The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, September 10, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

There aren’t too many pesinden in Indonesia and probably none quite like Karen Elizabeth Sekararum.

A pesinden is a woman who sings with a gamelan orchestra, often as a solo performer. That simple description masks the need to have a wide range of language skills and vocal talents including mimicry and theatrical ability.

Pesinden are sometimes encountered at communal village events, usually in isolated regions. In the cities they’re occasionally heard at lavish traditional weddings where the host families think the couple should be honoured by something more special than a keyboard and a pop song in English.

Karen also dances the complex, sometimes stilted movements that can accompany the music. When this pesinden is drummed onto stage by her husband there’s a surprise factor in store that the costume and make up can’t hide; she’s a robust Caucasian. Duncan Graham reports from Tumpang in central East Java:

According to current archaeological research wet rice cultivation skills, including the use of buffalo, were brought to the archipelago by animists from southern China or Vietnam. That was during the Dongson period, around 3,000 years ago.

But to the traditional farmers of Tumpang, about 25 kilometres east of Malang, this little town on the western slopes of a cluster of volcanoes known as Pegunungan Tengger is where the rice story really began.

Older residents can still remember when cooks who took great pride in their kitchen arts made special trips to Tumpang to select the finest grains, no matter that the price was three times higher than the basic produce.

Then came the government-promoted Green Revolution and the introduction of high-yielding hybrids needing fertilisers and pesticides. The old varieties, with their special flavours known only to the most discriminating diners, were discarded. Their substitutes were grains that could produce three harvests a year – an increase of 50 per cent.

Quality yielded to quantity. A sacred crop became a commodity. Other casualties were the traditions of seeding, growing and harvest, presided over by the rice goddess Dewi Sri (also known as Rejeki – which translates as ‘good fortune’) and her consort Jaka Sedana.

To make the simple difficult, he also has another name – Raja Brana. His job is husbanding the other elements in rice growing, including the soil, the natural predators of pests, and other plants.

But these time-tested myths have no place in modern agribusiness, nor in the arid Arabic versions of Islam that have been gaining hold in Indonesia during the past few years.

Soleh Adi Pramono knows much about the old ways. As a child he was taken by his grandmother to the ancient ceremonies, the nightlong dances, the mysterious wayang kulit (shadow puppet) shows. His father, uncle and grandfather were all performance artists.

After training as a dancer and dalang (puppet master) in Yogya he returned home determined to maintain the old culture. In this task he’s been blessed with an extraordinarily talented helpmate, Karen Elizabeth Sekararum.

Originally from Wisconsin University the young anthropologist came to Malang to enrol in an intensive Indonesian language course. As a child she’d already spent time in Indonesia and been infected with the country’s smells, sounds and culture.

She met Soleh, found her cultural, emotional and spiritual niche and stayed. She’s adapted well, speaking hierarchal Javanese fluently as well as mastering the songs, music and movements that accompany the gamelan. Her conversion is so complete that her husband thinks she might have been a Javanese in a previous life.

This implies that she’s abandoned Western ways as some do when they settle into the tropics along with sandals and sarong. Not so. When dealing with other Westerners she’s still the brisk, unquiet, no-nonsense American: You want to know what I think? Here it is, both barrels.

The couple have two equally gifted daughters, Sonya, 14 and Ndaru, 9, and the family has just (Sept.) acknowledged 17 years of their Mangun Dharma art centre. He’s the artistic director; she’s the managing director. Typically they celebrated the birthday with a performance of wayang kulit, masked dancing and singing – in Javanese, of course.

The key performer was little Ndaru who played in the orchestra then gave a long wayang kulit show as the dalang.

The setting in the hills above the Tumpang market was a delight with a grassed amphitheatre and timbered pendopo (open walled hall). Close to 200 people, including a few foreigners, enjoyed the professionally presented performance and a fine meal with the air so mountain-chilled even the mosquitoes went into retreat. It was all most refined and relaxed.

But a few kilometres down the road (and down market) were crowds of thousands blocking the traffic. They were there to watch a dangdut dancer and singer on a rough stage– screeching pop tunes in English at an amplified volume equal to a Boeing on take-off.

“Maintaining Mangun Dharma and the traditional arts hasn’t always been a smooth journey,” admitted Karen. “There are so many other attractions. The cost of staging a big performance with a gamelan orchestra puts it out of the reach of many people, particularly with the economic crisis.

“Other ASEAN countries seem to have pulled out of the problem, but not Indonesia.

“There are also fashions in the arts, as with most things. Some tend to think the traditional arts are out of date.

“Few tourists come to East Java since the Bali bombings and travel warnings. There’s so much talent and so many artistic attractions in and around Malang but they’re not well promoted. This is a major and important cultural centre.

