Rearranging the World. “Alkisah” by Senyawa // EN
Once upon a time there was a country in a distant land. And although here and there, there were still traces of its former glory, now it was falling into decline. It was similar with the inhabitants of that country – once happy with the wealth and splendour of their country, and now full of bitterness and jealousy, plunged into fight against each other in defence of themselves, trying to survive. One day they realized that their only hope to stay alive was to migrate towards the estuary – only there, as their leaders had promised them, they would be able to start afresh and survive the coming apocalypse. But when they reached the new place, history repeated – the new rulers turned out to be more cruel than the old ones, and the new beginning was a return to old suffering. The inhabitants did not seem to remember the wisdom of former generations, the wisdom which became the basis for the community they once created. Nothing could stop the spiral of violence, anger and hate. Nothing could stop the slaughter the villagers perpetrated on their leaders. Death and destruction destroyed their new country, mutual hatred and greed destroyed themselves. And when the moment of understanding came, when the inhabitants started regretting their actions and wanted to start all over again, it turned out that it was too late. The doomsday was upon them/us.
Senyawa, photo by Reza Darwin
The following pieces of Alkisah, the latest album of Wukir Suryadi and Rully Shabara, who form the Indonesian experimental band Senyawa, form a dystopian tale about the impending apocalypse. Or maybe rather a (not very) surprising vision not taking place “once upon a time, in a distant land”, but here and now, in the world we live in, which, plunged in crisis, is irrevocably heading towards (self)destruction? Anand Pandian, a cultural anthropologist and one of the advocates of the degrowth movement, asked in an interview: “What if we began with a picture of the present as a time of degradation and even ruin, rather than an idea of the present as a perfection of what we had before?”. Would it change our life, our relations with the past, our perception of what is necessary? Senyawa moves the starting point further, talking not about the world in ruins, but about the world after the end and asking what strategies or ideas will allow us to rebuild our world, what our new beginning will look like and how the new system of power will be shaped in post-apocalyptic reality?
And it draws a future where decentralization and collaboration should be the key. Decentralization means changing the way you think about music distribution and the role of small labels in creating an album. Collaboration means changing the way people think about ownership and the artist’s right to his/her work. And also putting emphasis on micro-actions of smaller, more dynamic local communities, which in times like today can support each other and provide real help.
The changes proposed by Senyawa are manifested by the participation of over 40 labels in the co-release of Alkisah. Or actually in the release of their own, enriched with original graphics, remixes and additions, Alkisah versions. Therefore, in order to give the floor to the co-creators of Alkisah, I conducted talks not only with Rully Shabara from Senyawa, but also with representatives of Senggama Records from Palu (Sulawesi), PTK Distribution and HNNOH(REC) from Pontianak (Kalimantan), Chaos Non Musica from Bali and L_KW and Soydivision from Berlin who told me about the Senyawa project from their perspectives.
The year 2020 for Senyawa was also the end of the first decade of creativity, devoted primarily to getting to know themselves and their musical and non-musical possibilities, and the opening of a new chapter. After 10 years, the musicians were ready to transfer what they had learned about themselves, their music and the mechanisms ruling the music industry to other, often non-musical aspects of their activities. The first step was a short concert tour called Nusantara, Chapter 1, during which in February and March 2020 they visited four Indonesian cities located on four islands: Pontianak in Kalimantan, Makassar in Sulawesi, Denpasar in Bali and Bantul in Java. The band was already planning further tours to even the farthest corners of an extremely vast country, which were to help them establish new relationships with musicians and audiences, and become an impulse for collective work on the development of the Indonesian music scene when the pandemic broke out. All the plans have been suspended.
In September 2020, after some of the pandemic restrictions were lifted, the musicians met at Senyawa’s studio in Yogyakarta and began work on a new album. All material was recorded during three days in Eloprogo, a place located at the confluence of two rivers – Elo and Progo, in the heart of Java. Thematically, released on February 21, 2021, Alkisah begins where the band’s previous individual album from 2018 Sujud, ended. Its last work, Kembali Ke Dunia, or “return to the world” is a kind of a prologue to the second decade of Senyawa’s work and to the story contained in Alkisah.
