First Impressions And Final Lessons

This week marks the end of my language program. As I mentioned in the previous post, I switched from a language school to a tutorial with two private teachers, Ari and Ria. My first lesson with Ria began with her arriving at my house with a guitar (her daughter’s that had been collecting dust as of late); she explained I could borrow it until I had a chance to buy one myself. She went on to show me a list of vocabulary that included parts of the guitar and basic music theory terms. The following months’ lessons were not as intensively based around music, but Ria and Ari both thought it was important for me to practice the art of chatting. Javanese people are as friendly as can be, and often like to start up conversations (which include without fail three questions: how long have you been here; what are you researching; and are you married). In addition to basic grammar and vocabulary lessons and quizzes, Ari and Ria were more than happy to discuss all sorts of parts of Indonesian culture; over coffee and the best spring rolls I’ve ever tasted, we talked about women’s rights, religion, the education system, colonial history, and my house’s cockroach infestation.

During my final week, Ari and I translated an article about the history of gamelan music. It is no wonder this performance art is analyzed by so many ethnomusicologists; some theories state that the origins of gamelan started in the prehistoric era in Indonesia, while others state it was carried from India and evolved over centuries of international influence, the height of the Hindu kingdoms, Islamic rule, European colonialism, and eventually Indonesian independence. It is a fascinating history and in reading the article I was first thrilled that I actually understood an academic text in Bahasa (no matter how often I needed to refer to my five-pound dictionary), and also excited with all of the questions that arose from our discussion.

With those questions, I have also been developing ideas for my music research based on such lessons and other musical performances I have been able to go to. I did see a gamelan performance in Yogyakarta at the Kraton (Sultan’s Palace). It was of course in Bahasa Jawa so I did not understand the story, but having briefly read about gamelan music theory and performance it was a fascinating performance. It was so inspiring to hear and see what I had been reading about, as it finally made sense to me. Some questions that have arisen include, why are the instrumental performers always men, how does the influence of Hinduism mesh with Islam (the majority of the population on Java are Muslim) and ancient Javanese traditions, and how do performers develop their abilities in modern society, or how do children become inspired to learn the instruments and practice their performance?

Another one of my favorite musical events was actually at the Documentary Film Festival, where I watched a film about the developing hip-hop community in Yogyakarta. The topic was how local hip-hop artists infuse traditional Javanese stories or poetry with hip-hop music. In one scene, the Jogja Hip-Hop Foundation was invited to Singapore for a music festival; one of their performances had the female artist dressed in traditional Javanese clothing (hair done in a tight bun, a wrap skirt and top in lovely batik printing with gold embellishments), singing a haunting Javanese melody, and posing her fingers as traditional dancers do; next to her was one of the male performers in a baseball cap, a batik t-shirt, and jeans spitting rhymes, with their DJ bobbing to the bass-y computer beats. Having researched hip-hop in Senegal for my undergraduate thesis, this is definitely a topic of research I am excited to pursue. Combining tradition with modern elements is exactly how musical communities stay relevant within a globalized musical world.

I will mention one more musical performance, one of my favorites, as it was a surprise that makes a girl glow. My friend and I were walking to the bus stop after eating a delicious lunch of rice and fried chicken, and heard some live music blasting through the neighborhood. We turned the corner to see what it was, and found a small outdoor stage with about twenty male university students in matching black shirts taking pictures of each other and dancing in front. The band was playing some punk-rock alternative tunes with both male and female guitar players, a male drummer, and a female on lead vocals. My favorite facet of this performance was that both of the girls were wearing jilbabs (they were all students at one of the Islamic universities), but they were completely powerful in their performances. I will go so far as to say that when I see a woman wearing a jilbab to cover her hair, I am aware that she has made a commitment to her culture and religion to respect her womanhood through modesty. This, however, does not restrict a woman’s intelligence, work ethic, or creativity. After the band finished their set (and the boys took some pictures with us), my friend and I walked away talking about what a crazy, fantastic place we live in; one minute you’re desperately searching for an air-conditioned spot to escape the heat and traffic, the next you’re watching a teenage girl in a jilbab shredding on guitar.

Now that my language program is over, I can finally dive into my music research. While my project will be based on an after-school music program at an elementary school, it will be critical to explore many kinds of the music Yogya, Java, and Indonesia have to offer. Each aspect of each genre is a puzzle piece to how Indonesian music can be used to encourage children’s creative expression. While there seems to be no shortage of musical ideas and interpretation, I am interested to see what is available to most children, and what the social perception of musical performance artists is. And I know I never would be able to understand a single note of cultural nuance had I not spent the past three months studying Bahasa Indonesia. To my many wonderful teachers, terima kasih! Sekarang, aku mulai musiknya.

9 thoughts on “First Impressions And Final Lessons

  1. Hi Lynne,

    I’m an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University majoring in “Music, Language, and Culture.” I recently discovered Gamelan through a class I’m taking and participated in a rehearsal at the Indonesian Embassy in New York. What you’re doing is very interesting and intersects with my interests. I teach at a music school that provides low-income children with free lessons, am doing research with the Curb Center for Creativity, and want to get a Gamelan in Nashville. I would love to chat with you more if you have the time!




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