Arrington de Dionyso: Interview
“Here you have extremely up-to-date, contemporary, avant-garde, modernist expressions of a very ancient sonic culture, yet it’s the most non-traditional expression of that culture you can imagine.”
Arrington de Dionyso, in his project Malaikat dan Singa, wants to explore music’s potential to bend time and space and induce trancelike states. He also wants to show you how “guttural throatsinging, dancehall rhythms, post-punk ‘Beefheartian’ guitars, growling bass clarinet, and Indonesian scales” can all actually fit together in the same song. It’s sorta fitting, then, that this present interview stitches together different mediums and times; it began over a year and a half ago and was conducted in person, over the phone, and through email.
When this interview first started, Arrington and I talked at length about his first trip to Indonesia, funded by a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011. The trip resulted in a Lil B-like downpour of fascinating collaborative recordings released on Arrington’s Bandcamp page and has profoundly influenced his musical and artistic output since. Now, he’s gearing up for round two: his new Kickstarter campaign, which ends Friday night (October 11), aims to help him to reconnect with the musicians he met the first time around to collaborate on public performances, recording sessions, and workshops. If it’s half as productive as his last trip, it will result in enough music to fill up my Samsung Galaxy S4. But even more importantly, it’s a chance for one of America’s musicians who’s most critically and creatively engaged with “non-Western music” to continue his unique, much-needed explorations of cultural appropriation, exoticism, “World music,” and, of course, the crowd-pleasing qualities of angel semen.
So, what’s in the vial that you and your bandmates drank from before the show I saw you at recently?
In the vial? Oooooh. Well, it’s kind of fun to keep a little bit of an air of mystery, but I will say it’s perfectly legal and available at any co-op or health food store. It’s just a tincture that aids in overall endurance and stamina and, you know, helps us get our game on to be wild and funky. And it helps with your prostate, too.
We’re all men here; we have to protect our stuff.
Yeah, we’re getting older.
We are getting older, yeah.
How did you become interested in Indonesia?
From a young age I’ve always had a tendency to dive into the most obscure, locally unknown music that I could find, from what would be the “ethnic” music section of the library. And at the same time been really involved in the D.I.Y. punk scene when I was a teenager. I’d go to punk shows on the weekends, and then on weekdays after school, I’d go to the library and listen to records from Mali, Morocco — any faraway place. Especially Indonesia, because in 1989 or so a family friend participated in an artists’ residency program and traveled a bit through Bali and Java. She knew I’d be excited to hear some “exotic” sounds and brought back a few cassettes for me to enjoy featuring “Jaipongan” music, it’s tricky to explain too briefly but basically this was an urban contemporary hybrid musical form that came into being directly via government sponsorship. The intention was to create a dance-able urban “pop” music without Western influence so as to attract young people away from the corruption of the rock and roll from the US and UK that permeated the airwaves in the early 60s. A genetically engineered music, if you will — Jaipongan showcases incredible rhythmic complexity, abrupt changes in the beat are punctuated by virtuosic displays of rapid-fire drum play led by the kendang player, but even as the chaos can seem to increase, each cycle is measured by the enormous low sound of the giant “gong degung.”
I fell in love with this cassette tape.
A year or so after that my mother took a business trip to the Caribbean and brought home a cassette featuring the first recordings of dancehall I had ever been exposed to. I fell in love with this cassette, too. It was a mixtape sold at an outdoor booth, none of the artists were listed, the tape simply said “REGGAE CONFUSION.” The music on this tape was every bit as wild and unpredictable as the Indonesian tape. Gruff, almost cartoonish vocals, strange computerized sound effects, crazy beats. While obviously worlds apart, both of these cassette tapes gave me evidence at the age of thirteen or fourteen that there was another world of music beyond MTV, mass media, even beyond the edgy punk subcultures into which I was being initiated. This was a period of great discovery for me. I found the vinyl collection in the public library and devoured music from every corner of the world near and far. I became familiar with everything exotic, from Stravinsky to Ornette Coleman, from Uganda to the Navaho. Now, “exotic,” — that’s quite a charged word, isn’t it? Without making my personal statement too extremely complicated, there are those among us, particularly in the liberal college town in which I live, who would be quick to attack my interest in “exotic” musics as a form of racist imperialism, a way of subjugating the non-Western “otherness” of people I may never hope to truly understand through a cataloging of “folk tunes” as though it were some kind of human museum. Somewhere in the mid 90s the accusation of “cultural appropriation” became a vile insult, at least here in Olympia.
Humans make music, all humans make music. Because of where we are technologically, anyone in any part of the world can listen to other music from anywhere else in the world. That’s not just about this sort of colonialist Western domination telling everyone what to listen to. In Indonesia, everybody’s playing mp3s and filesharing.