Alkisah by Senyawa (CD Box Set), Chaos Non Musica, design by Billyanjing
And it is this story, as the album title suggests, which can be translated as “once upon a time” that lies at the heart of the band’s latest experiment. Senyawa is known for its musical explorations – unusual vocal techniques of Rully Shabara and musical instruments built by Wukir Suryadi. This time, however, the band departed from experiments with sound, so far characteristic for their work, focusing on the narrative built with words. Focusing around the text not only allowed to build the construction of an extremely precise structure of the album, but also influenced Rully’s vocal – it does not lose any of its unique character and is still filled with interrupted breaths, guttural sounds and screams, but at the same time it is also full of reflection, seriousness and concentration. Even if listeners from outside Indonesia do not understand the words he sings, it is hard not to feel that they are not accidental and that they form a deeper story.
Alkisah consists of eight pieces that complement each other and reflect each other as if in a mirror. The first – Kekuasaan, meaning “power” and the last – Kiamat, or “doomsday” are the shortest and set the framework for the entire album. The second and seventh pieces, Alkisah I and Alkisah II, are an introduction and solution, a summary. Both complement each other in the textual and musical layers – repeated, rhythmic phrases performed by Wukir are not played on what is probably the most famous of his instruments, bambuwukir made from bamboo, but on a mutant and modified guitar he has developed in recent years. The sounds they produce from thin metal strips, strings, and arrows which he picks and hits are unique, hard to compare with any other instrument; enchanting with richness, depth and endless possibilities.
In the centre of the album there are two pieces – Istana, meaning “palace” and Kabau, written in Minang language from West Sumatra, meaning “buffalo/ox”. Calmer, almost meditative, but at the same time filled with emotions, they are the culmination both in the musical and text layers. Istana shows a closed circle of violence driven by the lust for power, and Kabau reminds us of the power of folk wisdom. Power and authority are in fact one of the most important topics of Alkisah. The very topic of the fall and the end of civilization that we know, is not new to the members of the group – a similar concept, together with the ZOO band founded in 2002, has been developed by Rully for almost two decades. Senyawa’s latest album, however, raises other questions – not only what strategies do we need in order to survive (more on that in a moment), but also what is the meaning of power and authority when the end comes? What will the new balance of power look like when in the post-end world there will be no old divisions and people will start organizing anew? What will the transition from local to global look like? Does the mere awareness of the current balance of power mean being open to changing the existing order and being ready to carry out such a change?
For Senyawa, a band from Indonesia, and therefore from the Global South, a place exoticized and exploited by the West since colonial times, a place that has been denied the right to progress for centuries, this is a particularly important topic. All their work to date has been based on constant questioning and undermining the existing balance of power, on constant designation of new directions and new strategies, on continuous development. And perhaps it has never been seen better than now, with the release of Alkisah, released simultaneously by over 40 labels from around the world.
Already at the time of recording the album, Senyawa’s musicians came to the conclusion that the current model of music distribution does not fit the situation in which we find ourselves. That now (especially in the course of a pandemic that has significantly affected the world of music) a model that would be fairer is needed – both for artists, labels and listeners. That is why they turned to the idea of decentralization – an idea which is not new, but which they believe has a chance to create a new quality in the world of music. As they note, the traditional distribution model promotes those who enjoy a privileged position anyway, maintaining or aggravating inequalities and the exploitation of those who belong to socially, economically or geographically marginalized groups. Also, new distribution methods using new technologies, such as streaming services, are based on duplicating existing hierarchies, exacerbating economic inequalities and further marginalization of marginalized groups.
