When my colleague Leor Galil looked back on 2021, he said he’d listened to 750 new-to-him releases that year. I won’t pretend to be in his league, but in 2021 I did have a clear favorite album—not a common thing for me—and I figure it’s never too late to share.
The duo Raja Kirik, based in Yogyakarta on the Indonesian island of Java, originally released their second album, Rampokan, in June 2020 on Indonesian label Yes No Wave. I’m counting it as a 2021 release because I discovered it when Ugandan label Nyege Nyege Tapes put out a remastered version with a bonus track last October. Raja Kirik adopt and update the hammering, hypnotic musical language of jaranan, a communal shamanic trance dance from Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist era with roots that stretch back to the 11th century.
Musician, composer, and multimedia artist Yennu Ariendra and composer and instrument builder J. Mo’ong Santoso Pribadi named Raja Kirik (“King Dog”) after Menak Jingga, a ruler of the last Javanese Hindu kingdom to fall to Dutch colonizers in the 1700s. The Dutch tried to dehumanize him, creating a propaganda tale that cast him as a cannibal with a dog’s head, but the Javanese people subverted and reclaimed that image. To this day Menak Jingga is the hero of a type of jaranan called jaranan buto, created in the 1960s in East Java.
Ariendra and Pribadi fuse traditional and homemade percussion with unearthly digital noise and the pressurized assault of electronic drums borrowed from Dutch hardstyle and other high-energy club music. Pribadi uses trash and recycled materials to rig up simple horns, plastic pipes, metal rods, springs, and small amplified gongs, whose unruly, microtonal squalling and clanking lend a ragged wildness to the more regimented programmed sounds.
An album-length recording isn’t a practical way to induce the trance state that jaranan dancers enter, of course. As if to acknowledge this, Raja Kirik stack competing layers of rhythms and textures into an overwhelming, kaleidoscopic barrage, evoking with density and disorientation what they can’t achieve with hours of repetition.
The cover for Raja Kirik’s Rampokan was created by artist Enka Komariah.
“Their music is more than just an experimental reinterpretation” of jaranan, according to Marianna Lis of Polish podcast Glissando, which based a recent episode on a February 2020 interview with Ariendra and Pribadi. “It tells the tale of the bloody, centuries-old history of the struggle of the Javanese people against the social injustice and oppression of various rulers up to the modern, neocolonial exploitation of Indonesia’s natural resources.”
The title Rampokan refers to a ceremonial arena fight meant to symbolize the containment of evil and flaunt the prowess of the Javanese kingdoms before the Dutch colonizers: wild animals, often leopards or tigers, were released in the center of a circle of spearmen, whose task was to prevent them from escaping.
Rampokan includes the three-part suite “Barongan,” named for the mythical barong, a lionlike spirit who opposes the evil demon queen Rangda; both characters are ancient fixtures in the trance dances of Java and Bali, predating even jaranan.
The album’s first track, “Bujang Ganong,” takes its name from the hero of a legend about a lower-class man who fought for the hand of a princess. He didn’t kill those he defeated, but instead “forced them to take part in the triumphant march that inspired the creation of jaranan,” says Lis. “Bujang has become a symbol of how, through cleverness, dexterity, and the right strategy, people without power, or any kind of army, can defeat much more powerful opponents.”
Even today some jaranan dancers imitate drunk Dutch colonial officials or wear costumes that recall antique military uniforms. Rampokan participates in this subversive tradition, which rests on the old belief that when the dancers reach a trance state, ancestral spirits enter them and give them extraordinary powers. “The album roots itself in the stage of jaranan performance where the players become possessed,” says the Nyege Nyege Bandcamp page, “connecting to their subconscious mind and the body’s collective memory and trauma.” Ariendra has said that watching jaranan performances as a kid taught him to feel rhythms with his whole body.
“Dancers in trance perform activities that would normally cause them pain,” says Lis. Jaranan dancers sometimes eat broken glass, handle burning objects, or pierce their cheeks, lips, and arms with skewers or swords.
From a certain point of view, “collective memory and trauma” is another way to say “ancestral spirits.” And in the music of Raja Kirk, those spirits sound more than ready to settle the score.
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