052: Senyawa

An interview with Senyawa + our writers panel on Music From Memory's 'Heisei No Oto' compilation and Fred Frith & Ikue Mori's 'A Mountain Doesn't Know It's Tall'

Senyawa are an Indonesian duo made up of Wukir Suryadi (homemade instruments) and Rully Shabara (vocals). The two met at a music festival in 2010 and shortly thereafter recorded their debut self-titled EP. In the decade since, they’ve collaborated and performed with a slew of artists including Keiji Haino, Melt-Banana, and Stephen O'Malley. Their newest album, Alkisah, finds the duo honing their craft of blending traditional and contemporary music and is being released by 44 different record labels from around the world. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Senyawa on February 12th, 2021 to discuss Alkisah, the geopolitical implications of the album’s release strategy, how they’ve both grown while in this duo, and more

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello! How are you?

Rully Shabara: Hi! I’m good.

Wukir Suryadi: Hello! How are you?

It’s 11PM, so I’m a little tired. I was just in another Zoom call for the past four hours, but it’s all good. You know, I wanted to start off by asking: What’s something right now that’s bringing you two joy?

Rully Shabara: For me it’s creating music in a more innovative way, which has to happen because we’re in a pandemic. We’re both musicians, and this is what we do, and I just want to keep making more music in more innovative ways. And we’re doing it to survive; if I don’t do it, I don’t know what else I’d do.

Wukir Suryadi: It’s the same for me too. Music is the only bullet we have.

Bullet against what?

Wukir Suryadi: We need music for our life and in this struggle. We need to do something because we need food. We’re not just two people, actually. There are many people behind the scenes. And we’re always thinking about how to work with people who have the same vision as us.

Rully Shabara: Bullet is a good word. You need bullets for fights, so we make music to have as many bullets as we can.

This doesn’t have to be a person, but would you say that you have an enemy, then, that you’re using these bullets against?

Rully Shabara: The idea is that as musicians, we want to have something that can hit you. We don’t want it to be just another piece of music or just another piece of art—it has to have an impact.

Wukir Suryadi: This co-releasing method that we have [Editor’s note: Senyawa have released their new album Alkisah on 44 labels from around the world] is not about survival of the fittest. It’s survival of those who share. If we only care about people who can adapt and survive, what about the people who can’t? It’s all about sharing. The more we can share, the more we survive—more people will survive.

It’s about the community.

Rully Shabara: Yeah.

Wukir Suryadi: You don’t want it to be too big, though. Don’t try and change the world—it’s more about who’s closest to you.

Who is the community that you have, that you feel close to and want to support?

Rully Shabara: Any collective that has their own vision or style or idea. Even if we don’t agree with them, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point. Everyone has their own character, and that’s good, no? The more individual ideas, the better.

Did you two have close families growing up?

Rully Shabara: Yes, but from an early age we were already living alone. I’m from outside of Java on Sulawesi island and Wukir is from East Java.

How old were you two when you lived on your own?

Rully Shabara: I was 15 when I moved to Java on my own, and I’m 38 now.

Wukir Suryadi: I left my house when I was 12. Now I’m 43.

Do you mind sharing about your experiences from back then?

Rully Shabara: The language was different—I didn’t know the Javanese language. So everybody spoke a language that I didn’t understand, and the culture was different too. It was a shock. I was only a teenager, so it felt really different. The way they joke, I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like it—I didn’t find it funny! Everybody would be laughing while I wasn’t (laughter). I think that memory represents what it was like to be in this new culture. And it wasn’t their fault I didn’t understand, it was mine; I was there, so I should try to understand more of the culture.

Once I learned the Javanese language, it took me to a different place. Since then, all my explorations and studies and works have been about exploring language in this nontraditional sense—through sound. And it’s a resource that everybody has. It’s personal and it’s powerful.

Wukir Suryadi: Have you been to Indonesia?

I have not, no.

Wukir Suryadi: Every territory has their own language. I’m from East Java, but if I go to Bandung [in West Java], there’s already a different language. It’s different if you live in the mountains or in the city—it’s different everywhere. I like connecting with all of these people because they all have their own character, so that’s why I moved around a lot. And if you wanted to learn about art, like I did, you went to Jakarta. You can learn to become anybody in Jakarta.

How did you two first meet?

Rully Shabara: We met on stage at the Yes No Klub in Yogyakarta for a regular, independent music event here. Wok the Rock [who runs Yes No Wave Music] invited us and we improvised on stage together. This was in 2010, and then four days after that we decided to record the EP that’s on Yes No Wave.