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Performing Indonesia: Sumarsam

Performing Indonesia

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Sumarsam, a scholar, puppeteer, and professor of music at Wesleyan University, helped plan tomorrow night’s lecture series. He also will share his talents at our shadow-puppet play (wayang kulit) Thursday evening.

You have a long history with music, particularly the gamelan. How has that passion intersected with your interest in puppeteering? 

I began playing gamelan when I was seven years old, in the village where I was born, in East Java. That was also the time when I became interested in wayang puppet plays, which gamelan groups often accompany.

I continued studying and teaching gamelan at the conservatory and academy in Solo [Surakarta, Indonesia] from 1962–68. When I was a student at the conservatory/academy, no major on puppetry was offered, but students were required to take a course on the subject. So that’s the only formal training I have received on puppeteering. But I was determined to continue learning, so I learned on my own, with occasional guidance. I still feel I am a student of the art of wayang, especially in performing wayang for a Western audience.

How does wayang kulit intersect with music in general?

Gamelan music accompanies wayang performances almost without a break. It is played to accompany entrances, exits, journeys, battles, the puppeteer’s chanting, and dialogues and narrations. Different pieces and songs are performed for the particular moods of the scenes. Kendhang (a two-headed drum) closely accompanies the puppets—certain puppets’ movements are accompanied by certain rhythmic patterns.

The puppeteer (dhalang) has complete control over the music. He (or, rarely, she) signals the ensemble to start and end the music, to cue dynamic changes, and to ask musicians to play certain pieces. The cues are conveyed by sounding a box with a mallet; there are also verbal cues and cues from certain puppet movements. The puppeteer also produces clashing sounds from a set of metal plates that he kicks against the box to accentuate the movements of the puppets. Besides delivering dialogue and narration, the puppeteer sings songs to heighten the mood of a scene.

I think that the complex connections between the play and its musical accompaniment make it difficult to stage wayang performances in the United States. Many rehearsals are needed. I am glad that I have had ample time to rehearse with the Indonesian Embassy gamelan group and with an ad hoc group consisting of gamelan teachers and players, members of the Society for Ethnomusicology.

Tell me a bit about the story that the puppets will tell on November 10.

Here’s a synopsis of Bima’s Quest for Enlightenment:

Durna, a spiritual preceptor, asks his loyal student Bima to search for divine enlightenment. To commence his quest, Bima must go to dangerous places. First, he must search for the “Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind” on the peak of Mt. Candramuka. There, Bima encounters two ferocious ogres who attempt to foil his effort—they are actually transformed gods testing his will and strength by attacking him. Bima repels and kills the giants, but he does not find the tall tree. Disappointed, he returns to Durna empty-handed.

On the second leg of Bima’s quest, his guru orders him to search for lustrating water in the depths of the ocean. Plunging himself into the sea, he is attacked by a dragon monster. Using his long, sharp nails, Bima destroys the dragon. Miraculously, a tiny figure, Dewa Ruci, appears from nowhere. He teaches Bima the highest mystical insight: the divine enlightenment, which includes some aspects of Islamic Sufi teachings.

What do you hope audiences will experience and take away from the play?

In my early years at Wesleyan, I used to perform wayang in the Javanese language. One hundred or more people came to watch the performance. However, after two hours or so, people started leaving; only a dozen stayed until the end.

Like all of my more recent performances, Thursday’s will be about two hours long and presented mostly in English. For me, performing wayang in English is an ongoing project. Finding well-constructed English sentences that suit the mood of wayang is a challenge (not to mention making sure to pronounce English words clearly). Fortunately, several wayang stories and a number of Javanese literary works from past centuries have been translated into English—they are my main references. For example, the eighteenth-century Serat Cabolek (composed by R. Ng. Yasadipura, a court poet) has been translated into English by Professor Soebardi. This classic work has sections that tell the story of Bima’s quest for enlightenment.

The November 10 performance will be a condensed version of an all-night wayang play, featuring only the main episodes of the story. But it will have almost all aspects of a wayang play, including the three-division plot structure of the story (music, fight scene, and clown scene), popular songs and local jokes, and the teaching of a mystical path.

You’ve been closely involved with Performing Indonesia from the start. Why do you feel the festival is important?

