If you’ve lived in Jakarta for a few years or visited often, you’ll understand why things are never quite as they appear.
As far as history will relate, Thursday August 21st 2014 was a very special day in Jakarta. It was the day that the narcissistic Lt.Gen.(ret. – forcibly) Prabowo Subianto lost his ‘case’ in the Constitutional Court alleging systemic electoral fraud which had given Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo the country’s presidency by a margin of some eight million votes (c.6%).
Coincidentally, it was exactly 16 years ago that Prabowo was dismissed from the army for “insubordination”, which many of us consider a minor offence compared to the allegations of his involvement in human rights abuses in Papua, East Timor and Jakarta in May ’98.
For the past two or three weeks, Prabowo and his corrupt crony politicians have demonstrated that they would not go quietly, promising mayhem in the streets by ‘disappointed’ supporters (who they couldn’t control) and further mayhem in Parliament where according to the parliamentary elections held in April the “permanent” Red and White coalition has a majority of seats.
Come the day, and the police, with army backup, mobilised some 27,000 troops, backed up with water cannon and tear gas, cordoned off the area in central Jakarta which houses the Court and many government departments. Facing them were paramilitary thugs, and those of the masses prepared to take to the streets for a packed lunch and a crisp banknote.
All this was carried live on TV and as we waited for the court’s announcement (which was 100% against Prabowo), it was natural that there was widespread paranoia throughout the city.
So was the Tuslah gig going to go ahead? After all, Goethe Haus, the venue, is well within the rampaging reach of an ugly mob.
I’d arranged to meet up with a few folk. One of them works for an American NGO and with his colleagues was advised to go home early.
‘Er Indoors, who spent much of the day watching events unfold, wasn’t too keen on letting Our Lad and I make trip up to town, but, hey, I’d already seen Tuslah at JavaJazz and I just had to see them again, as I think my review makes clear. Don’t worry, luv, I said, we’ll go up by train and thereby bypass any mayhem.
2pm. Water cannon and tear gas mayhem
We waited for nigh on an hour for our train, and arrived at Ya ‘Usual after our Australian friend with American bosses. He’d taken an ojek (motorcycle taxi) and got there in record time: the streets were empty … in Jakarta’s rush hour? And so was Ya ‘Usual, the emptiest I’ve seen in it the more than a dozen years that I’ve been frequenting the place.
We strolled around the corner to Goethe Haus, met a couple more friends, sat in a row of seats and waited beyond the expected start time. Out came the MC and Riza Arshad who informed the reasonably sized audience that the group hadn’t done a sound check. When they’d arrived at Goethe Haus, the gates were shut, the regular German classes had been cancelled, and the presumption had been that the gig would be too.
Although they’d managed to get their gear on stage, it looked much like my office, with essential but extraneous bags and stuff not tidied away. Riza suggested to us that they could come back the following week – erm, yes, we thought – or they could play three numbers to get their sound right, and then have a break, and then play some more. That met with our approval.
And so to the first number which I think was called No Trains, written by Adra Karim who was playing his Hammond organ with its open back towards us so we could see its innards: wires, valves (?) and pedals.
Riza lead on the synth as a hard bop groove emerged and I tried to submerge myself into the music. First though, I had to brusquely castigate the four lasses in front of us who had immediately opened their pads and phones in order to let all in the hall and the sundry online know that they were among us.
I accepted a muttered “sorry’ and began to scribble notes as thoughts floated by. In deciphering them now, I realise that I can’t say what numbers were played because each one had passages which demanded my complete concentration.
Elfa Zulham on drums was in a world of his own, never flashy, head cocked to his right, eyes shut, rarely watching the others, yet in total synch with all that was happening elsewhere on the stage.
Sri Hanugara demonstrated once again that he can conjure magic from an acoustic piano, whether it’s thumping a beat, placing something (I know not what) on the strings so that the sound of a harpsichord drifts out, or dancing a truly astonishing Sundanese melody and bringing forth the trance-like passage of gamelan, his thin arms proving all powerful.
(Watch this video performance of Suwe Ora Jamu for an example of Aga’s playing.)
Adra Karim behind his Hammond demonstrated that there is untapped potential in the instrument. At times he was the absent bass player, at others he wheezed and spluttered, and at no time did he echo any of the many Hammond players who have gone before, be they ‘stars’ like Jimmy Smith, or British beat and blues players in the 60s.
Then there was Riza on the synth, his solos fluid, rising above and through the rhythmic underpinning of all. And when he could, he’d watch and obviously enjoy the others playing, because that’s where Tuslah are best: in the playground, on the swings, roundabouts and seesaws.
Three keyboards and a set of drums: each player going their own way, four differences, sometimes all at once, then perhaps Aga and Adra bouncing off each other, and at other moments tegether as one before going their separate ways again. At times I didn’t know who to watch or listen to, and what I’m attempting to describe here shouldn’t make sense, but it did. One of my notes says that “I want to hear that piece, Minor Importance by Riza, again but from a different angle.”
Tuslah’s music as I’ve attempted to describe it, may sound like organised chaos. Jazzuality says that they “combine the element of classic, jazz, blues, funk and rock …. through original compositions and new arrangements.”
Sorry guys, but I don’t see that Tuslah’s music can be categorised. Perhaps the wife of my Australian friend said it best after the show: “It’s like eating olives: an acquired taste, but great once you’ve got it.”
The use of a synth and Hammond organ harks back to the 60’s and 70’s, yet this music is obviously of the now, and I dare venture to say that it’s of the future. There can be no group which makes music like this.
(Tuslah’s first gig was at Jakarta’s Red & White Lounge in November 2013. Although the video quality is quite poor, you’ll get some idea of what I can only inadequately put in words from watching Proklamasi Part 1 and Part 2.)
When the group took their ‘pre-agreed’ break for a ‘soundcheck’, the MC bounced back on stage and had another conversation with the group, and asked about the group’s name. Tuslah is derived from two Dutch words, toetsen (keys) and slagwerk (drums). To laughter, Adra commented that otherwise they would have been called the Riza Arshad Quartet. Well, Riza may have been the architect of the group, but is happy to give free rein to his cohorts, to see where they’re going.
I later asked Adra if they had telepathic communication to combine so completely while retaining their very individual voices.
“We’re really good friends,” he said.
On that note, I should end, but I still want more. Tuslah’s first album is being edited, and I really hope that it gets an international release because this is one Indonesian group which has the potential to captivate audiences at festivals the world over. Furthermore, they deserve a live DVD because their internal dynamics demand to be seen as well as listened to.
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