Therefore, Senyawa decided that Alkisah would be not only an album with an experimental, narrative form, but also an album with an experimental way of release and distribution. In September 2020, they published an open call for labels that would like to co-release their latest album. The recruitment was open to everyone from all over the world – any label, regardless of its size, place, way of operation or previous experience (or lack of it), could propose its own vision of the album (for some labels Alkisah is the first album in their catalogue). Own vision, that is, their own proposal of how they would like to work and process the output. How they imagine the graphics (prepared on the basis of or inspired by Sopeng’s drawings created during the recording of the album), remixes or merch. The band was looking primarily (but not exclusively) for small labels or those that are based on collective work, micro-communities of creators. At the same time, they often helped labels located in the same country or region to establish contact and encouraged cooperation to release Alkisah together. Thus, it created opportunities for smaller labels, for which perhaps otherwise participation in this project would not be possible. In Indonesia, Senyawa actively participated in the search for local labels, making efforts to ensure that at least one version of the album was created on each major island of the country. On the one hand, this makes it easier for anyone interested in access to the album (in this project decentralization is also a search for new ways to reach the audience), on the other, it shows that the experimental scene in Indonesia is not limited to Java.
Senyawa, fot. Bartek Muracki
As a result of the open recruitment, the band chose over 40 labels from around the world, which prepared over 30 versions of Alkisah, in creating of which over 200 artists were involved. The album, as the title suggests, has become a story passed on from person to person, changing its shape, surrounded by/lined with new and new narratives. No one, including Senyawa, has the exclusive rights to the album, no one has the monopoly to dominate the market. The alternative model of production and distribution of the album proposed by the band changes the current way of distributing power and resources. The work of art is placed in the centre, the way of thinking about the value of the work and profits derived from it changes, cooperation and local activities become a priority. Thanks to the possibility of proposing own remixes, being the part of the album, and the involvement of artists linked to the labels participating in the Senyawa project, the number of creators involved in it is increasing. What’s more, thanks to the Yogyakarta-based Yes No Wave label, every listener around the world will have access to stem files, i.e. they will have the opportunity to prepare their own remixes or reinterpretations and become a co-creator of Alkisah.
So what will happen when the band will give up control of their album and share it with others? As Alkisah is no longer just a story by Senyawa, but the story of all the co-authors involved in the project and because it is based on the need of cooperation and sharing, I would like to give the floor to those involved in creating local versions of the album.
At the turn of January and February 2021, I had the opportunity to talk to the representatives of Senggama Records from Palu (Sulawesi), PTK Distribution and HNNOH(REC) from Pontianak (Kalimantan), Chaos Non Musica from Bali as well as L_KW and Soydivision from Berlin.
One of the first questions in our conversations was the most basic: why did they decide to co-publish Alkisah? Or why did they decide to “share” Alkisah with labels from around the world? For Senggama, which comes from Rully Shabara’s hometown, participation in Senyawa’s latest project has become, above all, an opportunity to meet other labels from around the world. This is an important aspect of the decentralization process, which was also mentioned many times by Rully and Wukir – musicians do not always want to cooperate with small labels, the labels themselves very often have no influence on subsequent distribution. Including small labels in the project allowed to reduce inequalities resulting from economic or geographical marginalization.
The Balinese Chaos Non Musica (CXM) collective emphasizes the “importance of network and collective-based alternative economy”, which underpins both the Senyawa project and their activities to date. And they add that: “When CXM was offered to be a part of Senyawa Alkisah, it came to our mind to extend this concept of decentralization further by inviting other labels in Bali. Not as the only label in the island to take part in this global decentralization project, we want to pass it on into praxis in our smaller, local scale. The labels which participate in our Alkisah version are those which shared mutual spirit and support within our network of friends as well as active independent labels in Bali. Apart from CXM, the other labels are Ohoi Recs, Moe Moe Kyun, Skullism Recs, SDF, Badung Digs”.
