Kuaetnika’s musical versatility has long allowed it to blend traditional Indonesian music with virtually any other genre in a seamless harmony. (JG Photos/Tunggul Wirajuda)

A Full Range of Sounds From the Versatile Kuaetnika

JANUARY 27, 2015

Singer Silir Pujiwati’s voice cuts through the night air at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta as she sings the first notes of the song “Pewayangan.” Her high-pitched, ethereal notes reflect her background as a pesindenor, a female vocalist in a Javanese gamelan orchestra. The timeless beats of the metallophone and xylophone in a medley with the kendang hand drums and rebab bowed instrument complement Silir’s poignant description of wayang mythology and its mysticism.

Another element in her voice hints at her experience in kroncong, another Indonesian musical genre, and her musical versatility takes an unexpected turn as she belts into a jazzy rock number. The drums kick in toward the end of the number, showing the audience the versatility of Indonesian music — the way it can harmoniously blend traditional and modern voices and instruments.

Silir’s performance was part of “Sketsa Bunyi #3” (“Sound Sketches #3”), a show held by the Kuaetnika band to mark its founding in 1996 at Bentara Budaya. Long noted for its ability to play a range of musical styles from gamelan to jazz to contemporary pop to reggae and everything in between, Kuaetnika continues to develop the unique sound that spans musical genres.

“Many of the compositions [in ‘Sketsa Bunyi #3’] were written in October 2014,” says Kuaetnika founder and eminent Indonesian musician Djaduk Ferianto, who took a back seat from the music to host the occasion.

“Then, as at its inception, [Kuaetnika] sought to prove that it’s just as proficient in creating music as it is at playing it.

“The band continues its mission to fuse the rhythms and harmonies of ethnic music with its Western counterparts to produce something new. Through various creative breakthroughs, Kuaetnika has succeeded in bringing ethnic music to the forefront of the music scene, instead of letting it slide into obscurity in the face of competition from music elsewhere.”

Vocalist Anita Siswanto epitomizes the band’s take on the old and the new with her composition “Alive.” A song best described as her artistic autobiography, its English title and lyrics allude to her pop-rock musical background. The guitar and drums at the start of the number play to this, until the bamboo flute steps in. Its plaintive notes hang in the air as if to remind Anita about her Javanese heritage. The rest of the gamelan ensemble then takes over until the end of the song to describe her decision to go from playing pop to ethnic music with Kuaetnika, signaling a return to her Javanese roots.

Djaduk’s irreverent banter with comedians Alit and Gundi enlivened the show, along with his description and insights into the songs. The ground they covered ranged from the use of English in everyday life, the generational and technological gap, as well as the role of social media.

But Kuaetnika let the music speak for itself, starting with “Melali,” Balinese for “taking a stroll.” Written by drummer Benny Fuad, “Melali” is based on the various drum rhythms from across Indonesia — from the gamelan’s kendang to the tifa of Papua. Benny’s composition also highlights the sweeping sound of the gamelan orchestra, with its hypnotic repetitiveness and catchy hook. An electric guitar then seamlessly cuts into the act, developing a fine interaction with the rest of the instruments and mixing old and new.

Drums are also front and center in Kuaetnika’s song “Salauto.” Written by kendang drummer Sukoco, the instrumental uses the various sounds of Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese tambourines, as well as the tifa and the Middle Eastern-influenced rebana to describe the eponymous wayang character, the royal treasurer to an ancient Javanese king who doubles as his jester.

Its low-key opening notes, a series of hammer-like knocks, are a nod to the character’s wayang antecedents, as well as Sukoco’s family trade of dalang, or wayang puppeteers. The piece then gives way to the blaring of percussion instruments that lends a sense of spectacle and pomp of the king embarking on a military campaign. The interaction between the various drums acts as a dialogue and marks Salauto’s interaction with the rest of the army as he disburses their funds.

The effect is similar to the Led Zeppelin classic “Moby Dick,” as its sparse yet catchy notes are similar to drummer John Bonham’s drum solo. But while “Moby Dick” uses the other instruments to lead up to the drum, “Salauto” does the reverse by highlighting the drums first, then giving way to the rest of the instruments.

“Salauto” deftly encapsulates the eclecticism of Indonesian music, highlighting the different beats and sounds from wayang and the spectacle of Balinese gamelan, to the sensuality of West Javanese jaipong dance.

The instrumental is a microcosm of Indonesian’s past and present identities, and the constant push and pull between East and West. The compositions and others like it reflect Djaduk’s hope that Kuaetnika will continue to keep Indonesian music current for years to come.