I am always happy to be part of the festival to introduce the performing arts in Indonesia, exploring the diversity of their content and context, and the crisscrossing of their national, ethnic, and religious identities. This year’s Performing Indonesia, with the theme of Islamic Intersections, is a way to introduce the dynamic formative and transformational process of performing arts in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

The Art of Qur’anic Recitation

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

The recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents an opportunity to look closely at a Muslim music tradition that may have profoundly influenced black music in the United States. Historians have determined that Muslims made up about a quarter of all Africans forcibly shipped to the Americas through the slave trade. They brought with them long-standing traditions of unaccompanied vocal music that probably fared well under the ban on drums enforced by US plantation owners.

The Muslim call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an are marked by florid melodic lines (multiple notes to each syllable), altered notes outside Western scales, an absence of rhythm, and no instrumental accompaniment. Not surprisingly, a vocal tradition developed among African Americans that bears remarkable similarities to this Muslim heritage—the field holler, a genre that probably predated and influenced the blues.

When historian Sylviane Diouf gave public talks following the 1998 publication of her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, she began by playing audio samples of these two traditions side-by-side. You can hear historic recordings of field hollers on the Library of Congress website, such as this one by Enoch Brown recorded in Alabama in 1939. Compare for yourself by listening to Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah, who will lead our lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation on Saturday, November 5, at 2 pm at the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The event is free—no tickets required—and presented as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.

Performing Indonesia: Ismunandar

This year's Performing Indonesia festival includes a shadow puppet play on November 10.

This year’s Performing Indonesia festival includes a shadow puppet play on November 10.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Ismunandar, head of the education and culture section at the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, DC, helped plan the 2016 celebration of all things Indonesia. Here, he explains this year’s theme.

Some people associate Islam only with the Middle East. Although Islam was born in that region, Muslims are spread out all over the earth. Globally, there are 1.7 billion Muslims, from the Middle East to Africa, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s Muslim population is larger than that of the Middle East region.

We are proud that the long history of Islamization in Indonesia has been a peaceful one. Cultural expressions of various ethnic groups were not lost but influenced by Islam. The result is a diversity of expression in the performing arts. This is what inspired the Islamic Intersections subtitle: it summarizes our efforts to show the kaleidoscope encounter of Islam with Indonesian cultures. The theme also complements the Freer|Sackler’s landmark exhibition The Art of the Qur’an, now on view.

In this year’s Performing Indonesia, we proudly present a diversity of Indonesian arts, from the traditional and classic to the contemporary and secular. On Thursday, November 10, for example, we will host a shadow puppet show. This ancient art form was utilized by the Wali Songo, the nine revered saints who first spread Islam in Indonesia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Another way to demonstrate Islam in Indonesia culture is through Qur’anic recitation. In Indonesia, these recitations are performed not only as rituals, but also for festive occasions ranging from national anniversaries to wedding receptions. Plus, every year, a Qur’an recitation competition is held in Indonesia, starting in the districts and reaching the national level. Experience a taste for yourself on Saturday, November 5.

For those of you who are more academically minded, the festival also features a series of lectures. And there are workshops on martial arts and shadow-puppet painting for children and families to enjoy. We hope you’ll join us!

High Fashion for Muslim Wear

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

New designs from Java strutted down the catwalk on September 10, kicking off this year’s Performing Indonesia festival and its theme of Islamic Intersections. Held at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design, the fashion show featured fresh garments for Muslim women created by Meeta Fauzen and Helen Dewi Krana, two leading designers from Indonesia. Fauzen took the time to answer a few questions about her creations.

Bento: Why have you been inspired to design for Muslim women?

Meeta Fauzen: After returning from the hajj, I started to wear Muslim dress. I wanted to create Muslim wear that fits my style. I learned how to design Muslim women’s fashion to give people more choices.

B: How would you describe your design aesthetic or approach?

MF: My design aesthetic is simple and elegant, to make it easy for Muslim women. And I mix my designs with Indonesian traditional fabrics such as batik and tenun.

B: How have your designs been received at home and abroad?

MF: In Indonesia, I have several customers in my hometown, Bandung, and in other cities such as Bogor, Jakarta, Surabaya, and Batam. And from abroad, I have also some clients in countries where I’ve done my show, such as Perth, Kuala Lumpur, the United States, and eastern Europe, although it’s not a big number yet.

There were big numbers for the show on September 10: a capacity crowd of two hundred guests filled the Corcoran Gallery atrium. The runway presentation was preceded by a lecture and discussion with anthropologist Carla Jones of the University of Colorado, as well as a Q&A with the designers.

The Performing Indonesia festival is made possible through a partnership with the Embassy of Indonesia, and this year is held in cooperation with George Washington University. See what’s in store.