Javanese traditional musicians are among the many artists and performers struggling to survive, or qualify for government payments under COVID restrictions
Rahmadi Fajar Himawan
'Usually I can earn between Rp.300,000 and Rp.800,000 (A$31 to $83) a night, just for one performance. Nowadays, since I live with my sister and have no wages, I help in her warung to show my gratitude,’ says Singgih via Whatsapp. In addition to assisting at the roadside warung in Parung, West Java, Singgih also uses his Instagram account to help his sister sell her homemade rengginang, a kind of traditional cracker. The government’s restrictions on movement and activities in response to COVID-19 have been in place since April. Fortunately, Singgih’s sister’s warung has remained open, but for musicians and other arts industry workers like him, the story is one of uncertainty and a daily struggle to survive.
Singgih, 29, is originally from Grobogan in Central Java. After graduating from the prestigious Indonesian Institute of the Arts (Institut Seni Indonesia, ISI) in Surakarta, Singgih has worked as a pengrawit or gamelan musician in Jakarta. He says before COVID-19 art performances were held in Jakarta each Saturday and Sunday, day and night. But now, ‘during social restrictions, all my job offers have been canceled or postponed. Until when, I don’t know.’
Traditional musicians in Jakarta
The art of playing gamelan instruments is called karawitan. The term comes from the Javanese word rawit which means intricate or finely worked. According to scholars, the music also matches this description. It is argued that the gamelan orchestra uses a more complex system than western music. The music produced by the gamelan orchestra is built from elaborate components, including both loud and soft instruments. One of the soft instruments, which adds melodic layers, is the singers’ voices. Karawitan divide the singing parts into the male singing, called gerongan, and the female singing, called sindenan.
Prior to COVID-19, the Javanese arts, especially karawitan, were flourishing in Jakarta, where the majority of residents are Javanese, and there was high demand for traditional musical performance to accompany slametan (blessing events). For Javanese, slametan are held to celebrate weddings, birthdays, circumcisions, the inauguration of a new house or building and commemoration days, among other events. Those who can afford to will rent a full gamelan orchestra and karawitan group to play. At the top end of the price scale, hosts may hold a wayangan: a performance of Javanese shadow puppets accompanied by a large karawitan group.
Who are the musicians making up Jakarta’s gamelan ensembles? Most pengrawit and pesinden (female singers) come from Yogyakarta, Central Java and East Java. Some graduated from an SMKI (Sekolah Menengah Karawitan Indonesia, vocational high schools for traditional arts), others from ISI like Singgih. However, the majority of pengrawit and pesinden in Jakarta are in fact self-taught. ‘Graduating from ISI doesn’t guarantee that a person can play gamelan properly,’ says Warsiah, a 50-year-old pesinden who lives in Kramat Jati, East Jakarta. ‘It takes a lifetime of learning and commitment to be a skilled artist.’
Warsiah came to Jakarta from Wonogiri in Central Java when she was just 16. She first worked selling jamu (a traditional herbal beverage) and did not begin to learn karawitan until she was in her thirties. ‘The pengrawit who heard me singing for the first time told me that my voice matched with the sound of gamelan. I felt encouraged. That’s when I began to learn properly,’ said Warsiah. She regularly attended karawitan rehearsals in Tanjung Duren, Ciledug, and Bekasi. Five years after her first encounter with gamelan, she took her first job as a pesinden.
Warsinah explained that becoming a pesinden meant she was able to leave her job as jamu seller. ‘I remember – it was the 2000s and I was booked as a pesinden every Saturday and Sunday. Imagine this! In the morning I would sing in a slametan event. Then I would go to a wedding ceremony. At night I was hired to accompany wayangan performances. I no longer had time for my business,’ says Warsiah, laughing with joy.
Pesinden are paid more than pengrawit. In recent years, for one karawitan performance in Jakarta, Warsiah is paid between Rp.700,000 and Rp.1 million. When accompanying an all-night wayangan performance, Warsiah earns Rp.1 million. This is different in her hometown. ‘Ten years ago, in my village in Wonogiri, a pesinden could be paid Rp.150,000 even for accompanying a wayangan performance from dusk till dawn.’
Singgih also thinks that his earnings in Jakarta are comparatively good. ‘Imagine this,’ he says. ‘For accompanying an all-night wayangan performance in Central Java, I get Rp.250,000 – if the event is big and the puppeteers are well known. In Jakarta, for the same effort, I can get Rp.500,000 – that’s the minimum fee for pengrawit accompanying a wayangan in Jakarta! So, I just worked on weekends and I could rest on weekdays.’