I would hope to counter the too-easy dismissal implied by that type of accusation that a taste for, and interest in, the “exotic” is the awe in face of, the openness to, the fascination with the absolutely stunning diversity in the ways that people all over the world and throughout human history have found in which to express themselves through sound. It’s the amazement at discovering that there is more than one way to slice an octave, a measure, a rhythm. There are hundreds of different tuning systems in use the world over that could never be properly played on a “Western” instrument such as the piano. It’s not that I necessarily elevate “non-Western” over “Western” — I personally feel such terminology is rapidly becoming obsolete. I am just interested in the vast and yet unexplored human potential in regards to music, and what one’s choices in musical expression might say about oneself. I’m not interested in sampling a bit of this and that for its own sake; the results are usually boring and insincere, a kind of pandering the lowest common denominator of ethno-kitsch. I’d like to believe that I am coming rather from a fascination with how certain groups of sounds work together. It just so happens that guttural throatsinging, dancehall rhythms, post-punk “Beefheartian” guitars, growling bass clarinet, and Indonesian scales all coalesce and work together in a way that I not only find irresistible, but that also communicates what I have to say to the world musically more than anything else regardless of the specifics of time or place in which I now live.
I had to take a circuitous route, because it’s not that there is any one particular thing about Indonesian culture or music per se that is so important. It’s how it’s all interconnected with everything else. The fact is, that yes, somewhere down the line between my teenage years listening to records at the library to my university level classes in ethnomusicology and performance art, to my early attempts at experimental improvisation, to starting an edgy art-rock band that went on to tour the world… Back in college, I had a little gamelan ensemble that I was a part of for a while. I was also dating a lady who had just emerged from a secret life as an ex-Christian missionary who had lived in Indonesia for years and was fluent in the language. I started teaching myself Indonesian as a way of connecting with her, at least at first. So then came Malaikat dan Singa, with me singing in the Indonesian language. It started as if it were a dare, in a way. It was something I dared myself to do because Old Time Relijun had been pretty inactive for a few years, and I really needed something to distance myself from that band a little bit, while taking the elements that I most appreciated and distilling them into a more potent concentrate. But in the process of developing the Malaikat dan Singa project, any “special connection” to one person in the human realm was subsumed by the rapidly expanding urge to connect with a larger and yet invisible world, an unseen realm that singing in a newly acquired language that I barely speak somehow provides me access! So, I think of Malaikat dan Singa as an Old Time Relijun tincture in a way. It’s an Old Time Relijun spirit, it’s distilled: it’s like the vodka of Old Time Relijun. Both bands use the repeating loops and grooves being played by live musicians for really potent trance-inducing music, but I think Malaikat takes it a little further into outer space.
Indonesian music is so diverse: within the country of Indonesia, there are thousands of different ethnic groups that all have really different traditions. There’s very ancient, highly-developed classical music, but at the same time, there are these more underground scenes of trance music and different kinds of spiritual sounds that involve a very in-depth exploration of different states of consciousness. That kind of thing is interesting to me — how people anywhere in the world use sound to transcend day-to-day reality and maybe explore other realms of awareness and consciousness. That’s kind of a big thing in Indonesia.
There are people in Indonesia who are doing pretty incredible, far out, experimental music, contemporary music that’s based on traditional sources. Like, we have free jazz improvisation that’s still based on jazz, and there are people doing improvisation with electronics, experimenting with playing gamelan instruments, or handmade bamboo instruments but augmenting them with electronics and effects, or doing experimental processing of the sounds. It’s not a huge scene, but it’s happening and there are young people who are very actively engaged with this question of finding a contemporary Indonesian identity that’s neither a full-on embrace of Western culture nor stuck in unchanging traditions. So there’s dialogue going on between these contemporary artists, mostly in Yogyakarta but also in Jakarta, Malang, some people in Bali; and Bandung, of course, has a very big, very important death metal scene, a very contemporary death metal that — they call it death metal there, but what I heard was really far beyond the constraints of what we conceive of death metal as a set genre. It’s more like that group Liturgy. It’s almost as if there’s a completely independent version of that in Indonesia, where they are using some traditional instruments or some kind of traditional Indonesian mythological themes.
So how’d the first trip to Indonesia, back in 2011, come about?
When the first Malaikat record came out, I got money together to make an animated video for Mani Malaikat. I thought that once word got out in Indonesia that there was this crazy American — this crazy, wild, punk American — doing Indonesian lyrics, it would have a viral effect there. And it did. I thought I was on a unique pathway with this music; whether good or bad or whatever, it’s definitely something that nobody else has thought of doing, at least that I was aware of. So I thought that as long as I kept doing what I was doing, someone would take notice over there and could help me organize my trip.
I was approached originally by a woman who works for the Yogyakarta Museum of Contemporary Art, and she had a lot of questions for me and was really curious about why I was doing this project. We had an email correspondence for a few months and after we got to know each other, she put me in touch with a guy named Woto, who runs a net label called Yes No Wave Music Club, and they also promote concerts in Yogyakarta for contemporary, experimental music, and he was interested. The whole correspondence took about a year.
Woto played a very active role as tour manager for me. He helped me pick the musicians that I was going to be collaborating with as Malaikat dan Singa — a drummer, a bass player, and also, an extraordinary individual named Bambu Wukir, who played in a group called Senyawa. They’re one of the very best things happening in Indonesia right now.