By proposing further decentralization, CXM has remained in line with its previous activity based on local micro-networks, cooperation and solidarity. The collective emphasizes that the slogan “decentralization should be the future”, under which the Senyawa project is being created, has been present for a long time and is not tantamount to introducing immediate changes in the music industry. Rather Alkisah project range shows the possibility of alternative production and distribution models. “As the music and entertainment industry are on the brink of collapse due to pandemic, perhaps this is our chance to set a new pattern for ourselves, before it is again seized by large-scale global industry with their new pattern of monopolistic capitalism. Co-release and solidarity, sharing roles and reinforce our local networks as part of decentralized global networking are some of the tactics.”
Another aspect of decentralization was mentioned by Aldiman Sinaga and Nursalim Yadi Anugerah who are responsible for Alkisah in Pontianak. During our conversation, Aldiman admitted that only the news that the label would be able to decide on the final shape of the album and involve local artists to create remixes that would become an integral part of the release convinced him to take part in the project. Decentralization, understood as giving power to the label, meant for him not only the possibility of supporting local artists, but also the possibility of reaching local listeners, for whom access to music from legal sources is often a privilege that they do not have. Kalimantan is, as both my interlocutors pointed out, still marginalized and exoticized even (or perhaps most of all) in Indonesia itself. Since the fall of Orde Baru, the regime introduced by President Suharto and lasting in Indonesia until 1998, the country has been moving towards a federal system, but the decentralization policy implemented by the state raises many reservations. Therefore, most of the provinces outside Java (which takes central and privileged position) face social and economic inequalities. As Yadi said, traditional music and musicians from Kalimantan are perceived by the Indonesian authorities as exotic, and their work (when it is “deemed” “sufficient” of value) is codified to preserve its character and prevent any change. Hence, the Senyawa project, which emphasized localness and created space for the voices of representatives of marginalized groups, seemed to them to be the first step to overcome the existing inequalities and hierarchy.
Alkisah by Senyawa, PTK Distribution & HNNOH(REC), design by Satuderajat
For the Berlin collectives L_KW and Soydivision, Alkisah became an impulse to take a new look at topics that were already at the centre of their interests. Both collectives are a meeting point for representatives of various diasporas, and from the very beginning, both of them have combined music with activism and issues related to locality, identity, decolonization (one of their latest projects is Jendela Sonorama decolonizing the ways of listening music) or racism. Therefore, Alkisah is based not only on cooperation and sharing, mutual care and empathy, which is extremely important to them (members of the collectives begin their meetings with talking about their emotions, checking and sharing what is happening with them with others, in order to move on to work based on sharing and cooperation), but for them it is also an important voice in the discussion on inequality in the distribution of power in the world or postcolonial dependencies.
While talking why the labels decided to take part in Senyawa project, I also asked about the importance of their music and former activities to them. All my interlocutors emphasized the extremely important role of Senyawa in redefining and shifting the boundaries of musical experiments and at the same time in creating space for experiments of other artists. They also talked about Senyawa’s local activities, about paying attention to what is happening outside the centres, outside the main music stages of the country. However, as Ariel Orah of the Berlin collectives L_KW and Soydivision noted, Senyawa was also the first Indonesian experimental band to be successful internationally and to show that Indonesia can be seen as a country of progress, a place creating new directions. As he said, earlier, in the first decade of the 21st century, i.e. before the establishing of Senyawa, most music bands tried to fit into culturally alien patterns and standards emerging in the West – to sing in English or compose songs inspired by the music of the most popular Western artists. Local music experiments, such as those promoted by the Yes No Wave label, were considered strange, incomprehensible, too specific. It was only after leaving Indonesia and moving to Berlin that he understood that the majority’s desire to follow Western models as faithfully as possible and to give up local identity was the result of cultural colonization. Senyawa, who did not try to imitate anyone and did not try to fit in with Western trends, who remained true to themselves and their artistic vision, helped him to feel proud of being Indonesian, of his identity. And, he said, the same change occurred in his opinion among the listeners of Senyawa’s music in Indonesia itself – they no longer expected Western-style music, but appreciated the independence and uniqueness of the band.
