiful desa Peté and jumped back on the bus to Yogya.
We went straight to the venue of our evening performance, Planet Pyramid, for a sound check. The venue staff were in the final stages of setting up the gamelan, which looked like it hadn’t been played for an age. There were a few instruments missing, which was a challenge for some of the dances that were on the programme. However, Pete and some of our new good friends in the Yogya gamelan community rallied round to find a second gamelan in time for the evening concert.
Meanwhile, group members headed back to the UGM hotel to confront our next challenge: wearing formal Javanese court dress for the first time. For the women, a make-up lady came in, and in addition to our familiar blue and red kebayas, we wore kains (a skirt made out of batik fabric with a set of 11 pleats at the front). For men there were the male version of the kain, bound tightly to the body with cummerbund and belt, the boxy short jackets called beskap, and the little turban caps called blangkon. All this took a little bit of getting used to for all of those members of the group used to wearing trousers during gigs. This was particularly a challenge given the heat, but it certainly added to the sense of occasion. It also ensured that pretty much every Javanese person one passed whilst walking around the venue insisted on a selfie. Here we are in all our finery:
Then it was back to Planet Pyramid, where we were ensconced in a large room to await our performance slot. We were joined again by Seta’s parents and sister, and the parents of Mita, another Javanese friend in London. Mita’s parents had prepared a traditional Javanese birthday dish for Pete, so our singers had a warm-up for the performance with a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
All events in Indonesia start late, we were quickly learning, and involve lots of speeches. This was the case at the FKY; we didn’t get on stage until after 10pm. We filled the time as best we could with dinner, lots of photos, watching Pete being interviewed for Indonesian TV, and unsuccessfully trying to get used to having large swathes of cloth wrapped around our midriffs.
Finally, we were on! We filed out onto the stage and began. Our set list was mainly dances: Eka Prawira with the dancers from UKJGS, Bambang-Cakil with Chakil Squad, Beksan Karonsih with Bu Rachel from desa Peté and Mas Eko Sunyoto, and Gambyong Paréanom with Andrea Rutkowski and dancers from Sanggar Seni Joglo Peté and Chakil Squad.
We had some interesting moments during the performance – the kenong players were off at one far side of the stage and had a radio playing in one ear and the rest of Siswå Sukrå in the other, Pete and Carrie disappeared briefly in a cloud of dry ice, and we all had moments where we suddenly became aware of the drone that was hovering over us. We paused before our final number for the three MCs to have a quick chat with Pete, and then finished off with the dhangdhut crowd favourite Warung Pojok not long before midnight. A few more rounds of photos and we were back on the bus, a truly epic day over!
From the Donjuan Photography team, who are following us around to make an official record for the Ministry of Education and Culture:
8 August: From kraton to desa
On Tuesday morning a select group of Siswå Sukrå went to the Kraton Yogya, the Sultan’s palace. Not everyone wanted to get out of bed early enough after a long day on Monday. Nonetheless, those that went to the kraton got to see the lovely experience of a village group playing in the Bangsal Srimanganti. They started out playing some Yogya-style loud Gendhing Soran – really a great illustration to us of how loud the right volume for this type of gamelan piece is. As the pieces went by, the group moved on to play some classic lighter pieces composed by Ki Nartosabdho. Siswå Sukrå’s resident Yogya-head, Richard, did his best to look unmoved and long-suffering at hearing these sorts of pieces in the Kraton.
Earlier we’d had a small tour around the kraton‘s galleries, and checked out the art collection: mostly portraits of previous Sultans in classic Javanese serious-face style. The current sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, was also pictured, along with his one wife and five daughters. The previous sultan had seven wives. We also had a look at the giant gamelans used for the Sekatèn festival.
Having taken a lot of pictures, and enjoyed hearing some pieces that we play in our regular repertoire played inside the main Yogya royal palace, we headed back to our accommodation to start the bus trip to desa Peté. We’d been invited there to play a klenengan, and to rehearse with the dancers who we would be accompanying in the gig at the festival on Wednesday night.
After a standard (i.e. traffic-ridden) journey of about ninety minutes from Yogya, we arrived at the foot of the hill on which desa Peté sits. The meeting place was outside an art gallery in the shape of a giant camera (no, really!). Here we transferred to village cars for the journey up the very steep hill, as the bus would never have made it.
