Dewa’s band had a familiar line up with one notable difference: a young woman in Dewa’s band was playing a zither type instrument which I didn’t recognise. After the gig, I asked her about it and she told me that it was a guzheng.
Since introducing ourselves, Fransisca Agustin (stage name: Sisca Guzheng Harp) and I have had a series of conversations.
What’s your musical education?
I got to love music because I spent the first 12 years of my life sharing the same bedroom with my parents (eeekkk!), and my dad would turn his cassette player on. Too bad, what he played was not ‘sophisticated music’; he loves pop oldies, the ‘sweet memories, evergreen’ kind of albums most Asians love. I often wish he had listened to Ravi Shankar, the Beatles or Al Jarreau instead, so I wouldn’t have to struggle so hard now, trying to pick up such chords and notes.
I don’t have any qualifications as such. I studied classical piano for 8 years from grade 6, and I was far from special: my progress was slow. Later, when I’d finished the high school national tests, I had too much time on my hands. I went to a music school near here and planned to pick up a new instrument. They had the usual classes – piano, guitar, violin, clarinet, but then the headmaster mentioned Chinese instruments ….
Was your choice of instruments made because you’re Chinese-Indonesian or was it perhaps a form of ‘rebellion’?
Wow, I do toy with that idea! My parents hoped they would have a nice, obedient daughter, but they made a big mistake. They gave me the ‘wrong’ name: Fransisca which in Italian means ‘a free one’. And Mom gave birth on the wrong day: August 17th.
Consider yourself lucky: no doubt there was a street party in your honour.
Actually I had to go to school on that day, because we had the flag-raising ceremony and I love Independence Day games. At high school, I was balap karung (sack race) champ! Haha… I
What are your usual gigs?
On average, I play around 4-7 gigs a month. Usually I play for weddings, gatherings, product launches, those sort of things. The concept is about the same. Sometimes I don’t know who I’m going to play with or what we’re going to play. The band leader or event organizer just tells me the where and when, then we just ‘trust’ each other.
One time I played at a well-off family’s residence in Jakarta. I was told it was a birthday party, but the atmosphere was really melancholic. Then the elderly birthday man came in an ambulance, oxygen tubes and all. It turned out that his family had asked for a special day off for him so they could celebrate his “last birthday party”.
We played the usual evergreen Chinese pop tunes in the living room while he stayed in a room next to us. Guests went to his room and everyone came out crying.
Two weeks later the event organizer called, asking if I would play at his funeral. They said he had heard me playing from the next room and his final wish to his family was that I should play solo at his funeral. So I went to the funeral home and played next to his casket …
As well as guzheng, your stage name includes ‘harp’. Do you play other instruments?
My guzheng skill and touch is far above my harp skill, since I started 6 years earlier, and I also had more guzheng jobs for the first 8 years of my career. But I charge more for harp shows because it doubles as a nice decoration. For job shows, I sometimes play hulusi (bamboo gourd flute), piano, in hotel lobbies, and, although rarely, accordion.
How do you choose which instruments to play?
I pick those with a ‘piano logic’, which means one string/ button/ hole for each one note, vertical or horizontal.
Was it a big jump playing with Dewa?
It wasn’t easy keeping up with his chord progression, modulations, speed, volume, with an acoustic pentatonic instrument. I had to be really creative to find which bars I could play, and if I couldn’t, what to play instead. So I survived with the only weapon I have: dynamic mood synchronization.
That’s an interesting phrase, and sums up the essence of jazz. From a YouTube of you playing with Mukti-Mukti, it seems to me that you bring that quality to all your music.
No-one plays quite like Mukti-Mukti; he has extraordinary and consistent emotional intensity. He showed me how to produce the best sound, the notes that go straight from my heart to others, however limited our skill is.
What’s next in your musical development?
One day I hope I can be a group leader, perhaps even a composer. I’m not even familiar with jazz chords, not to mention world ethnic music scales, chords, ‘accents’, licks. There’s so much to learn in one lifetime!!
I haven’t even started with fingering techniques of all my instruments. I shouldn’t pick up new instruments because I’m far from mastering any of them. But for making a living, it can be really tempting because in today’s music business, visual entertainment comes before audio.
Finally, what does music mean to you?
When I listen to music and especially play with a great team I see the world through rose coloured glasses. It’s like living in an emotionally beautiful video clip.
Of course, over time my ‘tastes’ demand more variation in terms of skill, genre and players. So I keep looking for ways to experience the rose coloured life. I may be addicted to it.
First published in Jakarta Expat magazine 27.1.14