On 10 April, the Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan issued social distancing regulations for an initial period of two weeks. The large-scale social restrictions, or PSBB, were then extended into June. Violations of PSBB carry penalties, including for not wearing face masks in public spaces.
With restrictions on social and cultural activities, the possibility of being paid to perform on stage disappeared overnight. Even before the regulation was introduced, Singgih and Warsinah were already seeing many social and cultural events being canceled or postponed. In addition to performing, both also teach karawitan, earning an additional monthly salary, but during PSBB art studios and universities where they normally teach have also been closed.
‘I am kind of grateful that all of this [PSBB] happened during Ramadan,’ Singgih reflected. Ramadan ran from 23 April to 23 May this year, and karawitan and wayangan performances are not usually held during this time. Some slametan, such as weddings, are never held during Ramadan out of respect for those who fast. ‘It’s like a coincidence, right?’
Making a living
In April, Joko Widodo announced that the annual mass exodus (mudik) during Ramadan was banned. This meant Warsiah and Singgih, like millions of other Jakartans not native to the city, were unable to celebrate Eid in their hometown. Normally at this time, with performances not allowed during Ramadan, they would return home and gather with family, and after Eid, go back immediately to Jakarta to take up opportunities for work. This year, unable to perform or return to their hometowns, musicians like Warsiah and Singgih have stayed in Jakarta where they are doing whatever they can do to survive.
Warsiah started making jamu again. She charges Rp.10,000 per bottle and promotes it through social media. ‘It’s not bad – it supports me,’ she says. Warsinah has a mushroom farm near her house in Kramat Jati and also an egg farm at her family home in Wonogiri. Though her farms are not large, she feels lucky to be able to support herself during PSBB. ‘But I can’t go to my hometown to celebrate Eid,’ she says.
Some, like Warsiah, make food or beverages or do sewing to make a living and they use social media such as Facebook or Whatsapp to promote their goods. Others like Singgih, rely on the support of their family and work in the family business.
A safety net?
In April, the Ministry of Education and Culture launched a program called Pendataan Pekerja Seni Terdampak COVID-19 (Register of Arts Workers Impacted by COVID-19). The ministry’s stated aim was to make an inventory of arts workers financially impacted by the pandemic. With the data collected, they would aim to distribute donations to those who had lost income. No specific amount of compensation was announced. A similar program was also launched by the City of Jakarta’s Department of Culture, called Pendataan Pekerja Seni di Jakarta yang Terdampak Secara Ekonomi Akibat COVID-19 (Register of Arts Workers in Jakarta Economically Impacted by COVID-19).
There are currently three options for government assistance for musicians like Warsinah and Singgih. Besides the compensation payments, the ministry aims to include musicians in existing social programs, namely Program Keluarga Harapan (Family Hope Program) or Kartu Prakerja (Pre-Employment Card). The ministry is also encouraging any arts workers ineligible for both those programs to perform through online platforms, including its own newly established Budayasaya. Although it is still early days, it does appear that artists who already have a high profile are making good use of online platforms like this. However, it is less clear if they will benefit performers and musicians like Warsinah and Singgih who are less well-known.
The Ministry of Culture and Education created the Budayasaya platform on Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to broadcast arts performances.
As their incomes are less than the limit of Rp.10 million per month, Warsiah and Singgih hope they will be eligible for inclusion in these existing social safety net programs. However, there is another potential hurdle: to be classified as an arts worker, you must not have received income from non-arts-related work. Ironically, this may yet prevent musicians from receiving government assistance as they have needed to use their non-arts skills to survive this far.
On 26 May, the Ministry of Education and Culture finally distributed payments, called PL2B, to those arts workers deemed eligible who had registered back in April. Each successful applicant received Rp.1 million as a one-off payment upon completion of documents required by the ministry. The City of Jakarta’s Department of Culture distributed similar payments in early May.
Like more than 40,000 other arts workers who registered with the ministry by the deadline, Singgih put a great deal of hope in the government programs. I contacted him again in late May via WhatsApp to ask how his application went. He was not one of the lucky ones. His application for compensation was rejected. ‘But PSBB will end soon, right?’ he asked me hopefully. I asked him what he would do if PSBB was extended further. ‘Actually, I have no idea,’ he told me. ‘For now, I hope all of this is stopped immediately.’
Rahmadi Fajar Himawan (email@example.com) graduated from the Department of Sociology at Universitas Indonesia. His undergraduate thesis focused on Javanese shadow puppet theater.