We were made welcome to Bu Rachel Harrison’s house by many members of the village, and sampled the astonishing array of Javanese food and sweets on offer. This is becoming a theme: mountains of Javanese palm sugar – gula Jawa – are used in everything, and you must ask specially for tea without sugar, since it’s about 50:50 proportions by default.
Later in the afternoon, the latihan (mixture of rehearsal and socialising with food) began in the lovely Pendhopo (open-sided pavilion) of the arts centre set up by Rachel and her husband, housing a shiny, great-sounding gamelan. After the usual speeches and introductions of every member of the group from Pete, music began. The villagers treated us to a performance of traditional hobby-horse dancing and also danced a gambyong dance along with an extract from the Semaradana wayang wong. Then Siswå Sukrå rehearsed before going to bed.
What struck everyone in the group was the sheer generous, plentiful nature of the welcome we all received from everyone in the village. This was not just about the wonderful food, but also the warmth of everyone we met. Although some villagers spoke English, there were plenty of us who had little common language. But still, we were received with nothing but welcome, and this made for a special evening.
7 August: Jakarta to Yogya
On Monday we took the eight-hour, over-air-conditioned train journey from Jakarta to Yogya. We were absolutely captivated by the beautiful scenery, passing through the flat plains of western Java through the hills into central Java, with towns and small villages dotted through the countryside. Here’s eight hours of scenery condensed into three minutes:
Once we arrived at our Yogya hotel, on the campus of Universitas Gajah Mada (UGM), Indonesia’s first university, we relaxed for a couple of hours. We then joined a student gamelan group who play in the Solonese style (UKJGS) for a latihan to prepare for our next performance at Festival Kesenian Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta Art Festival, FKY) when we would be joined by dancers from the group.
We had a quick lesson in Javanese greetings (say your name as you shake hands rather than ‘hello’), and spent some time getting to know each other before knuckling down to rehearsing and sharing dinner. We also had the pleasure of meeting family members of Javanese friends in London who are Siswå Sukrå regulars but not with us for the trip: the wife and daughter of Wisnu (dancer and cultural attaché at the embassy) who would also be performing with us in Yogya with other members of the group Chakil Squad Art Community, and the parents and sister of Seta, who is from Yogya and studying at SOAS in London.
6 August: Wayang Museum performance
On Sunday we spent a somewhat nervous morning preparing for our first performance in Indonesia. Notations were triple-checked and kebayas were safety-pinned before we jumped on the bus the Ministry of Education laid on for us.
The journey to the Museum, which is in Kota Tua (Jakarta’s old town, full of Dutch colonial architecture), took us past the National Monument, ably identified by Jonathan doing his best tour guide impression. Carrie was dive-bombed by a hornet-like insect that had found its way into the bus, though it was apparently stingless, but a question still remains over whether the group’s swift exit from the bus shortly afterwards was really only because we were stopped in the middle of a busy road. We threaded our way past street vendors to Fatahillah Square and made our way to our dressing room to wait for our performance time.
It wouldn’t be Indonesia if plans weren’t subject to change, so some last-minute tweaks to the set list, the performance being brought forward by an hour, having to fix the rebab with nail scissors and working out how to play with only two sarons instead of our usual four were just part of the fun! (Pete’s solution to the saron problem: ‘Nick, you’ll just have to play with yourself.’)
We were joined for the performance by Prasad Kasmoyo, and dancers Andrea Rutkowski and Dona Dhian Ginanjar, from Solo. Andrea regularly danced with us in the UK before she started her Dharmasiswa (Indonesian government scholarship) year. Pak Prasad taught Pete when he first went to Solo 25 years ago, so it was a real honour for us that he joined us to perform (#HonorarySiswåSukråMember).
We were introduced by a representative from the Museum, followed by an intro and audience warm-up by Pete (Nick and Calum did a great job of standing up to demonstrate how tall they are). And then, sweaty palms clutching beaters, we began with Ladrang Wilujeng.
Our set list included the dances Gambyong Paréanom, Topèng Gunungsari and Driasmara, with a range of pieces in between. The dances especially went down a treat with the audience – huge thanks to Andrea and Dhian, who were amazing – as did the dhangdhut. Our singers, led by Cathy and Jonathan, sounded fantastic. Cathy was particularly excited by all the different settings on the microphone!
It was a nerve-wracking couple of hours negotiating an unfamiliar gamelan and playing to an Indonesian audience, but what a wonderful experience! We finished off with a mammoth photo session (it felt like everyone in the audience wanted a photo with us!) and then jumped back on the bus.