Yeah, I saw on your Tumblr a post about Senyawa a few months ago. They were trying to raise some money for an album.
Yeah, the amount of money that they tried to raise, I mean, a lot of people will see Kickstarter things via their friends on Facebook or wherever and it’s like, ‘OK, I’ll give them 20 bucks and hope enough of my friends give them 20 bucks that they can put something out.’ But in Indonesia, for them to press vinyl; they can’t do it in the country. They have to do it in Australia and get it shipped over, so the amount of money that they’re trying to raise is way more than an average person would make in a year there. We give 20 or 30 bucks to our friends all the time, but in Indonesia, that’s what you live on for a week or two weeks. But they’re having a really hard time raising the money right now.
Anyway, Senyawa were a support act for the tour and Wukir played with Malaikat dan Singa. We played about 10 concerts together. I also had sessions with more traditional musicians. On Lombok Island, I did some recording sessions with traditional musicians and then in a city in the East of Java called Malang.
What was the extent of your collaboration with Indonesian musicians within the context of Malaikat dan Singa? Was it just touring and performance?
We came up with fairly different arrangements. There’s this standard set of Malaikat dan Singa songs that I’ve been doing with bands in the U.S. and Europe. We didn’t write any new material, but we arranged older pieces to highlight, for instance, Wukir’s hand-built instrument. Instrumentally, it went in a very different direction than what I would have come up with on my own.
Wukir and I also did a number of duo concerts that were really [long pause] new. Very different and good for me. It was a different kind of collaboration because we weren’t really doing — we were taking very improvisatory mindset but working with these set pieces that didn’t always have clear-cut beginnings or endings. We played at this world-music festival, where most of the people had come to listen to different forms of traditional Indonesian music. We presented this collaboration of raw, minimal… As if we were presenting a Malaikat dan Singa song as poetry. So, that in itself was amazing for me, with the language barrier. My Indonesian is not fluent by any means, but I do go to very great lengths to make sure my lyrics sound meaningful and convincing to an Indonesian listener. To be able to deliver these poems to a very attentive audience who for the first time could understand every word, that was a very powerful, chilling thing for me.
Was it nerve-wracking?
Yeahhh, there were a few occasions where… There are some lyrics that could be taken as somewhat offensive in a certain context. Some of the songs say things that might be controversial to a more conservatively minded person. Now, when we played at, say, the Noisefest in Jakarta, I wasn’t really worried about that being a problem. That audience is into very extreme music. But we played one concert in a more remote village and, you know, the song “Mani Malaikat,” that means “Angel Semen.”
I did notice a few people in the back of the audience started to leave after we played that song.
It always makes you nervous to see people leaving when you’re onstage, but the people who stayed ended up being really into it, so I didn’t have any self-doubt about that. You know, compare it to being a hardcore band playing a country fair — it’s not the same thing as the DIY garage-rock audience.
As for the collaborations I did with more traditional musicians, in both cases in Java and in Lombok, these were musicians who were playing what was handed down to them, keeping their traditions alive, and it’s not very popular music. It’s not what you listen to if you wanna be hip and cool. So for an American to come all the way over and be really interested in what they’re doing and wanting to participate in it in some way… Lots of people told me they took it as a great compliment, and it helps them hold their traditional music in a higher standing. A lot of younger people there are into the same kind of stuff that’s on the radio here in America, this international pop music that isn’t really conveying the same depth or richness. So that was a big boost for them to work with me in that way, and it was also… I’m accustomed to going into a situation in like, an improvisatory approach with a lot of range, where you don’t have to focus on melody so much as texture or tonality of sounds. And with this, of course, they’re mostly playing the way that they play, and I was able to improvise based on the melodic contours of their tuning system so that it wouldn’t sound grossly discordant. But I also wanted to play! I wanted to bring some fire to it from my own sonic palette and bring something of my perspective as well, as a clarinet player. I mean, nobody there’s ever seen a bass clarinet, so they were curious as to what kinds of sounds I was going to bring to their performance.
I bet! A lot of people in the U.S. probably haven’t seen a bass clarinet either.
Well, yeah. “What kind of saxophone is that?” is a comment I get. But over there, there’s also a very long running tradition of using these very shrill, high pitched, double-reed instruments — every culture will have different names for it but in Indonesia they call it tarompet in Java, and in my Lombok Island recordings Gombloh, the guy I play with used a pereret, a double-reed instrument used in ceremonies. In that recording session, he started out playing his traditional pieces and I was trying to follow along with him, but midway through it just started to click. I think what you hear on the cassette is that we’re playing pretty independently of one other, but always coming back together with the pereret and the bass clarinet, and treading along these close melodic contours — I’m really happy with that recording. It was such a delight to do it, to be there, to hang out with this older guy who had been playing this instrument since he was a kid. He was smiling, too, and laughing. When we were listening to the recording after the session, he was totally cracking up. It was a really cool experience to get to have, but it was just scratching the surface of what’s possible…