Seeking the sounds of Yogya
If the graffiti and eaves-to-gutter posters aren’t enough to convince that the Y in Yogyakarta stands for Youth, then the music will. The Central Javanese city, long known as the heart of Java’s high culture, has become the hub of the Archipelago’s contemporary music scene with an unique festival. Duncan Graham reports.
Malioboro is Yogya’s must-stroll street for cheap. Trashy souvenirs, knock-off artefacts, the lacquer barely dry on the cracking wood, and smudged batik dominate the pop-up stalls.
There’s excellence to be found, but the visitor has to hunt. Though not for the music. On weekend nights when it’s shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic and hardly enough space for the horse drawn buggies to sway, the relief is entertainment.
Bus terminals, town squares and other public spaces across the Republic are plagued by talent-free wannabes fingering two-string packing case guitars. But Malioboro shoppers get to hear quality, from sitar players who could grace a concert hall to angklung bands finding new ways to thrash bamboo and produce crackling dance beats.
Musicians are fickle folk more interested in tempo than timetables so don’t expect a show a night – and remember they’re free, though donations don’t get rebuffed.
Malioboro is bookended with a small gamelan group near the railway station, while the angklung artists are usually found further down near the old Dutch fort of Vredeburg.
Last month (November) the Yogya Contemporary Music Festival was staged with performers and composers from 15 countries. The YCMF was established in 2003 by composer Michael Asmara who studied in Japan.
“Yogya is the place to be for any aspiring young musician,” said Budhi Ngurah, a music school lecturer and former concert cellist at the archipelago’s most prestigious cultural college, the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI – Indonesian Arts Institute).
“We have more than 600 active students and they’ve come from everywhere.”
In a shady stairwell on the campus with just enough breeze to dry sweat, about a dozen young people tuned their strings and ventilated their flutes. The mix was discordant, but the energy real.
“We teach Western music but ethnomusicology and other forms are becoming popular,” said percussion teacher Ayub Prasetiyo who spent nine years studying at ISI. He played in symphony orchestras before becoming an academic.
“New classes are opening to meet the demand.”
ISI graduate Gatot Danar Sulistiyanto, 34, remembers the day the music came. He was 15, but hadn’t been looking because it had been ever present in Magelang since his birth in the Central Java town. Why search for water when you’re swimming?
“In the Javanese kampong there’s always sound,” said the director of Yogya’s Art Music Today (AMT), an organization encouraging musicians to work together, share resources and develop skills.
“It’s the mothers’ lullabies as they nurse their babes; it’s the food sellers calling out in the street; it’s the prayers from the mosques; it’s the gamelan, the cocks crowing, the sheep bleating. Music is everywhere.”
So the muse came to him. Someone handed him a guitar and showed how. Hardly necessary. The instincts were already quivering in his fingers and his soul, though there were no known musical abilities in his ancestors.
He became a fan of Iwan Fals, the balladeer famous for his protest songs during the Orde Baru (New Order) period when the authoritarian President Soeharto was forever suspicious of artists and youth - and even more wary when the two combined.
Gatot enrolled in a trade college to learn the electronic skills that his communications technician father used to feed his family. However the school’s extra-curricular activities were more electric. Particularly the rock band.
A brief period of bashing skins, thumping a keyboard or scraping strings seems to be a rite of passage for many acned adolescents, but this one didn’t lose interest as he morphed into a man.
He moved to Yogya because that’s where music mattered, and found a curious scene. “There were plenty of musicians, bands and composers but everyone was doing their own thing,” he said. “There was no coordination, no information about contemporary music, no archiving.”
His eclectic talents got him into ISI where for eight years he learned to read music, play the classical guitar and move from fiddling chords to becoming a professional.
Gatot’s abilities were sharpened to the point where he was invited to New Zealand as a contemporary composer, and to Holland where he worked with chamber musicians.
Then came Yogya’s day of disaster. On 27 May 2006 a massive shallow jolt caused immense destruction, killing close to 6,000 people and injuring six times as many.
Like the tsunami which struck Aceh in 2004 and inadvertently led to the end of a prolonged civil war, the Yogya quake impacted the music scene.
“That’s when I started pushing people to work together,” Gatot said. “The earthquake gave us the impetus to connect.”
He started AMT at the Sangkring Art Space in Nitiprayan village on the outskirts of the city, where many artists have moved to create a semi-rural cultural scene.
According to Gatot about ten new art centers have been built in Yogya since 2006, bringing talented people together and establishing a fertile environment that nurtures creativity, where young people can experiment without being ridiculed.
“A few years ago a contemporary music concert would be lucky to attract 40 people,” Gatot said. “Now hundreds come and the festival runs for three days.
“I’m really optimistic about the future of music in Yogya – it’s in good shape and will be growing for the next five to ten years.”
Yogya may have become a magnet for young musicians but Gatot resisted suggestions it was unique. He then rattled off a list of major and minor towns across the nation with professional and experimental performers, tossing in names and contact numbers.
When still a student Gatot’s mother urged him to complete his technical qualifications before following his heart. Good advice; it’s his electronics tradecraft that’s financially most useful.
As a field producer and sound engineer Gatot said he’s able to care for his opera singer wife Ika Sri Wahyumingsih and their young son by earning Rp 500,000 (US$40 a day), a sum he forecasts to rise as demand grows.
ISI academics Budhi and Ayub agree. “We expect most of our students to get work when they graduate,” they said. “Some are already employed.”
Music in Yogya includes the sound of money.
(First published in J Plus 7 December 2014)