Gamelan gangsta

27 March 2012

New beats for old sounds on the Indonesian island of Java are redefining and reviving local identities, writes JAMES GIGGACHER.

The ghettoes of Los Angeles and New York’s concrete jungle are a million miles away from the terraced rice fields, tropical jungles and smoking volcanoes of Java. But if you listen carefully you’ll hear a beat on the streets of the Indonesian island which echoes a staple of urban culture in both American megacities – hip hop.

The artists don’t rap about police ‘whirly birds’ watching their every move from the sky, drug deals gone wrong or drive-by shootings. Rather than ride shotgun, they’re more likely to cruise around on the back of a moped. Their music is about everyday life on the Indonesian island and a reinterpretation of the globally popular American art form – which having ridden the wave of globalisation has recently washed up on the shores of the Southeast Asian island-nation.

One of Indonesia’s most infamous and popular hip hop groups is the Jogja Hip Hop Foundation (JHF) – a collection of activists and artists from the Javanese city of Yogyakarta. The group’s work is like a sonic nasi goreng, a hodgepodge of familiar ingredients mixed in with local fare. In their music JHF sample traditional instruments like the gamelan and perform to shadow puppet plays. Their lyrics are based on traditional Javanese poetry, classic literary texts and the nursery rhymes they heard as children.

Earlier this year the Foundation performed at a conference hosted by the Island Southeast Asia Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and convened by Associate Professor Ariel Heryanto. His colleague, Amrih Widodo, was responsible for the hip hop workshop and hopes to organise an even bigger Indonesian hip hop performance at ANU later in 2012. Widodo says that JHF’s work represents a broader movement in Indonesia which is creating hybrid art forms as well as new relationships between tradition and modernity.

“It is a reaction to globalisation,” he says. “With increased access to the media, new communication technology and recording technology, most performers are drawn in by American hip hop music. But, after a while they see that they cannot exactly reproduce this Western art form and they realise that they have to base their music in their locality.

Heryanto says that is also an example of rediscovery for Javanese people in the post-colonial world.

“The Javanese, and other Indonesians, have discovered themselves in hip hop coming from America, without changing themselves or trying to be someone else.

“The kind of music, the kind of lyrics, the kind of rhythm that they use was already there before hip hop was born. It is only a slight change of instrumentation, a bit of arrangement that makes it sound like hip hop. These are the kinds of songs that we all grew up with as children. It’s just been reapplied, reinterpreted and replayed in a different way, which is not the same with other genres of music like pop or rock.”

JHF have reached national and international fame without being signed to a major record label. They maintain their independence by using social media and the Internet to spread their music across Indonesia and the rest of the world. One of their most popular songs is Jogja Istimewa or Jogja, the Special Province – a reference to the special administrative status of the region, currently under the threat of abolition by Indonesia’s central government. It can be heard daily in villages and cities all over the island and has even been used in regional politics. According to Heryanto and Widodo the song is just one example of what makes JHF so distinctive; the celebration of their local culture and ‘Javaneseness’.

“JHF demonstrates the strength of their local cultural practices,” says Heryanto.

“They perform only in Javanese, their mother tongue, and not Indonesian, the national language. And they don’t care if their audience can’t understand what they are singing. But at the same time it is also a rebellion against both the Jakarta-dominated Indonesian and the Javanese court culture. Hip hop became really popular at a time when the Islamisation of Indonesia was at its height.

“And the attack on these elite power structures is not just in the content but in the choice of the level of Javanese language that they perform in. The medium is the message here. When you come on stage in Indonesia or are in front of the camera, you are expected to speak in high Javanese. You don’t speak in low Javanese in front of camera, but this is exactly what they do.”

Widodo adds that as Javanese language is supposed to be hierarchical and refined, JHF intentionally use the low level of Javanese, Ngoko, to challenge social hierarchies and undermine power structures.

“They have a mission to reassert what it is to be Javanese, because they don’t like current Javanese culture, or how Javanese songs are presented by older generations. They want to create something which is frank and straightforward, not sophisticated, not trying to be indirect in the way Javanese language is supposed to be; concealing and revealing at the same time.

“And this is a manifestation of freedom. They want to be free and this is quite a paradox because Javanese culture and Javanese language is full of restrictions. In dance it is seen in the way you constrain your movements. It’s these combinations of sophistication and constraints that make Javanese dance beautiful. In speech it’s in the way how you reveal and conceal without really clearly stating what you want or your intent. And finally the level that you choose, the vocabulary that you use, the behaviour it’s all constrained. But this group want to the free, to express themselves freely so I think that is the core, even if they have to cross the boundary and violate all kinds of regulations and conventions.”

And that’s one of the most exciting elements of a group like JHF. By showing that their actions speak louder than words, they are not just practising a form of DIY political performance. They are helping to carve out a place for their culture in a new Indonesia. It won’t be long until everyone is marching to the beat of a different gamelan.

This is an extended version of an article published in the Autumn 2012 edition of ANU Reporter.

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