“There tends to be a view that East Java culture isn’t worth considering and that the pure dances have to originate in Central Java. There’s an opinion that if it comes from Solo it must be perfect, but if from Malang – well, never!

“If that’s what they want, well we can do that too. We need a lot of gigs and we can go with the flow. But if we’re not keeping the local culture alive and not letting it become a museum piece, then who is?

“Banyuwangi (on the far east coast of Java) is doing a good job in preserving and publicising the traditional arts. There’s some fine work being done in Madura. Surabaya takes a lot of culture from everywhere and is dynamic.

“But the tourism authorities in Malang don’t seem to give a rat’s arse about promotion.

“Television stops people going out, but paradoxically it also helps to preserve culture by broadcasting performances that might otherwise not be seen. It’s actually doing a good job of keeping the arts going.

“Now there’s the threat of the pornography bill, which is so narrow-minded and against the syncretism of Java. (Among other things the bill seeks to regulate women’s dress and public behavior.)

“The repercussions on tourism and culture could be huge, but no one seems to really understand this. I’m baffled, but I think people will reject the bill when they realise the implications. I’m not going to wear a jilbab (headscarf). I wouldn’t be able to work. The arts would be finished - gone.

“We’ve been struggling to get by, and I don’t know why. But we’re still here.”

Indeed, and in the month of The Jakarta Post’s visit she had seven gigs booked ahead. Although Mangun Dharma’s fans are small compared to their raunchy rivals, the performances show no sign of concessions. Every component, from make up and movements, to costumes and choreography demonstrated care and commitment.

The puppets are nothing like those sold in tourists shops, but glimmering works of art, intricately made and coloured. Many have been designed by Soleh, with one set created for a performance he devised on rice and the Green Revolution titled: The Descent of Good Fortune and Material Wealth.

These are now in a museum of cultural history at the University of California in Los Angeles

It’s the same with the masks. All have their own stories and characters and are made at Mangun Dharma. The centre also teaches dance and gamelan playing and has more than 50 students enrolled.

The East Java arts put heavy demands on the audiences, particularly those from outside. At the 17th anniversary celebrations some urban Indonesians nibbling coconut cakes to the music of metallophones confessed that they didn’t understand the Javanese words being sung.

To enjoy the stories, appreciate the movements and be sensitive to the subtleties requires prior research. It’s not just a fun night out – it’s also an intellectual challenge – and all the more rewarding as a result.

This is particularly so for Westerners craving logic and order – even though the Greek myths at the base of much European culture are equally supernatural, fantastic and irrational.

It takes Karen about 90 minutes to make up for a performance of Javanese art. Soleh sometimes fasts prior to a special event such as ruwatan, the ritual purifications associated with birth and other rites of passage.

Foreigners who watch her sing and dance do so in a state of awe at her achievements. So do some of the locals, but not all.

“A dalang at a gig I gave in Blitar recently used the opportunity to be contemptuous of a non-Javanese performing as a pesinden,” she said. “He was getting some cheap laughs from the audience but didn’t realise I could understand what he was saying.

“It’s a type of resentment. That sort of thing happens but not often. When I sang in Javanese he was taken aback. Others tend to ask: ‘Why can she do it and not me?’

“The point is I work hard. I study and practise every day. I spend a great deal of time making sure everything is done properly. When is one person more Javanese than another? If you scorn your own culture, if you neglect it, that means you don’t care. If you’re concerned for the culture, you’ll do it.

“Yet I don’t see the situation as hopeless. Indonesia is so unpredictable. Just when you want to give up because it’s all so depressing, then suddenly things blossom and there’s change.”


Foreigners often wonder why the Indonesian national anthem sounds like a Western tune better suited to European classical orchestras - rather than an Indonesian traditional song accompanied by the gamelan.

Perhaps because the gamelan is not well known internationally, though the sound is distinctly Indonesian.

The gamelan gained great attention at the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition where many countries showcased their culture. An exhibit from Java featured a traditional kampong and included a gamelan.

Among those showing interest was the young impressionist composer Claude Debussy. His friend Robert Godet wrote:

‘Many fruitful hours for Debussy were spent in the Javanese kampong . . . listening to the percussive rhythmic complexities of the gamelan with its inexhaustible combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres.”

Twenty years later Debussy wrote of ‘Javanese rhapsodies, which instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.’

The gamelan’s pentatonic scale repetitive harmonies are believed to have influenced the Frenchman in his compositions.

(Additional research from Claude Debussy and the Javanese Gamelan by Brent Hugh.)

(First published in The Sunday Post, 10 September 2006)



Zsolt72 said...

I love Indonesian culture very much. Indonesia was very impressive to me.

Lambertus L. Hurek said...

Hi... Duncan, I write about elizabeth karen too in Radar Surabaya some months ago in Bahasa Indonesia. Your blog is nice. Apa kabar?

sigit said...