We met Peni Candra Rini in 2014, when she was a Fellow in the OneBeat music residency program, but we were already connected to her by bonds of shared grief. Two years before, her friend and colleague Sri Joko Raharjo had been part of the inaugural OneBeat program, which brought together 32 musicians from around the world for a month of collaborative exchange. A year before that, my colleague Chris and I had traveled to Java for another project and serendipitously had the chance to meet Sri Joko and film him playing a number of traditional instruments.
Sri Joko came from a long line of dhalangs on both his mother and father’s sides, a special position with the Javanese tradition of wayang (shadow puppetry) and the gamelan music that accompanies it. Sri Joko was an extraordinary multi-faceted artist, excelling, like every master dhalang, in the arts of shadow puppetry, improvisatory storytelling, singing, and dancing as well as playing all the instruments of the gamelan. (When we met him in Surakarta we recorded him playing at least ten different instruments.) When he performed, time seemed to stop, and people dropped what they were doing to be with him in the moment.
In the midst of a rather chaotic first year of OneBeat in 2012, Sri Joko was consistently an island of calm, radiating love and respect for those around him. And beyond this singular ability as an artist, he was quite possibly the sweetest man I have met on this earth. A true mensch, a lover of life, a deeply spiritual person—at times fasting for days without mentioning it—a profound and deeply concentrated listener. And so, when I heard the news of his passing—a car accident that also took the lives of his wife and young son, leaving his daughter orphaned—I had never known such an intense sensation of grief. I had lost people in my life, but never someone so much in the prime of their life, with so many gifts left to give. When I heard the news, I was on tour in Portugal and took a few days off to wander the mountains near the Spanish border, singing songs to these lost souls. Just a few years before I was sitting in their living room as their young daughter, a promising young Dhalang, played with her own wayang.
So, I can only imagine what Peni must have felt. She who studied with Sri Joko—who taught down the hall from him at the same university; who knew far better than me his virtues and the beauty of his family—must have felt infinitely more the pain of these losses. Peni is an incredible artist in her own right: a vocalist, educator, composer, dancer, and improviser of the highest caliber. And she is also a spiritual person, which is reflected in the deep kindness with which she treats anyone she meets and the radiant deep artistry that she pours into every note. For Peni, struggling with the gap between the physical and the spiritual, between the living and the dead, is a fundamental part of her
In this conversation between Peni and Found Sound Nation co-director Elena Moon Park, Peni reflects on her life in music, how her tradition relates to death, and how this helped her to manage her grief over the loss of her friend, and how she carries on his legacy and spirit.
• Peni Candra Rini: Sekar (Self-Released, 2014)
• Peni Candra Rini: Bramera (Self-Released, 2010)
PCRYes, I was born into a traditional artist family. My artistic heritage comes from my great-grandfather Seran, a traditional gendèr instrument player, which is one of the main instruments of the gamelan ensemble. That heritage was then passed down to my grandfather, Suradi Blonot, and my father, who was a puppeteer with the title Ki Wagiman Ganda Carita.
(My father’s real name is Wagiman, and Ganda Carita is a title given to him by the community, which means “the storyteller who has a good influence on the world,” like the calming scent of flowers, or the spread of cultural arts education through shadow puppet performances.)
I was born in a small village called Ngentrong (in the subdistrict of Campurdarat, district of Tulungagung) in East Java. But I grew up in Brumbun Beach, which is 7.7 km from the village where I was born, until I was eleven years old. At the age of fourteen, I moved to Surakarta to study gamelan at the Conservatory Karawitan, which is equivalent to a vocational high school, and then continued my studies at the Karawitan Department of the Indonesian Arts Institute Surakarta, from undergraduate to doctoral. And this is where I work now as an educator.
Since my childhood, my father has always held the belief in his body and soul that one day his youngest child would become a pesindhen (female solo singer in a gamelan ensemble). Apart from being a Dhalang (a puppeteer in Indonesian wayang performance), my father was also a fisherman because to meet the economic needs of my family at that time, it was not enough just to live as a traditional artist.
