Senyawa at Cafe Oto

I was extremely fortunate to be able to catch Indonesian duo Senyawa recently at Café Oto.

It’s rare to hear things this good.

The story of originating elements in their sound appears to have been a kind of break-out towards avant garde and experimental music while maintaining a strong feeling for the tranditional, folk forms of music of Indonesia and Java.  All fired up through instrumentalist Wukir Suryadi. Playing bespoke and modified instruments.  It was relayed to me that in a preshow talk, Suryadi had indicated the main instrument built by himself is similar in some respects to a hurdy gurdy though other instruments were sporadically used along with a looping pedal.

Suryadi veers impressively over different sonic spaces, sometimes wringing crystalline notes of beauty from the totemic instrument, but often reverting it to a tonality where it can screech and cry lambent or turn tight in the grit.  Suryadi and these strings (and winds) are a wonderful foil to Rully Shabara whose vocal skills would have to be described as absolutely top level.

While there is the remove of language, I would have to say these were as transcendent and vivifying moments as I have come across with live use of the male (or really any) voice.  One of the primary things that gripped was a sense of ardent discipline – there and coming clearly through the voice.  Shabara is expert at very many forms of transforming the voice and uses them all in near-optimal deployments.  Small ticks and curves have meaning and it can be felt, if not always understood.  At times, Shabara lets out a screech, or a startling shriek and once or twice this becomes an all encompassing roar whose sonic is at once both sea and horizon of micro-fibrous sound particles, bursting across the full range of hearing and perceiving.  Inevitably and inspite of language, kernels and ideas do also break through – or arrive in respect of.  Near the end of one song (where my eyes had been closed all along) I encountered the unshakeable feeling that I had been hearing – in some way intrinsic to the sound –  of a manner of battle that had been fought, expressed within the music and the astonishing theatrical hyper-shout style of delivery.  It was a very unusual feeling.

It also brought to the fore something I felt recurrently while being there, that it wasn’t simply that there is a discipline-alone to Shabara’s vocal, but that it is present along with a warrior-mode (or tradition) of the voice, a sense crystalised watching the singer take one of a number of intense, fixed stances during moments of his own silence.  The position of a ‘martial-singer’ in the West is more or less defunct, though there has been a partially realised locality of protest songs and singers (some of whom find they cannot escape their own canonisation).  This is different and involves connecting music and the practise of singing with a discipline in the spirit of pragmatic encounter, training in readiness and the maintenance of spirit (or ‘power’).

To hear it therefore out and about is really excellent, it felt like a transformed equivalent of seeing a daoist monk practising in the form of a crane or a mantis, the becomings of the body which had been brought down from the mountains of China thousands of years ago.

I am aware that there will be different spiritual and potentially religious possibilities in the music of Senyawa, but this feeling of the elemental at play sits fundamentally in both the sense of a lineage (however transformed) and the live expressive connection with modes of being at a remove from modernity.  The sense of these two in some way returning to an original beginning is there also in Suryadi making his extraordinary instrument himself, I feel only an attitude of maximum respect and thankfulness will do towards these two sound-warriors of the road.