Jan 19, 2018 Last Updated 3:31 AM, Jan 6, 2018

Flower in the grass

Published: Sep 22, 2007

Jody Diamond interviews Nyi Supadmi

Surakarta (Solo), Central Java

I began studying female voice, or pesindhen, when I was 12 years old. Since elementary school I have sung with feeling. If a song was sad, I would cry too, and if the meaning of the text was happy, I would be as happy as someone who is laughing. In 1971 I made new cengkok [musical phrases] that I included in recordings on many Indonesian labels: Lokananta, IRA, Irama, Fajar, Cakra. Then, alhamdulillah, many of my friends in the arts criticised me.

Why?

Because I was too bold. 'Why did you include those cengkok?' they said. Well I just kept on, even though many of my enemies did not back off. In 1972 I taught in America, and I developed more new cengkok. The next year I was not too active as a singer. My husband didn't want me to be, because many people think pesindhen are flirtatious. When I didn't sing, I studied how to write sindhenan notation with Sutarman and Martopangrawit. I was invited to teach singing at Aski (now STSI), the arts academy in Solo. But my husband didn't know about it. Then he died and I had to make a living.

Were you hesitant to ask your husband's permission to work at Aski?

I was brave enough, but I had to guard the family peace as well.

Did you ask your husband's permission at that time?

I did. Only...

What did he say?

Well, he answered: 'Up to you.' Usually if a Javanese person says 'up to you' it's more serious than yes or no.

Does 'up to you' mean 'it is better if not'? Did your husband prefer you to be at home?

Yes. Going to recordings was okay. It was performing that was the problem. When I was still young, like age 22, sometimes the dhalang [shadow puppet master] would flirt and make rude noises at the pesindhen. This is what my husband disagreed with. This is a problem in Indonesia. If there is one or two pesindhen but 15 male musicians, it is like a flower in the field of grass - many look at it and talk about it. This is not really that strange, I think, because there are many leaves and branches, but only a few flowers, so of course people look at what is beautiful.

When your husband died, that was unfortunate, but that is what gave you the opportunity to teach?

Yes, that's true. It's really sad, of course, but maybe it was God's wish that I work in the arts again. I started work at Aski in 1981, teaching singing. I made a dictionary of vocal phrases, Kamus Sindhenan. But, guess what, some people didn't like my book. At that time most pesindhen learned orally, so this was like a kind of eavesdropping! They studied from radio or tape, just listening to other singers, and they didn't want to study from notation. Most people who studied pesindhen did it by ear, and they were not used to reading notation.

What is the role of the pesindhen in Javanese society?

In former times they were considered not so polite because the origin of pesindhen was women who would dance with men, and who would embrace them and get money. Sometimes women were jealous of the pesindhen. But our role is really just to entertain those who might be sad or confused in their hearts. The pesindhen can even entertain without being aware of what is in the soul of the listener.

If you could imagine a more ideal situation in the future for pesindhen, what would it be?

I think we need to clear the way for a process by which people would see that pesindhen are part of society too. I think an organisation would help, one that would give guidelines and education, and show that the pesindhen doesn't have to only sing, but she can also play instruments and make notation. Also we should remember that we do not need to be enemies with each other, it is not a competition to be better than someone else, or to make more money, or have finer clothes and fancy jewelry.

You must focus on matters of art, not adornment?

Yes. What is important is the development of the art of sindhenan, not the development of our jewelry or blouses. We must be able to speak well, be able to sing well, be able to converse well whether it is with a Minister or a General. We must not be quiet and fearful - this is part of the mental education. I want very much to promote these ideas.

What is it like to teach foreigners?

I am happy and proud that there are foreigners who want to study sindhenan and traditional singing. But I must explain many difficult musical concepts or translate the texts. Some students have trouble with their vocal ornaments or their sound is too western.

What is your experience with Indonesian composers?

I think that in earlier times if one got new inspiration [it was from] what was experienced by people. This was the impetus for arts, yes, inspiration from sadness or happiness or anger. These feelings are what humanity has been given, and these can be expressed through the arts. I worked with Ki Nartosabdho, who arranged many works for chorus with words about the wayang [shadow puppet theatre]. He was very creative.

Did his inventiveness influence you?

It opened my heart, so that I felt that not only could the musicians and the dhalang have new ideas, but the pesindhen herself. I saw that all humans could be creative, and make something from that inspiration.

Nyi Supadmi

Supadmi was born in Klaten, near Solo in 1950. She is currently on the staff of STSI Surakarta, the national arts academy in Solo. In 1989 she founded the organisation Pawarti, or Paguyuban Swarawati, dedicated to the education of female gamelan singers and the improvement of their status as artists. She has several books of vocal notation published in Indonesia, and her books and scores for her compositions are published and distributed by the American Gamelan Institute (http://www.gamelan.org or email agi@gamelan.org).

Nyi Supadmi's life and compositions are discussed in great detail in a dissertation by Susan Pratt Walton, 'Heavenly nymphs and earthly delights: Javanese female singers, their music and their lives,' University of Michigan, 1996, UMI # 9712166.

Writings

Cengkok-cengkok Srambahan & Abon-abon. A 'dictionary' of vocal cengkok arranged by text, pathet (tonal hierarchies), seleh (goal tone) and syllable length.

Ladrang: Sindhenan Ladrang Slendro & Pelog. Balungan (melodic outline) and pesindhen part for 32 classic ladrang (a musical form).

Palaran: Gaya Surakarta & Gaya Yogyakarta. 59 Palaran (poems set with free rythm gamelan accompaniment) in Surakarta style, 21 in Yogyakarta style, and 49 in 'Surakarta style pelog nyamat.'

These three books have been published in Indonesia and
internationally by the American Gamelan Institute.

Kumpulan Jineman, 1988, Surakarta: Taman Budaya Surakarta.

Compositions

Ketawang Panalangsa
Langgam Ngudhup Turi
Langgam Panjang Mas Langgam Ora Ngira
Lelagon Geculan: Ngaco
Ketawang Pangkur Sawiji
Ketawang Sendhang Melathi
Langgam Anteping Sih

Jody Diamond is a composer, performer and publisher. She lives in the USA in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where she is director of the American Gamelan Institute. In 1996 she was a Fellow of the Asia Institute and Music Department at Monash University in Melbourne, where she founded a composers' gamelan group. In 1988- 89 she was in Indonesia as a Senior Fulbright Research Fellow, and worked on a survey of Indonesian composers. This interview was excerpted from one of nearly 60 completed during that year. She may be contacted at Jody.Diamond@dartmouth.edu.


Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999


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