From when I was a toddler until I was eleven years old, I grew up in two places: in Ngentrong Village and at Brumbun Beach. I lived in the village where I was born with my brothers and sisters, but sometimes my father and mother would take me to Brumbun Beach, where they worked as fishermen to provide for the economic needs of our family. I was always frightened at night by the darkness of the beach, where there was no electricity and only the sound of the nighttime animals and of waves crashing. The fear of the sound of the waves crashing and the animals made me believe that I had to fulfill my father’s dream to become a traditional sinden.
I was filled with anticipation and anxiety every time my father said goodbye and set out to row his little boat out to sea. I think it was because of a childhood story I heard from my eldest brother, who almost lost our father at sea. My father was caught in a storm and was lost in the middle of the ocean in his small boat for three days. By that time, everyone thought my father had died. But a miracle saved him from the storm, and he found his way back home. So, I always worried, and I promised, in my heart, that one day when I grew up, I would fulfill my father’s wish as a Sindhen and earn an income, and I would not allow my father to sail out to sea again. I would make my father happy by fulfilling his dreams.
Every trip from the village to the sea took half-a-day’s walk, and along the way, my father taught me traditional children’s songs. The first song he taught me was the song “Macapat Pangkur Nyamat” in the scale of Pelog Nem, with lyrics that contain all kinds of sweet foods sold in traditional markets. From learning that interesting verse, I became very happy following my father’s singing, so it didn’t feel like I had even arrived at the Brumbun sea, where my father and mother fought for the life of my family. My father insisted that I learn to practice my vocals loudly to overcome the sound of waves and fear.
Throughout my childhood, I was very poor, but we were all happy with the inner belief that this path of art, tradition, and culture would one day support us. So, my soul is deeply attached to the sound of gamelan and tembang, especially since my father has a puppet theater stage which, although he rarely performs, is where my father shares his education with his children. I sang at his wayang stage, which further honed my musical skills. And now, I am very grateful that I can realize my father’s very simple dream: He only wanted his daughter to live from her voice, through cultivating the sensitivity of rasa to preserve the noble arts and culture of the ancestors.
PCRI carry on the lineage of true traditional artists from four generations in my family. My two other siblings have also inherited the blood of traditional artists, and we all have children who are currently also studying traditional cultural arts, both gamelan and shadow puppets.
My father still performs in wayang kulit shows as the dhalang ruwat. The dhalang ruwat is a person who has a greater spiritual depth and who thus holds a special role in the ruwat ritual. He is also known as the dhalang ruwat.
The ruwat ritual can be described as an attempt to throw away the fate of someone who is “unlucky.” The ruwatan ceremony is often performed by the Javanese, usually for children who are sick, someone who has not found a mate, or other situations that are considered unfavorable. For example, if someone makes a mistake and has repented, then a ruwat ceremony (ruwat puppet show) is held. This cannot be done by an ordinary dhalang, but must be carried out by a dhalang ruwat.
My father felt very happy and always told everyone, as a point of pride, that his belief of instilling traditional arts in his children’s souls had paid off and that now the traditional art of music could support and become a way of life for all of his children.
I am also married to Dwi Nugroho, who is a maker of musical instruments—not only traditional ones, but also Western instruments, along with innovative instrument models. He owns a musical instrument-making business called Sentana Art, and together, we have created a foundation called the Jagad Sentana Art Foundation. The Foundation encourages and cultivates the creativity of the younger generation in developing and preserving culture, from traditional to contemporary arts. I have a six-year-old son named Aruna Jagad Anuraga, who from an early age recognized his own talent as a traditional artist. My husband supports every step of my artistic creativity, which is not only in traditional arts, but also in creating new works of music for the stage, dance, film, theater, and more, from the traditional to the contemporary.
PCRAlmost all of the music and vocals that I create or perform are born from the experiences of my soul, which come from the deep forging of memories on my long spiritual journey. And of course, I am guided by the spirit of the gamelan ensemble, which is always a relationship between instruments and vocals, a willingness to listen to one another, to give feedback and reply, and to respect the sound itself. The sound that is born through this is a direct expression of the soul and becomes the identity and the character of the gamelan musician and vocalist.