The uniqueness of Alkisah, however, is based not only on the uniqueness of the project itself, but also, and perhaps above all, on the narratives added by the co-releasing labels – whether through remixes, through the graphics, or through all the additional elements or events accompanying the album.
All the labels I spoke with decided to make their own remixes. Only Senggama decided to open the recruitment for anyone interested in preparing their own version of Senyawa’s pieces. The results are reinterpretations prepared both by local artists from Palu Latter Smil and Cicada 3301, and by musicians from Malang – Hxxmo and Australia – Fish Slappa.
Other labels decided to invite local artists to participate in Alkisah. CXM has selected Balinese or somehow connected with the island artists who remain active on the local scene but have never recorded or released an album before; artists who have not participated in a similar project so far and have not prepared their own remixes; and finally artists who usually work within other musical genres and for whom Alkisah was their first encounter with experimental music. Interestingly, Cordey Lopez, formerly associated with the CXM collective, who is also responsible for mastering the material prepared by Senyawa, is responsible for the mastering of the reinterpretations of Senyawa’s pieces prepared by CXM. The story created by remixes is complemented by the unique setting of the Balinese version of Alkisah, designed and prepared by the members of the collective trying to make the best use of local resources and production opportunities, which also fit in both their philosophy and the philosophy of the entire project. The origami cover is especially eye-catching, as it is a reinterpretation of the overlapping and intersecting stages of life Alkisah tells about. The lines formed by folds resemble a kind of trap, seemingly only impossible to leave. Another form of “trap” is a special fragrance that is to accompany the album, the scent that is to remain in our memory for a long time, reminding us of the emotions accompanying listening to Alkisah, telling or supplementing its own story, suggesting new associations. The Balinese version of the album is complemented by a collection of texts, notes and reflections written by the artists involved in the project and among them real hidden gem – Senyawa’s handwritten lyrics of the songs and sketches made during the recording of the album.
Jamu, photo by Dico Baskoro
The texts and notes also accompany Alkisah from Pontianak, which is fully published in the form of a notebook inviting listeners to participate actively in the project. The notebook, in the mind of its creators, is to become something personal and/or something that can be shared with others. Thanks to the questions, reflections attached to the album (Aldiman, inspired by Alkisah’s texts, is the author of one of them) and tasks, everyone who buys the album will be able, thanks to a special internet platform, to become a co-creator of the final effect, which will be created a few months after the album’s premiere. PTK Distribution and HNNOH(REC) also invited to participate in the Alkisah release five local artists (DJ Sumber Kencono, Not For Human Consumption, Reza Zulianda, Rama Anggara and MU7AN) who offered their own reinterpretations of the pieces.
The Berlin version of Alkisah, in addition to remixes prepared by local musicians (both those coming from the Indonesian diaspora and other diasporas, among others Nguyễn + Transitory or Peter Kirn) and being an opportunity to show diaspora activism, will be enriched with a performance inspired by the album (as well as inspired by the traditional wayang orang theatre and expressionism in German cinematography). Kiamat, meaning “doomsday”, is meant to be “collective response to the album’s urgent themes of climate collapse, fascism and political corruption”. But the story created by Berlin Alkisah is also co-created by other elements – the album cover, hand-made with the use of dyes obtained from ingredients used in Indonesian cuisine: turmeric, rice meal and kecap manis, and complementing the publication: spicy sambal sauce and herbal jamu drink.
Alkisah asks questions about what awaits us in the after-end world and about strategies that will allow us to survive. For the co-creator of Berlin’s Alkisah Morgan Sully, that what may come later is associated with the hope that what is destroying us and our planet will collapse. For Yadi, representing HNNOH(REC), the end may turn to be a return to the roots, the possibility of changing the current distribution of power to a more equal, fairer one.
So does Senyawa project have a chance to change the world of music? Certainly not immediately. However, in order to be able to think about change, this must not remain in the sphere of utopian discussions and dreams. Attempts are needed, action is needed. Alkisah may be the first step towards a fairer future.
