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Senyawa (live at Café OTO)

17 October 2016

Senyawa live October 2016It’s going to be very difficult to describe Senyawa in words. What follows will probably contain muddled metaphors, chaotic similes, idiotic expostulations, expletives, wild imagery, desperate comparisons, upholstery by Zachery, knick-knackery by Thackery, Terpsichore by Dickery and dickery by Dock. Younger readers – or those of a nervous disposition – may want to look away now.

Imagine that Napalm Death were from West Timor rather than the West Midlands. Or that Swans hailed from New Guinea rather than New York. That Black Sabbath grew up in Banda Aceh and not Birmingham. That… oh, you get the picture. Anyway, it’s relevant because what we have here is a serious piece of global hybridisation. For Senyawa seem both so familiar, and yet so utterly alien all at the same time, like a well-beloved place viewed down the wrong end of a telescope as a thick fog bank rolls in.

One could wax lyrical about the amazing propensity of music to travel, to influence, to change and mutate, reconfiguring itself in every new set of hands like some protean virus, and about how this was demonstrable evidence of the more benign side of globalisation and the way music can bring diverse peoples together. But that is all so much bollocks and verbiage when one is confronted by a man playing an electrified fence post like he was Jeff Hanneman. And I don’t even mean in a Eugene Chadbourne, Doo Rag kind of way. I mean like he was really Jeff Hanneman. For in the market segmentation that is traditional Indonesian avant metal, Senyawa really are men outstanding in their field. And they are in that field because one of them often makes his own insanely over-amplified instruments from old farm machinery.

Singer Rully Shabara and instrumentalist Wukir Suryadi originally first jammed together in 2010 at the behest of a local Indonesian underground music promoter. Senyawa legend says that so potent and immediate was their musical alchemy that four days later they recorded their first EP. Animated by a shared teenage love of metal, our two heroes shook a leg, took to their laboratory and began to craft their fabulous musical chimera, comprising one part heavy doom metal and one part traditional Indonesian music.

Fusions of the modern and the “traditional” are nothing new – think of Can with their “Ethnographic Forgery Series” (or even just of Can) or O.rang’s still underrated explorations into World Music synthesis – but Senyawa have somehow managed to reverse the flow in a particularly startling and innovative way. What strikes immediately is the way in which all the familiar rock and metal tropes come shining through, despite the unfamiliar context in which they sit – Suryadi doesn’t just play a cylindrical amplified bamboo zither, he plays a low-slung cylindrical amplified bamboo zither. Shabara doesn’t just perform traditional Sulawesi singing, he performs death grunt traditional Sulawesi singing. Rather than worry about tired old codswallop to do with cultural appropriation (yawn) or defilement of the sacred, Senyawa have simply taken everything and MADE NEW SHIT.

Senyawa live October 2016

Café OTO is hot and full, and when the band take the stage they seem somehow, well, small. Devoid of banks of equipment or personnel, they are just two diminutive men. Yet immediately they start playing, I am reminded of the moment in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger when the magic potion of evil witch Zenobia is accidentally ingested by a wasp which then proceeds to grow and grow until it reaches an enormous size and begins to circling menacingly around everyone, looking for an inroad to attack. That’s slightly how it feels in OTO. Before our very eyes, Senyawa are becoming bigger and bigger, the sound of a bowed cylindrical amplified bamboo zither buzzing around my head with its enormous stinger. One touch from this will surely be fatal.

Suryadi trained for a time at Holland’s Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, and they must now surely have his name engraved on the board of alumni, for this is a masterclass performance. His self-made Bambuwukir is the instrument a (wo)man plays when a Chapman Stick doesn’t have quite enough strings, machine heads or angles. Finger-picking a delicate melody whilst simultaneously striking a crushing doom metal riff with a thumb, it’s east meets west in one piece of rough-hewn wood. With strings. Run through a Fender amplifier. At volume. He bows it, he plucks it, he bends the strings, he uses is as percussion. Man, look up the word “versatile” in the Collins English Dictionary, and there is a small picture of the Bambuwukir next to it. OK, well, maybe not yet, BUT THERE WILL BE. Trust me on this.

Senyawa live October 2016

Suryadi also cracks open a small, long-necked three-string lute (amplified to buggery, natch), which has a built-in mbira. Run through a delay pedal, Suryadi sets up a delicate filigree of string sounds, and when he plucks one of the rough metal tines extending from the body, it sounds like Hell’s Bells themselves are chiming right in front of us. There is nowhere to hide here, and it is utterly compelling. Like trying to swim against a rip tide, there is no fighting it. You are going down into the vortex of sound whether you like it or not. And I do. And so does everyone else here.

Rully Shabara isn’t sitting on his arse watching the sky go by around either. His vocals are the perfect complement to Suryadi’s instrumental playing. From the most guttural howl and low-frequency Tuvan throat singing to delicate, almost operatic arias, Shabara spans a truly astonishing range, one minute making the kind of dentist-drill-inside-your-skull screaming in which Blixa Bargeld excels to noises that would make Phil Minton sit down for a rest, he conjures a vocal volcano from within. Visually, too, he is utterly in the moment – crouching, grasping, gurning and clawing at an imaginary moon. In his visual performance, he reminds me of the great Toshiro Mifune, half comic imp, half blood-crazed assassin, his facial theatre as much a part of Senyawa’s enactment as the Bambuwukir. It ain’t rock and roll, but I like it (like it, yes I do).

Senyawa are well-versed in the art of dynamics, too, knowing just when to raise – and just when to lower – both the volume and the intensity of the music. When they do so, one realises just how synchronised they are, shifting tempo, inserting silences, stuttering and juddering the music; they are never out of time, moving together through the music like starlings flying together in a murmuration. It is magnificent to behold. Once or twice, I feel a smile break out unbidden across my face, just because what they do is so bloody wonderful. The sweet is all the sweeter after a mouthful of sour.

Senyawa live October 2016

A gentler piece performed with flute resonates across the room, the atmosphere as though we are in a Werner Herzog movie. It wouldn’t surprise me if Klaus Kinski was here somewhere, despite being dead. That’s not a good enough reason to miss this, not by a long chalk. Towards the end Shabara strips to waist, his tattoos and shaven head pleasingly reminiscent of Henry Rollins at his vintage, fiercest best. And there is much in Senyawa with which the great man might find kinship; their imaginative, uncompromising, ferocious assault on the senses is hardcore in the very best sense.

If you prefer your folk music to sound like Metallica, then Senyawa are the band for you. Try and seize any opportunity to see them live first though, for it is in this context, that of the performant ritual, that their music shines to its fullest and greatest extent.1 And if, as a result, you feel the irresistible urge to take that rusty old Shear & Jackson rake out of the shed and convert it into a pile-driving electric riff machine, then all the better.

-David Solomons-

1 And, in extremis, if no such opportunities are available, French music-focussed film-maker Vincent Moon made a film about the band entitled Calling the New Gods, which is viewable online:


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