Rasa is the highest level that a gamelan musician or singer can achieve in interpreting the music, and it is the purpose of playing the gamelan itself—namely, to find happiness, to meditate through sound, to express one’s heart through sound, to talk and listen to each other through playing music that is full of sincerity. This is no longer just a matter of technique in how to play or sing, because at the rasa level, the techniques of performing an instrument or vocals have been mastered. This becomes about a union between body and soul and enters a realm of spiritual depth that can only exist from a long journey—a descent from an artist family, a maturity in attitude to respect all of the sounds in the gamelan ensemble, a willingness to listen, and also a willingness to give love through sound with sincerity from the depths of one’s heart.
When performing gamelan and vocals, this is my solemn point, which is very close to God. God is in every groove and breath of the sound of the gamelan, and without God’s blessing for us to breathe, there is no sound of gamelan. Therefore, most gamelan musicians who have reached the highest level of rasa or taksu can guide the rasa of gamelan listeners and lovers. Whether it leads to contemplation, meditation, spirituality, love, anger, lust, or any other feelings depends on the intentions of the gamelan player and vocalist in the gamelan ensemble. That is why, even though I often sing about rasa in Javanese, I can guarantee that all human feelings in this world are the same—like feeling the moon on a serene night or the sweetness of sugar.
The concept of rasa is achieved by the depth of inner truth in each gamelan player. And without that depth of spirituality in life, it is also impossible to reach that depth in gamelan.
PCRI am always practicing a ritual for myself when I sing and perform gamelan. My aim is to bring myself into dialogue with my feelings and to find the inner happiness that is the core of my search for truth in life itself. So when I sing, that’s where I visit myself, see myself, carry myself, take care of myself, and offer myself, my voice, and my expression to the creator of this self. With this simple awareness, the songs that I sing and the music that I make become an odyssey of self-rituals and a sincerity of offerings I am making to the heart.
PCRMusic is the heart and breath of my life. Every beat of my blood and pulse grows alive from my family lineage that make this music, these traditions, and these cultural arts a part of the rites of life. When this soul is touched by music, all of my sensory awareness immediately synergizes. This is why music is a breath that continues to blow within me and a rhythmic heart that is my lifeline.
Singing and performing is like giving nutrition to my heart and to my soul. And it is this soul and heart that make my music soulful and heartfelt. I dedicate this music and performance to my heart. I open a dialogue with my heart and connect my heart, my love, my lover, my god, and also all of the hearts that watch or listen to my performance. And when the nutritional needs of my heart are met, I am able to offer heartfelt music and performances to all souls who open their hearts.
PCRMy own body movement occurs because of an intention to bring out and support the expression of the soul from my vocals. My body moves naturally with sincerity to emphasize the meaning of a sound that is conveyed through a unity of soul, body, and voice. Intention is the work of the heart and feelings; it is not just physical. This is not just an awareness of dancing or moving physically, but a deep inner awareness to express solemn feelings in the voice.
When I sing I feel that my body is also singing, and that my voice is dancing. And between my body and my voice is a give and take unity, just like love and respect. With that unity and sincerity, we are able to take care of each other and give each other life forces and inner power.
PCRJavanese people believe in rites of life from the womb to the grave. There are eleven types of macapat songs that mark the journey of human life. A macapat is a poem that is sung, each with a different notation, meter, and pattern. Each has a meaning for every stage of life and can be sung by anyone at any stage of life. The readings are based on the arrangement of notations determined by meter. Macapat is sung without a set tempo in order to sing them without breaking syllables and thus keep the meaning of the poem intact. Because the macapat is read in this way, it is called a tembang macapat, or it can become a sekar macapat. Macapat take on various types of meters or patterns.
According to tradition, there are eleven macapat songs—maskumambang, mijil, sinom, kinanthi, asmaradana, gambuh, dhandanggula, durma, pangkur, megatruh, and pucung. These eleven macapat songs describe the journey of human life:
1 Maskumambang: Maskumambang tells about the human condition while it is still in the spirit realm, which is then implanted in a mother’s womb or cave garba.
