Hearing the voice of God
If Indonesians had the freedom to choose a religion beyond the six approved by the nation’s politicians, then composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur would have ‘music’ stamped on his ID card.
“I live music, I dream music,” he said. “When I wake I must not get up quickly but take time to remember the notes. I don’t want to write them down. I tell my students to avoid notation. That can come later. Instead feel the emotion, the truth. That’s what’s important.
“There must be a sense of balance and discipline in composition. This must come from within. After we play, we understand. Music can be the voice of God.”
The lively musician has just turned 79 and to commemorate the event his friends and admirers have been staging a four-day series of concerts and seminars in Surabaya. They’ve also published a 334-page festschrift to the man they call ‘the father of Indonesian contemporary music’.
Inevitably he was accompanied by an attractive young woman musician indifferent to the stares and half-century difference in their ages. For Slamet also has a reputation for being a great lover, though he’s far from a George Clooney lookalike.
He is short and crippled. He cannot use his left leg following a childhood illness and carries a crutch. He has bad eyesight and worse teeth. His hair is falling out. Offsetting all this is a sparkling personality, a nimble mind and humble nature.
“I respect women, I treat them as equals,” he said. “I’m honest with them. But they must be intelligent. We must communicate.”
Although he doesn’t wear a bowler hat he looks more like the 19th century French theater artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an image preserved in his birthday logo.
Slamet spent 14 years in Paris starting at the Conservatoire with a French government grant. He only returned to Indonesia when invited to lecture at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts.
However in 1983 he was awarded Hungary’s Zoltán Kodály Commemorative Medal for his musicianship. That should have brought him fame – instead he got the sack. For Hungary was still under Russian control, and the Indonesian authorities in Soeharto’s Orde Baru administration reckoned that someone praised by a communist state must be out to infect Indonesian students.
Since then he’s been recognized by his own country and is now a life member of the Akademi Jakarta, following numerous European awards, including Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.
Slamet says he doesn’t know the source of his talent, but attributes much of his outlook to his Eskimo grandmother Astikea who married a Turk called Arsjad. How two people from such diverse countries happened to encounter each other in Indonesia is another great mystery.
Their daughter Canna married a Javanese pharmacist Abdul Sjukur. Their son Soekandar, was born on the last day of June in 1935, but because he was sick he was renamed Slamet (meaning ‘safe’ in Javanese).
“My grandfather was an eccentric, something of a mystic,” Slamet said. “He taught me numerology, which is significant in my music. My grandmother taught me that I must have no secrets and do everything with love because that’s the most important thing in life.”
As a child he studied the piano privately for four years before entering Yogyakarta’s Sekolah Musik Indonesia (the Indonesian music academy). Later he went to France.
On his return to the East Java capital he helped establish the Alliance Francaise (which is still active) and the Pertemuan Musik Surabaya (Friends of Music) which ran monthly concerts, lectures and workshops.
His work is demanding. If a commercial television jingle is your idea of music than you may struggle to appreciate Slamet’s work, though he has composed for single instruments through to the gamelan, for stage, theater and even a film score.
Some of his more esoteric pieces include periods of silence, occasionally punctuated by a single note and not always on a conventional instrument. A tinkle, a click, a sigh, a tumbling pebble, the swish of a woman’s skirt; if it can make a sound then it’s at risk of being conscripted into a composition.
Perhaps it was serendipity: While gamelan players tuned up to record a Slamet composition at his birthday bash, with the audience urged to hush, a kaki lima (mobile food cart) cruised up and down the road blaring an over-amplified set of discordant notes.
“I still meditate,” Slamet said. “If I desire something I light a candle and get three papaya seeds. I put these in the flame – if they pop then my wish will be fulfilled. Yes, it works.
“When I look back on my early work I’m not ashamed. Even here (at the celebration) they’re featuring piano pieces I composed in 1960 and 1961, and I’m playing.
“I’m now composing a work for a solo cello because I love its singing tone. For me creating music is a necessity, it is something that must be done. Perhaps I am a magician.
“Music is the gift of life, but it must be treated with intelligence. I chose to follow a quiet road that’s far from the normal
“I’m not afraid of death – I’m too silly to think about it, though I might like a requiem, and I’m too busy. (He spends two weeks a month teaching in Jakarta.) Why worry about age?
“The only problem I have is not having a problem. My advice to the young is to seek the new, to live and enjoy the moment, to maintain the spirit of togetherness.
“I don’t know if there is music beyond the grave. I only know it is here and now. This celebration of my life and work is beyond my expectations.
“What do I want on my gravestone? Here’s something said to me many years ago by one of my students: ‘Here lies an artist. When we spoke, he listened and understood.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 July 2014)