Yogya and Japan’s Musical Community

While my project is progressing at SDK Mangunan, I thought I would take this chance to express my deepest sympathies to the people of Japan and all those affected by the disaster. I know we are all reading the news and seeing photographs with gaping mouths and broken hearts. The city of Yogya and my hometown in Maine are both distraught and very much connected to communities suffering.

Namioka, a town in Aomori, is the sister city of Cumberland, the town I grew up in. When I was twelve, I took part in an inter-school exchange and spent about two weeks in Japan. With a dozen other students from my school, we toured Tokyo for two days and continued on to Namioko, where we each did a homestay. I remember I was one of the lucky American children who was placed with a family that spoke a little bit of English. We ate rice balls with pine nuts for lunch, visited a volcanic lake, walked through Zen gardens, and watched baseball games on TV. While I cannot say at age twelve I was struck with the wanderlust I suffer from now, the experience no doubt instilled in me the sense of being a global citizen.

Eleven years later, I am here in Yogya and my connection with Namioka has been rekindled. I cannot say for happy reasons, but this connection has inspired me to support the Japanese community living in Yogya. There is a Japanese composer who has come to SDK Mangunan twice to observe music classes and impress the students with his pianica compositions. His wife also studies karawitan (gamelan) at the Institute for the Arts (my sponsor university). The day after the tsunami, he told me that his family was safe, but he did have friends in the north for whom he was concerned. This moved him, Pak Djohan (my counterpart and a professor from ISI Yogyakarta), and other local and Japanese musicians to host a performance at the cultural center Taman Budaya.

I arrived at the open-air performance center at 8pm on a Thursday to a large audience. Pak Ndaru, Mangunan’s music teacher, was there; with big eyes and a bigger smile he said that almost all of Yogya’s artists were present. People sprawled on bamboo mats and stood along the perimeter facing a white screen and a few gamelan instruments. The first performance was a large group of about fifteen men and women, dressed in kimono-like clothing. Their dance was to recorded Japanese music, and seemed inspired by martial-arts. It was a strong and loud performance to begin the evening.

The second performance was a small Javanese gamelan ensemble including five men and two female singers. They sat on a raised platform with the instruments, while a man danced on the tiled floor in front of the ensemble. The music was traditional Javanese, and according to Pak Ndaru, about life and all people living in the world, how they have to make their lives better. This genre of music is quite old, drawing influence from Hinduism and Javanese mystics. The music began as melodic, but lead to a chant-like bridge in which all performers online casino spoke the lyrics in complete monotone; then the music returned to the melodic style like which it began. Throughout the performance, the male dancer performed a modern interpretation of Javanese dance; his movements were very slow but articulate, flourished but carefully composed.

The final performance I am afraid I will not be able to do justice with just my words. It was an amazing modern composition with a large number of participants. It began with a woman singing what is essentially a Javanese lullaby while audience members wrote messages on a large cloth to be sent to Japan. The performance progressed with gamelan instruments, and two men walking from behind the audience to the front stage area. One man held a white mask and an expression of utmost fear, while another behind him carried a small, candle-lit lantern. The performance grew to involve more gamelan instruments (bronze bowls, metallophones, gongs), a harmonica-like instrument, the pianica, more Javanese singers, performers reading prose, shouting out loud, more interpretive modern dancers crawling over each other and incorporating traditional Javanese poses (hips out, face sideways, fingers curled back to a point), a fretless electric guitar, claps and body-pats. It was a loud, haunting, overwhelming performance that felt heavy with Yogya’s humidity. Despite taking place within a well-lit white, outdoor space, the performance was dark and filled with violent emotional sounds but also with sad, quiet faces. I very much apologize for not being able to articulate all of the movements and sounds of this performance; it involved over twenty performers who were moving between instruments and dance movements and song. I at the time was so moved and overwhelmed I decided to stop writing observations and simply watch and listen. It was uncomfortable and dissonant but easily emotion-provoking with the smooth melisma of Javanese dance and music. I asked Pak Ndaru if similar compositions were common in Java; his response was no, because that kind of music is not easy to listen to, it is too dissonant (both for Western tonal ears and those used to the pelog or slendro tonal schemes of gamelan).

It is important in my research to recognize the international influences of Javanese and Indonesian music. These performances, while stirred by the unfortunate tragedy in Japan, were a very clear example of how musical communities combine traditional Javanese music, contemporary Indonesian influence, and international inspiration to create one rich composition. And as I saw in the large crowd, music is an essential source in bringing people together to find friendship and healing.

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