Beach bums?

As my life takes another turn, of which more soon, I’m attempting to type up the handwritten diary which I started in 1971 and posting it all, largely unedited, on a separate blog, Jakartass Travels. This is the most recent episode to be put in my archives.

Kovalum Beach, Kerala, South India

Tuesday 24th September 1985

Kovalum is organised. Although, as is my wont, I am here at the very start of its season, it is possible to imagine life here at, for example and in particular, Xmas. The many small lodges, whether set on the beach or further back in the coconut groves, will be fully occupied at prices some four or five times higher than now. There will probably be queues for the similarly scattered restaurants. At present, there are but three or four attracting trade. Others are open but empty.

The ambiance created by the proprietors is all important. Here and at the Moon Restaurant, which is in the same ownership, care has been taken to ensure my comfort. I was discovered wandering the path at a very early hour on Saturday morning, backpack building up a sweat and so very tired having detrained at Trivandrum at 5.30am, I could well have allowed my awareness to slip. Particularly, as it happens, as my willing, smiling and helpful companions were/are the local Keralan beach bums.

In the event my almost ‘enforced’ taking of this room – cheaper if you take it for one week than one day … yeak ok – has turned out fine. There’s no attached bathroom, but that doesn’t bother me, not with the view imperfectly described and in the shelter of the coconut palms. For sleep, there is the deep steady metronome of the surf breaking and being belched up and down the rocks and beach, a soothing sound.

For now, as I write, there is my Walkman with fresh batteries to allow me to switch off the extra daytime sounds of pineapple, papaya, banana, coconut and peanut vendors who persuasively pouting flirt with their fruit, eyes flashing upwards to the baskets so decorously balanced on their heads. then there’s the cawing of crows – but why is there not a single sea bird? No gulls, gannets or cormorants, or whatever one may expect in near tropical zones.

Kovalum is still a fishing area, albeit with the added detritus of the tourism which has given the villagers a daytime living: renting property and selling fruit. The beach bums have different techniques for gathering rupees.

The first came to my window as I was unpacking and getting ready for a non-spicy breakfast. Would I lend him 100 rupees so the manager could pay the electricity bill? It was such an outrageous and implausible story that I was able to rout him with a Maigret-type interrogation. There was no need for a hysterical show, as with Inspector Clouseau or my usual performance.

Then came Srikumar who attached himself with an almost appealing style of spoken English. Yes sir, that is right, thanks. My sentiments would be repeated back to me subtly. Slightly altered words or phrasing, a simple restructuring and I would be hearing a flattering subservience which stopped just short of sycophancy. As I said, appealing.

Over a joint of Keralan grass – specially produced for we ‘hippy’ travellers who frequently need to switch off and rediscover something of our own culture and consequently our roots – I mentioned that I like fried fish. Yes sir, fish is good, thanks.  It is a long time since I’ve tasted fresh fish, indeed, any fish. Yes sir, I cook fish for you tomorrow. I have big tuna – yum my favourite – Yes sir, that is right, thanks.

Can I give him ten rupees now to buy cooking oil? By this time, having examined his home shared with aging parents, I was ready to believe his expressions of poverty. Home was a tent-like structure made out of woven palm fronds which measured barely 5ft by 5ft, The ground was bare, still rock strewn, sloping and damned uncomfortable, with few visible household possessions. Advice flowed through my lips. Yes sir, that is right, thanks.

A young lad, 9th grade, was also there for the meal the next night. I was the only one who ate the fish, which had been cooked first in coconut milk with some ginger and chilli. This had then been fried in ghee (clarified butter). and was absolutely delicious. The cold chapattis and boiled potatoes were atypical stodge.

My appetite here is tremendous, from arising to asleeping it’s a non-stop nibble. However, before I ploughed through the lot, I became aware that no-one else was eating fish, or potato, or even chapatti. Srikumar and the young lad were eating rice and fish curry. Outside, for there was no more room inside the shelter, mother and father were scratching around heating heavens knows what in a pot balanced over a small fire of palm fronds and driftwood.

