By Jason Noghani
Senyawa are not a household name by any means, although over the past decade, they have been making a significant impact both in their native Indonesia, and also across the world amongst avant-garde circles and underground circuits. For those who are unfamiliar, Senyawa originate from Java and comprise of vocalist Rully Shabara and multi-instrumentalist Wukir Suryadi. To categorise their music is by no means a straightforward matter, given that there really is not anything that sounds quite like them, although their influences include the various intrinsic folklores and heritages of their homeland, essences of primordial shamanism from prehistoric times, and visceral shards of the obscurest avant-garde black metal interwoven into the otherworldly textures they enchantingly conjure up. One thing that is noticeable to the avid listener however, is that this druidic duo both epitomise what characterises a great musical act in today’s world, and formidably exemplify what defines Indonesian art in the 21st Century; two musicians producing a soundscape with an orchestral velocity, creatively making use of cutting-edge technology with unwavering imagination, paying homage to the roots and heritage of their rich cultural history whilst looking back even further to the darkest regions of our collective subconscious, and at the same time redefining the metal genre in the profoundest manner – a testament to the country with the highest number of metal fans and musicians in the world!
The event myself and several others experienced took place at Gudskul on January 17th 2020, which for any passers-by in Jakarta, is a fantastic spot for meeting interesting creative people, consuming really tasty locally brewed drinks and food, and above all, for creating invigorating and inspiring evenings such as this one! Before the concert started, there was a DJ informally playing some popular tracks, creating an ambiance for the audience as they gradually arrived. There was a positive atmosphere in the crowd, with the sense that we were all kindred spirits as we all had a mutual appreciation of high-quality music.
The performance began surreptitiously; many of us unaware that it had started, but in brutal concordance with what the dream-weavers were concocting, there was no entry during songs. Luckily for us, there was a screen outside projecting the performance, and although we could enjoy what we saw, it certainly did not serve justice! Alongside musical and technological innovations, Senyawa are also pioneers in their incorporation of psychoacoustical phenomena within their performances. The meticulous severity underlying the conditions of their performances, corresponds to their treatment of acoustic spaces in relation to the music they create, which perhaps for an untrained ear would be somewhat imperceptible, but for those even with a rudimentary understanding of the power of sound, could account for the otherworldly qualities summoned through the divine geometric proportions between space, time, sound and light.
Although the first two songs were missed, the rest of the concert was not. We were lucky to have sat close to the performance, which, in the most generous manner, took place right in the centre of the performance space, with speakers placed around the auditorium to encapsulate the dynamic experience through myriad dimensions! Thereafter, it became hard to describe what happened, given that no two songs were alike, and the subliminal subtleties incorporated by both performers created altered states of perception before the audience had even begun to comprehend them! The songs performed were all relatively short, no more than five minutes in duration, although this might be debatable given that the relationship with time had become subverted through the tantric repetitions that pulsated, with an intermingled sense of continuous flux, whereby each moment of the experience was unlike any other! No two songs sounded entirely alike, and each functioned like an island, evoking the sprawling archipelago from which they originate from.
Wukir Suryadi performed on a number of instruments; some of which he had built himself, and others of which were modified versions of pre-existing instruments, but one of the most striking aspects to have arisen out of the eclectic sound palette was the lack of drums. We have almost become obsessively dependent on the need to include drums and outwardly percussive rhythmic sections in music, yet without drums, Senyawa proved that an equally visceral alternative can be achieved through the dynamic pulsations of certain syllabic combinations and instrumental timbres, which when heard in the appropriate context, created rhythmic velocities that bore the weight and function of a conventional rhythmic section using the most peculiar yet strikingly appropriate choice of sounds.
To call Rully Shabara’s vocal techniques unique is an understatement, given that the vast catalogue of sounds he has created are phenomenological in their scope and diversity. Encompassing a whole spectrum from muffled mantric murmurs to the shrieks of pterodactyls and snarling of mythological monsters, it really makes one wonder how the limitations of human vocal cords are capable of such a versatile prowess. Even though he had an array of electronic devices to enhance these otherworldly sounds, it was clear that not much manipulation was needed, given that the raw power and intricate complexity of each sound already provided enough clarity to withstand any further treatment; perhaps a reminder of the notion that the evolutionary destiny of technology is to take us back to our primordial roots, to who and what we really are.
