When Senyawa held a sort of homecoming in their nation’s capital this year, they chose a lavish colonial-era theatre, Gedung Kesenian, as their stage. Quite the contrast - all that grandeur and luxury as a backdrop to the pair’s intensely avant-garde sound: animal shrieks, ritualistic bellowing, religious chants over wirey clacking and chugging on homemade bamboo instruments amplified and distorted into the near-supernatural.
The Indonesian avante-garde musical duo gained international recognition quickly after their formation at a improvisational session in 2016: they simply don’t sound like anyone, or anything else. They’ve since played at experimental and contemporary art and music festivals world over - notably co-headlining Poland’s Unsound Festival this year with mainstay outsiders, Death Grips.
Their unnervingly otherworldly performances and collaborations with other out-there experimental artists (see Damo Suzuki and Keiji Haino) place them in high standing with musicians cut from a similar cloth. But Senyawa have proven somewhat off-putting to an Indonesian audience. They may be culturally and sonically familiar at home, but their sound is disorienting: many of their songs recall esoteric Islamic chants, for example, suddenly dropping off a cliff into pseudo-black metal. Senyawa are Indonesian - but just a bit too weird for Indonesians.
So what make this duo stand out in an oversaturated international music market? Senyawa is something you must hear - or rather see - to believe. Vocalist Rully Shabara has one foot planted firmly in long-practiced Indonesia vocal traditions: religious chants, primal grunts, trance-like convulsions. The other stands on modern, avante-garde technique: mouth sounds, clucks and motorik clanging, the shouts and screams of punk and metal. His partner Wukir Suryadi constructs (or rather, invents) instruments by hand from wood, bamboo and electronics. He uses amplification to transform ordinary objects into buzz saws, tribal drum corps, a lone harp. Senyawa finds space in both traditional world music and the contemporary Asian avante-garde, finding home in neither.
Back to Senyawa performing in Jakarta, where whimsical strings and chants reached to the high, milk-white ceilings and red velvet balconies, suddenly veering into primal, industrial noise and schizophrenic intensity. Such juxtaposition: an architectural tribute to imperial progress filled with the sounds of primitive catharsis perhaps more at home in the jungles of Java.
The accompanying visuals and presentation were careful and deliberate. A white sheet separated the musicians and their audience - a physical representation of how at odds, critical and even unaccepted their presence has been in their home country. Projected images pointed to agrarian traditions, environmental degradation, technological discord, and outright protest. Kopi Tukang emerged into the theater at one point, the Indonesian street hawkers of coffee and mixed drinks. They brought confrontation and comedy: a bold reminder of the agrarian proletariat majority in Indonesia. The performance elevate the rare musical traditions of Indonesia - the common roots of the country - matching them with wildly experimental sounds. That’s the beautifully dislocating nature of Senyawa.