2 Mijil: Mijil, or mbrojol, meter-pattern illustrates the human birth process, which results in a baby named a human.
3 Kinanthi: The kinanthi pattern describes the period of forming one’s identity and walking the path to one’s ideals. Kinanti comes from the word kanthi or tuntun, which means that we need guidance so that our dreams can be realized.
4 Sinom: This is the depiction of youth. A beautiful youth, full of hopes and dreams.
5 Asmaradana: Asmara means love. This meter-pattern tells of times of romance or being dissolved in a sea of love.
6 Gambuh: The beginning of the word gambuh is jumbuh, or unite. This meter-pattern is about the commitment of marriage and love in one household.
7 Dhandhanggula: This meter-pattern describes a life that has reached the stage of social stability and prosperity, sufficient clothing, housing, and food.
8 Durma: Durma comes from the word dharma and speaks about how a person should perform alms and share with others.
9 Pangkur: This meter-pattern describes human lust. Pangkur or mungkur means the leaving behind of lust and anger as well as any negative desires that eat away at the soul.
10 Megatruh: Megatruh, or megat, means the separation of the soul from our body, and the release of the spirit or life, leading to immortality. This meter-pattern speaks of human death.
11 Pucung: Pucung means pocong, or a human body wrapped in white mori cloth. This meter-pattern tells of the human body that is left wrapped in a shroud when buried in an eternal resting place.
The role of a vocal or musical ensemble in death rituals in Java is an expression of inner life and prayers that are chanted naturally through vocal songs and gamelan music called gendhing duhkitan. There are several ways in which music is associated with the ritual of death in Javanese culture, including:
1 Playing a gendhing duhkitan ensemble, which contains prayer songs for the spirits and for families who are still alive.
2 If in a Muslim family, a ceremony is carried out with a vocal ensemble led by an imam, who recites tahlilan prayers called yasinan. The prayer aims to alleviate the torment of the soul’s grave in the realm of eternity. Even though the leaders of these prayers are not performers, the vocal ensemble could create a trance as the prayers emerge from the most sincere and deep feelings of the heart. The Javanese people’s beliefs about what to leave behind in death include leaving knowledge that is beneficial to their generation; leaving good deeds for the world as well as the hereafter; and educating the children of the next generation, who can pray for their souls and their ancestors.
PCRYes, the ritual for birth, or the sign that a new life has begun, is almost the same as the ritual for death. In Javanese Muslim culture, when a baby has just been birthed by its mother, the father whispers a call to prayer in the baby’s ear. There is a belief in Javanese Muslim tradition that if you sound the adhan in the baby’s right ear and an iqomat in the baby’s left ear, then the baby will not be disturbed by bad things, or evil jinn, as the first thing it will hear is a sentence that contains the majesty and greatness of the name of God.
For Javanese people who still hold on to their cultural traditions, the birth ceremony will be accompanied by a gamelan ensemble or vocal ensemble that will play macapatan songs containing prayers of hope for newly born humans. This is done by singing from ancient wulangreh fibers, wedhatama, as well as poetry sung in macapat that is especially made to mark the birth of
PCRSri Joko was my best friend, an incredibly intelligent musician, a dhalang, and an educator. He was my colleague when he taught in the Karawitan Department at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Surakarta, and we grew up together under Rahayu Supanggah, who was an influential gamelan maestro and composer in Indonesia. For a time, Rahayu Supanggah’s works always involved me and Sri Joko as musicians together. Sri Joko was a multi-talented
person, a traditional artist who had incredible vocal skills but also an open mind and heart for novelty and innovation, even in the contemporary realm.
Sri Joko’s presence in the performing arts and in my community was an incredible influence and inspiration for us. He taught us that by learning and being part of strong traditional roots, one will be able to grasp the world of performing arts with all of its variations and developments. One will be able to collaborate beautifully and work with artistic backgrounds of all kinds very easily—that is, if one holds an open heart and a broad mind. That was all manifest in the late Sri Joko.
