Wukir Suryadi and Rully Shabara of Senyawa Credit: Gigi Priadji

“Ideas that are seen as progressive, modern, or radical always have these associations that come from the West,” said Senyawa vocalist Rully Shabara in a February interview with Reader contributor Joshua Minsoo Kim for his online music zine Tone Glow. “But is that true?” Shabara, 38, and instrument inventor Wukir Suryadi, 43, founded this Indonesian duo in 2010, and when I first wrote about them in 2014, I said their largely improvised music “combines the ancient gravity of a firelit ritual and the electric futurism of the avant-garde.” Senyawa know they aren’t engaged in a mass-market enterprise, so their artistic practice foregrounds collaboration, decentralization, and mutual support. According to a recent New York Times story by Grayson Haver Currin, they license Senyawa-branded sambal, tobacco, and incense for “community relief” in Yogyakarta—and during the pandemic Shabara has drawn hundreds of portraits of strangers in exchange for a promise that each subject would feed a neighbor. The release strategy for Senyawa’s new fifth album, Alkisah, involves 44 labels on four continents, each of which the duo provided with graphics and audio files, inviting them to create their own cover art and commission remixes (the various editions have a total of nearly 200 unique bonus tracks). This approach eases the expense of manufacturing (one label can secure a bulk discount with an order larger than it needs, then sell to other labels at cost) and also spreads out potential royalties, because Senyawa claim no rights to the remixes. “This method,” Suryadi told Tone Glow, “is not about survival of the fittest. It’s survival of those who share.”

While Senyawa have collaborated extensively with peers in the international avant-garde (Keiji Haino, Jerome Cooper, Melt-Banana, Stephen O’Malley), on Alkisah they go it alone. Suryadi doesn’t play his famous bambu wukir, which makes a truly confounding range of noises, instead using homemade instruments he calls “spatula,” “industrial mutant,” and “guitar normal.” And his output with these inventions—crackling Tesla-coil screams, huge gonglike bass detonations, ominous gnashing drones—remains so idiosyncratic that I wouldn’t care to guess which is doing what. Shabara’s vocal delivery is just as varied, and on Alkisah he sings in several of Indonesia’s hundreds of indigenous languages, including Javanese, Malay, and Minangkabau.
Senyawa like to play with the tension between regular rhythms and chaotic eruptions: on “Alkisah I” a fuzzed-out percussive loop collides unpredictably with colossal warped bonging that sounds like a backhoe attacking a water tower, while “Alkisah II” sets rapid, irregular bass and spindly melodic fragments against mournful cries that move with a much slower metabolism, as though they belong to a different song. “Istana” pairs a crawling doom-metal riff and clouds of cicadalike buzzing with a trumpeting, outraged lead vocal that delivers a kind of halting oratory. Shabara’s tremulous, urgent melody on “Kabau” swings from desperate muttering to lonesome howls, while jaunty, melancholy strumming floats perilously atop an oceanic bass drone from which huge, queasy glissandi emerge like breaching whales. The album has the bleakly allegorical feel of a doomsday fairy tale, and that’s essentially what it is: the story of a society trying and failing to find the wisdom to survive an apocalypse. Senyawa believe in maximum heterogeneity as a key part of creating the necessary adaptability and resilience. In art as elsewhere, more voices and ideas—more sharing—means healthier ecosystems.

  • The video for Alkisah track “Istana”

  • Two American labels are involved in the album release: Burning Ambulance (above) and the Katuktu Collective (below), whose version of Alkisah includes three remixes.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid, and he’s also split two national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and one in in 2020 for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.