So, after the appropriate politeness – Delicious, I really can’t eat another thing – the spoils were shared out with Srikumar adopting, without being too obvious, the self-sacrificing demeanour of having the smallest share.

I could have had a better meal for my 20 rupees at the Moon Restaurant, to where I soon retired for a coffee and pineapple pancake. But then I wouldn’t have seen how the other half live.

Them? Oh, they’re beach bums.

A Tale of 1.1 Gigs

This being Jakarta, last week proved interesting partly because I didn’t make it to the two gigs I wanted to get to, although there are parallels with the two gigs I did get to earlier this month.

There are also connections to a gig I went to in April last year, another in the series of Serambi Jazz held at Goethe Haus. That one featured German guitarist Kai Bruckner, his compatriot Paul Kleber on bass and the Riza Arshad Project, which was Riza with the percussionists from simakDialog.

I had enticed a former colleague along, and he brought two of his then colleagues, one of whom has gone from the tropics to the far north of Scotland where he now makes his own music, writes and dreams of climbing more Indonesian volcanoes. The other member of our group I hadn’t met before, but in conversation she proved to be an adventurous explorer of life.

We engaged with the musicians after the gig and Paul Kleber indicated that he was interested in seeing something of Jakarta’s nightlife, which is how we ended up at DPQ’s suggestion in a dangdut bar in Cikini. It was a memorable evening, not least because of the alcoholic fug which greeted me the following morning.

I’d received notice from Jazzuality of last Thursday’s Serambi gig, the Benny Lackner Trio + Azfansadra Karim (organ) and Johanes Radianto (guitar). What caught my attention was that Paul Kleber was the bass player, so I exchanged emails with the adventurous lass and arranged to meet up before the gig. I don’t really like being the ‘token bule’ at a gig.

So, we met, chatted and by the time we thought we should go into the auditorium, the band were playing their last number. Judging by the reception they were getting, it had been a great gig, standing room only – yes, I’ve never seen the place so packed. So apologies to all, including Paul, and I hope my settling of the drinks tab in Ya ‘Usual later went some way to atoning for what was a good night for all, including adventurous lass and I.

(This is the Jazzuality review of the Wednesday gig in Bandung, and this is a video of the Benny Lackner Trio recorded four years ago in Berlin. As a bonus, this is Paul with Kai Bruckner’s Micatone in Berlin in 2007.)

The following night was to be my third Tuslah set of the year, but @america, where Jakartans get to experience Homeland Security culture for free. Due to the sub-arctic temperature @america I had a bout of flu following the gig by IKYWMC two weeks previously, so I’d packed a sweater brought out from England 25 years ago and not needed to wear since. I had also suggested that the four guys of Tuslah, who’d been at Goethe Haus the night before, should also be prepared. They were to thank me later.

I made a point of not being late. I wasn’t; this was the venue at 6.30, the advertised starting time.

I spent some time peering around at the “latest technology”, first seen three years ago, in order to understand a bit more about American culture.

By about 7.10, having enjoyed the selection of Monk’s music being played over the internal sound system, enough folk had entered to form a healthy sized audience.

Then came the introductions. First up was an Indonesia lass who informed us of all the delights offered by @america.

This was followed by a mini speech by Mr. Abraham from the US Embassy. He informed us that “Jazz has a history in the role of American diplomacy.”

While I pondered this, he went on to extol the creativity of Thelonius Monk, “the pianist who helped instigate bebop, then stood outside it. His compositions were, on the surface, jagged and ungainly. But they also followed their own internal logic: splinters of dissonance turning into tunes that hesitated, then veered off at unexpected angles.”
(fr. this FB page)

That description seems to fit Tuslah too, as my written in the dark barely legible notes would seem to indicate …

Played Twice (arr.Adra): twists, turns, shifts, forever surprising, from twiddly to hard funk, cinema organ swells > ambient, all interwoven.