Both musicians make extensive use of electronics, most notably delay loops to record multiple layers of material, which enable them to create musical landscapes with much greater depth and many more dimensions than those typically produced by two musicians. Sometimes, one could feel, sounds that were not initially created by the performers and their resources more than often emerged out of these mysterious textures. The auditory hallucinosis that appeared recalled the bygone ritualistic practices of summoning spirits; the vast corpus of sound an accompaniment from the orchestra of the axis mundi! Whatever it might have been, they were certainly not alone in their performance!
Another reason for the strict etiquette regarding the performance, was due to the sacred spaces created. This is music that demands the utmost attention, for any indeliberate distraction could dilute the potency of the performance, given that every nuance of the musical pantheon created could not be compromised, in as much as that every sinew in Rully Shabara’s throat and Wukir Suryadi’s limbs could not either. This code of conduct is not dissimilar to the formalities found in Roots and Classical music traditions from around the world, given that ear-deafening loudness as a means of listening is a truly recent phenomenon, and ramifies the ecological concerns of our time! When one takes one of the loudest genres, namely metal, and transfigures its elements to nurture all of our perceivable increments of loudness, it is clear that these are musicians who are dealing with something altruistically serious. In true dedication, and without even having to try, the audience were hypnotically fixated throughout.
The only sounds in between songs apart from the occasional bit of banter from the helplessly charismatic Rully Shabara, were the flickers of cameras capturing the event. The audience were asked beforehand to not film or take photographs, so as to not deter concentration from the experience, although professional photographers and cameramen were at the helm capturing the performance, and their activities added another dimension to it – the voodooist incantations of the performers combined with cameras flickering was like David Lynch at his most clandestine – one minute we were here, the next minute we were there, but never quite fully there as we were always beyond there to begin with! If this was unanimously felt then Senyawa had achieved something beyond their own human restrictions and had mischievously cast spells right beneath our eyelids!
Once the concert had ended, we were still hungry for more. What had initially begun in a tantalisingly unnerving manner, had become an insatiable feast, which for those of us fortunate enough to have attended, were able to bask in its glory! It was felt on many levels that we had all begun to understand each other a lot better, even if we had only met once everything had finished! It was not that there was any ill will beforehand, but only after the event had finished, was there this mutual sensation that we had been purified from those niggling daily demons! The sonic shamans had successfully returned to the other side and exorcised any unnecessary darkness through the sublime sounds of their iridescent invocations. The DJ played the same vein of popular tunes throughout the afterparty, although this time, we were all ready to party now that our ears and minds had been cleansed!
As a postlude, the relevance of Senyawa lies far beyond their music, for in themselves they are also arbiters of cultural refinement, conservation and evolution. At a time when many cultures are threatened with crises and extinction, Senyawa are a testament to how embodying primordial truths, with present necessities, and future aspirations, are what is needed if culture in its most literal sense is to survive with the dignity that has been eroding for too long! They challenge us to open our minds and our souls, whilst replenishing us with experiences of benevolent purpose, despite exposing us to parts of ourselves which we would otherwise convey with revulsion. This is music not only of significance to Indonesia, but also to humanity in general, as many of us scour extensively in realms of hideous discomfort to find uncomfortable truths, which modern day malaise has whitewashed in a blanket of blasé beautification! The medicine of tough love is bitter tasting but nourishes the soul like ambrosia, burning fragrances of myrrh soothe the sorrow in auburn-purple charcoal, and the low, rumbling vibrations act as passageways for us to elevate our suffering!
Thank you Senyawa for working your miracles!
With special thanks to my dear friend Monica Hapsari for inviting me along to the concert, for had it not been for her, I would not have experienced such an amazing evening of music, Ruang Rupa for supplying the photographs of the event, and also for Gudskul for having put on such a great evening before, during and after the performance.
Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Jin Panji
Author: Jason Noghani
Jason Noghani is Listen to the World’s UK-based contributor. He is a composer, musician, cognitive psychologist, writer, illustrator, thinker, psychonaut and devout agnostic.