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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 birthday. 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’ (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 Ki 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 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, 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, Kebakramat, was a more formal affair than our recent village performances. We were performing for a crowd of around 700 people, including Bapak Yuliatmono, Bupati of the Karanganyar Regency in which Desa Waru is situated.

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 The 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 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.

16 & 17 August: Rehearsals

We began Thursday by visiting Mangkunegaran Palace again, this time to watch the regular dance rehearsal in the main pendhopo. 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 Pareanom, 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 singing).

Our heads full of new information, we headed back to 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 cokekan (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, 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 Srimpen 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 Mendonca. Maria teaches at Kenyon College 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 Sahly, 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 tempe). Then back to the gamelan, which we found out was only a week old, to finish with some loud and energetic ndhangdhut pieces.

One of the ndhangdhut 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 Mount Merapi 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 15th 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 and rice paddies, 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 tall 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 shinnying 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 newfound fame we’re now in the process of working out an extensive rider for all our future performances.

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 largest Pendhopo in Java, and in this we went to see some of the archaic ceremonial gamelans being played. These comprised the Gamelan Carabalen, which has the largest repertoire of pieces, and then the Gamelan Kodhok Ngorek (“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 Ngorek 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 Pujangga 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 Jati Teken, 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 Pujangga Laras

On Friday we set out from Yogya towards Solo, perhaps the main goal for most of the members of Siswå Sukrå. Enroute we called at 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. 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 Nando’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 20th 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 of Gunung Merapi and Gunung Merbabu.

Finally, we arrived in Solo, to noticeable smiles of excitement to be “home” from the former Dharmasiswa 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 Cakra Homestay, we headed out to a real treat: Klenengan Pujangga Laras. Hosted at the beautiful new home of Kitsie Emerson and her husband Pak Wakidi, this 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 Pujangga 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 school children 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. 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 sultan’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 Mahabarata. Palguna wishes to train as an archer so as to become better than Arjuna, the best warrior of the Pandhawa brothers. The teacher Duran 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 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 and Seto’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 being with us in spirit and social media, we also managed to bring him here in cardboard cutout form. Gamelan Dave (Dave playing gender) 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, gender 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 Pete we had a few hours of free time to grab some more sleep before rehearsing. Then we said our goodbyes to beautiful Desa Pete 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 concert dress for the first time. For the women, a makeup lady came in, and in addition to our familiar blue and red Kebayas, we wore Kains (a sarong made out of batik fabric with a set of 11 pleats at the front). For men there were Kains, 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 Seto’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 warmup 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. So was the case at 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 Pete and Mas Eko Sunyoto, and Gambyong Pareanom with Andrea Rutkowski and dancers from Sanggar Seni Joglo Pete 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 ndhangdhut 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!

 8 August: From Kraton to Desa

On Tuesday morning a select group of Siswå Sukrå went to the Kraton Yogya. 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 main Pendhopo. 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, Hamengka Buwano 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 Muslim festival of Sekaten.

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 Pete. 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 (ie traffic-ridden) journey of about ninety minutes from Yogya, we arrived at the foot of the hill on which Desa Pete sits. The meeting place was outside an art gall