Ruby My Dear: Almost classical (Debussy?) intro from Sri H.> underlying menace builds fr. drums & synth

‘Round Midnight: (arranged by Adra and Aga): delicate piano, shades of Satie. familiar melody emerges from organ, a lovely duet. > into subtle funk > synth melody … piano … rain gently falls.
A totally original interpretation, really lovely.

Four In One: a distracting film of a firework display behind the band

Yet the drive, particularly from Aga lead to loud applause for his solo, then Adra’s, and even Elfa’s drum solo – note, I’m not a fan of drum solos – and by this time the firework display served as a tribute, an integral part of the show.

Pannonica: This started with Aga vamping at the piano to the repetition of a few phrases from an interview (Monk?) on the backscreen. A few scenes were repeated, and I particularly liked the one when a cat appeared to jump off the window sill onto Adra’s head. This number featured the Italian guitarist Alessandrio Florio. Riza sat this one out, and we got ‘less’ Tuslah, and a ‘straighter’ take.

Worth noting for local jazz fans is that Alessandrio, whose recently released album Taneda features Pannonica and Monk’s Dream, is in Indonesia for a bit longer and can be seen at the Largo Bistro in Kemang tomorrow evening (21st), and at Butcher’s Bill in Bandung on Wednesday, both with Adra and Elfa.

My final note scribbled as I listened was that we need four ears in order to focus on the four voices of what, in my considered opinion, is currently the best live band in the country. When folk talk about seeing a music group, you are often there to listen. Tuslah require all your senses.

Having had the mandatory photo taken of the musicians + Mr. Abraham standing behind the @america logo, I trust this is a sign of a few gigs soon Stateside.

Those of us in Indonesia will now have to wait until November 23rd to catch Tuslah at Ngayogjazz 2014.

See you there?
More fuzzy pics here

Image of the Week – 127 (Bookshops)

The Book Barge, Lichfield (and environs), England featured in The Bookshop Book, “a love letter to bookshops all around the world.”

This 60-feet narrow boat, which is also a bookshop, has toured the canals of Britain since 2011, along with bookshop rabbit Napoleon Bunnyparte.

I need a counter-balance to the hurly burly instant consumption lifestyle encountered outside my front door. My definition of a good book is one that takes you out of yourself, away from the frustrations of traffic jams and other stressful situations so that life drifts by. It might seem paradoxical that holidays are a good time to read, but a good book is like drinking wine with good food: they go together.

I imagine that I would find a really good read on the Book Barge because it encapsulates the notion of slow living.

When I lived in the UK, I made a point of becoming a member of my local public library, the first one of which was housed (and still is) in this magnificent building.

On my many travels I’ve always made a point of seeking out the most interesting bookshops, hopeful that I can find a good read among the second-hand selections. In a few places, including work staff rooms, I’ve set up a book exchange or two on my travels. This has guaranteed that I’ve always had a ‘book on the go’. This is a list of the many books I read when I circumnavigated the globe in 85-6: note that I don’t make any claims to be a literature buff.

For information about Indonesia’s bookshops, check this page.

Kinokuniya (located at Sogo Plaza Senayan, Sogo Plaza Indonesia, Pondok Indah Mall, and Grand Indonesia) is one of the largest English bookstores in Indonesia. And the only ones which apparently have copies of ‘my’ book, which I should add is the number one seller among books about Jakarta in its Kindle edition..

Periplus, the distributors of ‘my’ book, don’t stock it (eh?) in their bookstores , which are widespread throughout the archipelago.

There isn’t a public library system so for the large sector of society which lives near or below the poverty line and/or in the remoter areas of the country (some 100 million). One project which deserves a mention is Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens), founded by Nila Tanzil, which has transported hundreds of books to Flores and Komodo so that children can get a glimpse into worlds beyond their own.

Finally, a reminder that I have a separate page (link above) for my book recommendations and reviews.

