Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.
– Anaïs Nin
We were comfortable with each other, discussing ants and leeches, which we were informed have thirteen brains, and other aspects of life and everything. We’d already eaten and quaffed enough Bintangs and red wine at Ya ‘Udah, so I told friends that we ought to make sure that we’d arrive reasonably early for the Indonesian launch of simakDialog’s sixth album, The 6th Story.
I was really looking forward to this as I already heard some of the album last year, albeit still at the production stage, when I spent an evening with group leader Riza Arshad and Leonardo Pavkovic who will release the album internationally in August on his MoonJune Records.
I thought that this being Friday night, the end of the working week, that the gig at Goethe Haus would be sold out. After all, with the price of admission being just Rp.50,000, which included a copy of the CD, and that the rain storm had passed fairly quickly, making the effort to arrive in sufficient time to grab seats was important.
Nearly five years ago, two of us had been to the launch of simakDialog’s last album, Demi Masa, and the 301 seater hall at Goethe Haus was packed.
We’d also all recently been to a gig there featuring the leader of simakDialog (sD), Riza Arshad, the group’s percussion section of Endang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana playing kendang and Cucu Kurnia with his ‘metal toys’, with German guitarist Kai Brückner and his compatriot Paul Kleber on bass. There had been quite a reasonable atttendance for a Thursday evening, so my hopes were high.
It seemed that my foresight was confirmed when we found a full car park and limited space on the road outside. However, sadly, I was wrong: the cars were there for students attending German lessons and, if we’d wished, we could all have sat alone in a row apiece.
Which I did.
Following a short introductory speech, which included as the reasons for the low turnout the usual excuses for not being anywhere in Jakarta – rain and traffic, we settled down to what, in my view, became the best simakDialog gig I’ve been to.
In an interview for Culture Shock! Jakarta, Leonardo described Riza as “an amazing pianist with a great touch and an ECM sensibility [and] I know the best of him is still to come.”
The majority of the tracks on the last three sD albums released on MoonJune, and indeed the new one, feature Riza mainly playing a Fender Rhodes with but a few snatches of acoustic piano. I hadn’t felt, yet had wanted, that sensibility, the transcendental flow and feel which epitomises ECM recordings and concerts.
The first tunes played were Stepping In and Lain Parantina, the first two tracks on the new CD, and I noticed three key differences from before; firstly, Riza was playing an acoustic grand piano, with no sign of electric keyboards. Although he sat almost with his back to us, he wasn’t taking a back seat: he was able to observe, conduct almost, the rest of the group. And he wasn’t barefoot; he had eschewed what he told me some time ago was “a traditional dress code. I do this to try to catch the ‘spirit’ of the music. I can’t imagine what would be my performance if I should dress any other way.”
“More confident” would be my answer because last Friday in that I couldn’t say that I heard echoes of his cited early influences, such as Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. His playing was ‘his’ in that ‘solo’ passages were sufficiently strong and fluent to make me wonder what a solo piano album recorded with few takes would be like. He had that sought for transcendental flow, and I marvelled at what I was hearing.
A key word on the sleeve notes of simakDialog’s albums is ‘soundscapes’. Riza added these, quite subtly, to the intro of the third piece, One Has To Be, from both Baur (’96) and Patahan. Other pieces played from previous albums were Worth Seeing, also from Patahan, and All In A Day from Trance Mission (2002), the album in which Riza began to incorporate ‘ethno-percussion’.
It was a different Tohpati too. This time round, the ace guitarist, with his own releases on MoonJune, didn’t leave me “sublimely, gorblimey gobsmacking” as before. He sat still, generally looking down as he focussed on his ‘sounds’ which were rarely stand alone solos. When he did let rip, I had to wonder just where he’d dragged his inspiration from; there was little trace of his power trio, Bertiga. This was something else, a demonstration of absolute mastery of his instrument and its effects and a confirmation that, as Leonardo says, he has a “rightful place among the highest echelon of today’s guitar giants.”
To his right stood perennial cohort, the bassist Adhitya Pratama, who quietly and virtually immobile underpinned the grooves.
On the other side of them sat the three percussionists, crosslegged on floor mats. Endang Ramdan played on sD’s Patahan in 2007 and Erlan Suwardana joined for Demi Masa (2008). Both play kendang, Sundanese drums struck melodically and rhythmically with both hands and a foot. A new recruit is Cucu Kurnia who has ‘metal toys’, one of which is a cymbal.
When the three ‘competed’, they were the crowd pleasers. Perhaps because there was such a low audience turnout, the group wasn’t out to impress us. It was obvious that this is a group of friends who enjoy each other’s company and have fun sharing musical games, the sharing of challenges. The obvious joy the whole group had in being in tune with each other was infectious.
And so this was a night to remember. Catch them if you can.