We finished off the day with a celebratory dinner trip to the stalls at shopping centre Block M for delicious Indonesian food, before heading home and packing to be ready for a 6am bus to the train station to catch our train to Yogya.
Photo credits to Paramita Chandra Dewi and Rano Wisoko.
5 August: Our first day in Java
We’re here! We successfully negotiated flight delays, baggage reclaim, co-ordinating arrivals on different flights and the taxi rank at Jakarta airport to arrive safely at our hotel in Jakarta.
After a much-needed night’s sleep we met up for breakfast. The hotel buffet had a bewildering array of Indonesian dishes as well as the more familiar cereals and pastries. Rice and soup for breakfast may take some getting used to, but who can say no to the temptation of trying everything on offer?!
Most of us had a fairly leisurely day lounging by the pool and popping to the shopping mall next door to stock up on SIM cards and other essentials. Andrew had his first ever bubble tea, ably assisted by bubble tea guru Jade, but our mission to find some swimming trunks for Pak Pete sadly ended in failure.
We finished off the day with a final latihan to prepare for our performance at the Wayang Museum tomorrow. We were very kindly invited to use the gamelan at the home of Tim Buehrer, who hosts a gamelan group in Jakarta. Many thanks to Tim who gave us a wonderfully warm welcome, lots of refreshments, durian wafer biscuits and the exotic sight of bats whisking back and forth over his swimming pool catching insects.
Back in our fleet of six taxis, we headed home for some well-earned sleep!
In the last few weeks before we go to Java we’ve had a series of extra rehearsals. It’s been intense and tiring (even more so for those in the group who are the organisational masterminds behind the trip) but very rewarding. One rehearsal, at the Embassy, was split over two different slendro gamelans, so we were positively spoilt! You don’t get 25 people rehearsed and ready to perform half-way around the world without moments of stress, but the trademark Siswå Sukrå humour and sense of fun has seen us through. Here’s to the Gamelan Famelan!
Huge thanks to Pete, Cathy and Sammy for all the prep work. And a special thanks to Dave who also has done a huge amount to get us to Java but whose bad back means he won’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labour first-hand. You’ll be with us in spirit and on social media! ❤️
Next blog entry will be from Java!!
‘Summertime’ Gamelan Showcase
23 July saw all the community gamelan groups based at the Southbank Centre come together for our Summertime Showcase. The summer and winter gigs at the Southbank are always a lovely opportunity for us to play in front of an audience at our home venue and to see what the other groups in the gamelan programme have been working on.
Unfortunately, the Great British Summer being what it is, the plan to play outside on the Riverside Terrace was abandoned and we Showcased in the Royal Festival Hall’s Clore Ballroom instead, with delicious smells from the food stalls outside wafting in!
Siswå Sukrå were joined by our friends from the dance group Lila Bhawa for the piece Gambyong Mudhatama, and by Puja Ayu (from Lila Bhawa) and Wisnu Aji Setyo for the pieces Driasmara and Bambang Cakil. As always the dance pieces were a particular hit with the audience!
We also got to accompany Siswå Sukrå stalwart Dave McKenny’s Monday Beginner group as they sang a rousing rendition of Lumbung Deså, with Dave Facetiming in to watch as he sadly couldn’t make it to the gig. We do like to combine modern tech with the world of gamelan!
We had a great afternoon, and were all very aware that this was our last performance before we go to Java. It’s really starting to sink in!
You don’t get to help open an embassy every day …
On 13 July we were honoured to take part in the ceremony to formally open the new Indonesian embassy in London.
We played ‘welcome’ music while the guests arrived and took their seats – Ladrang Wilujeng to kick everything off, of course! Later we accompanied the fantastic dancers Wisnu Aji Setyo and Puja Ayu for the dance piece Bambang Cakil. And at the end of the ceremony we played a final set starting with a rousing rendition of Warung Pojok as the guests made their way into an adjoining room for some food.
Highlights of the evening? The dance piece (even though concentrating on playing means you don’t get to watch much of what the dancers are doing!), the Indonesian Foreign Minister coming over to say hi and sitting herself down next to Pete for a bit of a chat, hearing Coldplay’s Viva la Vida played on angklung (I’ll take the angklung version every time), and the delicious food!
We had a great time and were really honoured to have the opportunity to take part in such an auspicious event – many thanks to the embassy for inviting us to play!