Image of the Week – 126 (Sulawesi Cave Art)

This rock art was originally discovered in caves on the island of Sulawesi in the 1950s, but dismissed as younger than 10,000 years old because scientists thought older paintings could not possibly survive in a tropical climate.

But fresh analysis of the pictures by an Australian-Indonesian team has stunned researchers by dating one hand marking to at least 39,900 years old, and two paintings of animals, a pig-deer or babirusa, and another animal, probably a wild pig, to at least 35,400 and 35,700 years ago respectively.

The work reveals that rather than Europe being at the heart of an explosion of creative brilliance when modern humans arrived from Africa, the early settlers of Asia were creating their own artworks at the same time or even earlier.

Read more here.

And “the early settlers of Asia” came from …. in …?

This site states that “archaeological evidence reveals that modern humans had spread into Southeast Asia from Africa by about 60,000 years ago.

This site suggests that “archaeological evidence shows that modern humans had reached South-east Asia by 70,000 years ago.”

Whatever, unless one of them is a typo, there’s little point in nitpicking over a mere 10,000 years.

This site offers more depth. What is clear is that human settlements occupied south-east Asia and Australia before Europe, which was then much colder.

Wallacea (Sulawesi, Lombok and the islands to the east) may have been the crucible of human creativity, and our ancestors may have crossed from apehood to humanity as they crossed the Wallace line.

In other news from this past month, scenes in the Indonesian parliament have clearly demonstrated that some groups have yet to cross that line.

Bonus Image of the Week – Mount Sinabung

As seen from Tiga Pancur village in north Sumatra
Photograph: Yt Haryono/Reuters

Click here for a much larger image..

A Tale of Two Gigs (1)

Friday 3rd of October: I Know You Well Miss Clara

It was one of those evenings, highs, lows, aches and laughs.

The aches come from my walk through the back streets of the SBCD (the so-called Golden Triangle) to the Pacific Place Mall … a monument to excess and nonsensical consumption. I’m out of the habit of walking and later, back home in bed, I woke up a couple of times with cramp in my shins.

The absolute low comes courtesy of @America, the “high-tech” cultural centre on the third floor, an incredible example of paranoiac palaver. You have to go through three (3!) body scans within a narrow length of three metres, and your belongings are confiscated and locked in a clear perspex box. I wanted to take in a notepad and pen, my camera, and a CD of recordings to give the lads, and I’d taken a clear plastic bag to carry them in. I wasn’t allowed to take the plastic bag because “the embassy says you can’t take plastic in“.

So how come they retrieved and returned to me the plastic pen that I’d dropped? WTF, eh?

The staff are Indonesian … all very polite and trained in how to say “Have a nice day” and smile politely, a standard measure of gross insincerity. The last time I went through that was with a friend, and we gave up on the gig because of the local cultural insensitivity and ill-thought out procedures shown.

I’m a great admirer of IKYWMC, and praised their first album Chapter One and later interviewed Reza Ryan, the composer and guitarist, for the Jakarta Globe, I knew I owed it to the guys to actually get to see their set in full. We had met up last year at a not very well organised Rock Lingers where their set had to be reduced to about twenty minutes and briefly this past July when MoonJunistas gathered to welcome head honcho Leonardo Pavkovic to Indonesia for his umpteenth visit.

The auditorium is small and compact with carpetted steps and bean bags for seating with a good view of the stage. I’d like to say that it was comfortable, but it wasn’t. Whereas the Jakarta government has issued a regulation stating that the minimum temperature setting should be 24/5 Celsius (72 Fahrenheit), I froze in @America’s sub-Arctic settings, and am now battling flu. Dammit, if I’d wanted a cold environment I wouldn’t have come to Indonesia!

But then came the high I’d be waiting for. The group were introduced by one of the staff backstage – literally: she was viewed talking with a microphone on the video backcloth of the stage above the group’s head. I assumed that the auditorium was too cold for her as well …

But the band played, and on the second number introduced their new fifth member, sax player, Anggie Harahap, a fellow student from Yogyakarta Institute of Arts (ISI), On their first album, Australian Nicholas Combe, also from ISI, enhanced the last two tracks. Although Anggie appeared to be a little nervous when he was brought on for the second number, it was apparent that he’d brought another dimension to the group, more than holding his own.