I will always remember Sri Joko’s smile and his voice that greeted me every morning to pick me up in front of my house, to go together to the office, to educate generations of students on Javanese arts and culture, to learn the science behind gamelan music and the philosophy of the cultural life of Javanese people. I hold these memories from the campus that raised us both, namely the Karawitan Department at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts Surakarta.
PCRWhen a dhalang, or master, dies, the ritual usually involves playing the masterpiece works along with duhkitan songs and death prayers in large gamelan ensembles or gadhon (minimalist). During the ceremony, the history of the master’s artistic journey is also read aloud. And a prayer is held by singing the tahlil song on the first day until the seventh day of his death, then again on the 40th day, 100th day, 360th day, 1000th day, 2000th.
These prayers, or tahlil songs, are sung with various free-singing styles, each according to the ability of the voice of each person praying, which is of course led by an imam. The scale and tone are very free, but at certain parts, all of the people praying chant at the same tempo repeatedly, and sometimes the body is moved to follow the rhythm. Usually, this ritual ceremony is attended by the family, neighbors, and friends of the deceased.
PCRYes, I wrote a song for the late Sri Joko, my best friend who passed away at a young age. It is a composition entitled “Kidung Kinanthi,” which I wrote to pay homage and to chant a prayer to deliver the spirit of Sri Joko to his eternal realm. Three days after Sri Joko’s death, I had a very strange dream. In my dream, I saw Sri Joko on a voyage in a small boat to go somewhere, but at that same time he came to me and gave me a message: “Yu, tulung gawekke kidung kinanthi ya?” which means, “My Sister, please make me a song called kidung kinanthi.”
When I woke up from my dream, I was crying. Although I was very sad because a good friend died, I was also very happy because I was able to see him in a dream. This is when I started to think about writing a song from the macapat kinanthi pattern, which, in the Javanese rite of human life, means to be guarded, guided, shown direction. At that time, I thought that Sri Joko asked me for the kidung kinanthi song to show him the way to go home on his voyage to his new world, the realm of immortality.
I wrote the lyrics in the pattern of macapat kinanthi to contain prayers, hopes, and memories. It also has a code name for Sri Joko, his wife Wulan, and his son Satya, all of whom died with him in the accident. I wrote the song, “Kidung Kinanthi,” in the form of macapat at the beginning, and then in the pelog nem barrel. I performed the song at the OneBeat global music exchange, which Sri Joko had also attended two years prior. The song was the first time I performed at OneBeat. Here is its translation:
Satengah palunging kalbu : In the depths of my soul
Rerangin donga pamuji : I sing prayers and hopes
Ilang Sirna Sang Caraka : For a messenger who has
Jejangkung pamoring ngelmi : A brave hero of science
Obor padhang sumik’a : Bright torch light please open up
Kondur manembah mring Widhi : For him to return to God’s house
Rambu Rangkung mbal ambal lumaku : They are like
the gamelan rambu and rangkung that go hand in hand.
Harda arga sirna : But that hope is now gone
Janur mumur ancur sih jenar : It’s like coconut leaf buds that are still yellow buds that have been crushed when they were very young.
Koncat ing pundi paranya : Lost don’t know where to go
Setya Satya Wulan : The loyalty of his son named Satya and his wife named Wulan
Sajiwa Saraga : To live and die together in one soul and one body.
Landung nggen sun nglagu : Loud in me sing
Kidung Kinanthi Lilahi ta’alla Allah : In a song of
sincerity that brings you home to God.
PCR This is a very difficult question to answer. I will answer with two things that I don’t know yet are true, but we will all meet in the future. According to Javanese culture, humans who are in the phase of dying are in the “megatruh” stage of macapat in the rite of life. The word megat comes from the root pegat, which means to separate, Ruh means spirit. This means that it is time for the human spirit to separate from the body. Just as at birth when a baby first receives only sound, a person in the dying phase can also only hear voices. This is when relatives will whisper the shahada and chant the call to prayer to show guidance and direction to return to the house of their God.
After life is gone, there is only the body, which would one day unite with the earth. The Javanese gave a sign that his last bit of clothing was pocong, a piece of white cloth that wraps his body and returns it to the holiness of the earth. In this stage, humans are in the phase of the mocopat song “Pocung.”