 Anand Pandian, Contrapuntal Storytelling. If not growth, then what? [interview by Ollie Zhang], https://www.ctm-festival.de/magazine/contrapuntal-storytelling#66 [access 7.02.2021].
 Interview with Rully Shabara conducted via WhatsApp on 22.01.2021.
 More about the first decade of Senyawa’s activity in audiopaper: http://audiopapers.glissando.pl/wukir-suryadi-i-rully-shabara/.
 During the meeting with Senyawa organized by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Music, which took place on the Zoom platform on February 5, 2021, a question was asked why Senyawa does not perform its pieces in English (or in any other Western language). Rully replied that the lyrics of the songs are like poetry to him – not only very personal, but also arranged in sounds that would be difficult to reproduce in another language. Therefore, when speaking of Alkisah, Rully talks about the meaning of individual songs and the entire album without translating the words. For the same reason, I have decided to start this text with a story structured from the texts that make up Alkisah, and not by recalling a few translated quotes.
 More about ZOO band in audiopaper: http://audiopapers.glissando.pl/wukir-suryadi-i-rully-shabara/.
 The exact list of labels with links to their Alkisah versions can be found at: https://alkisah.net/, on the alkisah_global profile run by Senyawa: https://www.instagram.com/alkisah_global/ and on the map of participating labels: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?hl=en&hl=en&mid=1kzDBtJcLeJc_TH3gedLO1_Cf4LP_l8GU&ll=-3.81666561775622e-14%2C13.218146750000017&z=1. Further information are available also at: https://linktr.ee/Alkisah_Global.
 More about Yes No Wave label in audiopaper: http://audiopapers.glissando.pl/yes-no-wave-czyli-underground/.
 Senggama Records was established in 2017 and initially dealt with publishing albums as well as substantive and logistic support for local artists. From the beginning, Dika has been associated with the label. Currently cooperate with him: Adjust Purwatama (design and editing), Haris (audio producer), Ayad (marketing) and Rian Mahid (video). All information about Senggama Records’s Alkisah based on an email interview with Dika on 25.01.2021.
 PTK Distribution was established in 2011 and initially dealt with the distribution and later with releasing and distribution of albums of local artists in Pontianak and in the west of Kalimantan. HNNOH(REC) is a new label associated with Balaan Tumaan, whose name means the sound coming from movement and aims to become an alternative platform for traditional and contemporary Kalimantan music, focusing not only on album releases but also on working with local artists and help in establishing cooperation between musicians. All information about this version of Alkisah based on an interview with Aldiman Sinaga (PTK Distribution) and Nursalim Yadi Anugerah (HNNOH(REC)) via Zoom on 30.01.2021.
 Chaos Non Musica (CXM) is a collective of artists operating in Bali since 2015, which mainly organizes gigs of noise and experimental music, and supports musicians in publishing their albums. In 2017-2019 they also organized annual festivals. All information about the Balinese Alkisah based on interviews with Chaos Non Musica conducted via WhatsApp 10-12.02.2021.
 L_KW is a collective of musicians, sound artists and performers from various diasporas but living in Berlin. Soydivision is a collective of Indonesians living in Berlin, focusing on the broadly understood performing arts and working at the intersection of art and activism. All information about Berlin’s Alkisah based on interviews with Morgan Sully (conducted via Zoom on 16.01.2021), Ariel Orah (conducted via Zoom on 17.01.2021) and press materials.
 More about Yadi’s works as a composer in audiopaper: http://audiopapers.glissando.pl/mapujac-nowe-terytoria/.
 More about the projects of Soydivision, often in cooperation with L_KW and other Berlin collectives, can be found at: https://www.soydivision.berlin/.
 Interestingly, Rully often compares composing music to composing jamu – more on this topic in the audiopaper: http://audiopapers.glissando.pl/wukir-suryadi-i-rully-shabara/.