As with Tuslah, another Indonesian group with ties to MoonJune Records, watching and listening to four guys “each going their own way, four differences, sometimes all at once“, here was a rare dynamism which demanded focus. IKYWMC has a fifth ingredient: Enriko Gultom on bass. He’s a statuesque metronome reining in the power, offering order amidst what many would describe as impending chaos, until all, perhaps through telepathic ether, merge into one. A melody would emerge which, with Adi Wijaya’s keyboards to the fore or Reza Ryan on guitar and Anggie’s sax playing in sync reminded me strongly of Hatfield and the North or, in more orgasmic stretches, of Caravan, but without the vocals.

Yes, these guys have taken ‘Canterbury’ music to the next level, and I can think of no higher praise. But it was with the last number, the popular A Dancing Girl From The Planet Marsavishnu Named After The Love (video) that the groove got the audience bopping and the blood finally circulating so that we could warm up – literally.

Afterwards, we socialised, smiled and were able to laugh: if playing @America enables the lads to get a tour Stateside, then who am I to grumble?

Besides, I’ll be back there in a couple of weeks because on the 17th Tuslah will be there.

A Tale of Two Gigs (2)

Saturday 4th October
Loudnatic, Black Studio, south Jakarta.

Saturday, a family day so that Our Lad could join me in revisiting IKYWMC – he’s got the T-shirt. I was still suffering from the after effects of having frozen the night before, so we opted to go by taxi to south Jakarta before it got dark because I figured that I didn’t know the back streets. And yes, we did get lost However, when arrived at the mansion which houses the Black Studio I realised that we were in the area where I’d started my working life in Jakarta nigh on 27 years ago.

So, we were early, and this was the sight that greeted us …

IKYWMC were to spend the next half hour or so rehearsing, sound checking and giving us a private show – thanks lads.

Afterwards, chatting with Reza, the lead composer and guitarist, I commented that the previous night it seemed to me that Adi at the keyboards was more dominant, although it may have been the sound balance. Reza said that maybe he’d been a bit nervous. Well, maybe, but we had yet to hear their now rehearsed set.

Tesla Manaf was the first on stage and what was played by his group was much as I’d heard at the Rolling Stone Café four weeks previously. But that is Tesla’s way, and his soon-to-be-released album A Man’s Relationship With His Fragile Area having now become familiar it was a comfort to hear it played live again.

However, what made it even more comfortable was the audience. All sat on the parqued floor apart from Our Lad and I who were at the back on seats. The predominantly black T-shirt clad audience listened attentively, were entranced and the applause after each number was both enthusiastic and respectful. This was a family outing and to be savoured, so few, if any, checked their phones for texts, although photos were taken.

IKYWMC were up next and the atmosphere changed just a bit: their music is more charged. As far as I could remmber, the set was unchanged, but this time Anggie Harahap on sax was comfortable, soaring with power when given the space. Reza too played more to the fore, both in the passages where he played in sync with Anggie and in his soloing. As before, Enriko provided the back bone.

However, as powerful as this band can be, the set contains one number, Dancing Girl, which could be likened to a track off an as yet unrecorded ECM album with a melody possibly from a hitherto lost Hatfield and the North session. Featuring sax and Adi’s keyboards, it provided room for a mental float, a calm musing before we were carried along once more.

Later, after we ‘MoonJunistas’ had gathered for a group photograph, Chico Hindarto, the promoter, and I had a chat about the evening so far. Last year’s Loudnatic had been held at the Rolling Stone Café, a venue to meet and greet where the music can be so much background noise.

This year’s venue was much better for a community of fine music lovers, and not just because we were largely cooled by the breezes fed to us by ceiling fans.

Our Lad and I went home thoroughly warmed by the evening.

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