Rully Shabara Herman and Wukir Suryadi, the duo better known as Senyawa, are into their second decade as a band – the latter half of which has seen them rise from relative obscurity to international prominence, getting the sort of attention rarely afforded to Southeast Asian acts.
The pair’s music draws from disparate traditions, combining folk, drone, noise, free improvisation, and even hints of metal into a syncretic avant-garde music. Instrumentalist Wukir plays a self-made bamboo instrument known as the bambu wukir, its unique tonality the perfect foundation for vocalist Rully, whose style incorporates everything from plainsong to guttural, earth-shaking growls.
Together, the two create music of liberating intensity and raw, elemental power. It’s a power that Senyawa has displayed to the globe and showcased on four studio albums for labels such as Morphine and Sublime Frequencies, garnering critical acclaim from western tastemakers like Pitchfork and Wire magazine. They’ve even managed to land themselves on the soundtrack of Rockstar Games’ multi-million dollar behemoth Red Dead Redemption 2, no mean feat for such an uncompromising duo.
It’s been a decade to remember for the Yogyakarta-based duo, but they’re far from done. The cycle marked out by their first four albums has now closed; next year, Senyawa will usher in new ideas, concepts and instrumentation with their new album ‘Alkisah’. The album, their fifth overall, comes on the heels of ‘Bima Sakti’, a collaboration with Stephen O’Malley of drone icons Sunn O))), commissioned by theatre director and choreographer Gisèle Vienne for Europalia Indonesia 2017/18.
“Thematically, ‘Alkisah’ picks up where [our previous album] ‘Sujud’ ended,” vocalist Rully tells NME. “In ‘Sujud’, we embraced the earth and soil, but the last song was titled ‘Return To The World’.” Before discussing ‘Alkisah,’ though, Rully feels that it’s crucial to outline the band’s thematic progression over their first four albums, to provide some context for the new one.
In 2014, the duo released their proper full-length debut, ‘Acaraki’. The title, which refers to a person who assembles the ingredients for the traditional Indonesian medicine jamu, reflects the duo’s attempt to “formulate the sound of Senyawa”, Rully explains. The attempt pays off, as reflected in the title of the second album: ‘Menjadi’ (‘succeed’). The third album ‘Brønshøj (Puncak)’, or ‘peak’, reflects the feeling that they’d reached the summit of their improvisatory musical practice. And then, as Rully says matter-of-factly, “where do you go from a peak? Back to the earth, to prostrate – sujud.”
“Our first ten years were about exploring our music and our potential as musicians,” Rully concludes. “Now it’s time to ‘return to the world’ by applying what we’ve learned to other aspects of our work.” The band ended their first decade with a closing tour, which was immediately followed up by the first jaunt of a planned ten-year series of tours across the Nusantara. On the tour, titled NUSANTARA: Chapter 1, the pair visited four cities on four Indonesian islands: Pontianak (Kalimantan), Makassar (Sulawesi), Denpasar (Bali), and Bantul (Jawa). The whole idea was to try and “establish connections, develop plans, and to work out ways to collectively develop our scenes”, Rully explains.
Senyawa managed to complete this first chapter, but “just as things started coming together, the pandemic hit”, Rully laughs. “It’s quite a coincidence, because that’s really the core of the album: that the end is nigh.”
‘Alkisah’ is an apocalyptic album for apocalyptic times – but it’s not a doom-and-gloom record. As Rully points out, “it’s not about saying ‘oh, the world is ending and there’s nothing we can do about it’.” Instead, ‘Alkisah’ is about preparing for life in the aftermath, and rebuilding after a collapse (and not necessarily a physical one, either). It’s about coming up with new strategies, ideas, and methods for practice in a post-apocalyptic world. The big question for the band itself, Rully says, is “how do we, as musicians, cope with times like the present?”
It’s an important question. While the duo don’t claim to have answers, they’re exploring some possible avenues with the release of ‘Alkisah’. The way they’re distributing and releasing the record is itself an experiment. Instead of signing with a single label to release it globally, the band has opened the release up to interested parties all across the world, encouraging multiple labels to get on board and release the album in different ways for different markets.
It’s a “decentralised” release that tries to move away from the hierarchical way physical music releases tend to be released and distributed. This decentralisation “cuts out a lot of things”, in Rully’s words, the idea is to show that “the primary distribution channels are no longer the only paths to follow”. Why now, though? “Why not, really?” he asks with a laugh.
“It’s time to ‘return to the world’ by applying what we’ve learned to other aspects of our work”
“This is what we need during this pandemic,” he asserts. “A lot of people making a lot of small connections.” In a climate where large-scale, top-down, events and networks have ground to a halt, Senyawa see a future in smaller, more dynamic communities coming together to support each other. ‘Alkisah’, then, is an exploratory offering, an attempt to conduct a global experiment through music, hopefully encouraging labels and other artists to connect and collaborate with each other in the process.
For Senyawa, ‘Alkisah’ is also about “detaching” from their own work, moving away from the usual privileged position of the musician in the reproduction of their art. It’s useful to think of it as not just an album, but also an attempt to create a conduit for collaboration and creativity between parties that may not have worked together otherwise. It’s a remarkably outward-looking perspective, considering the tendency for avant-garde music to prioritise isolated, inward-looking musical practice. A ‘return to the world’, indeed.
The participating record labels have a lot of leeway to stamp their own mark on ‘Alkisah’. “All of the labels involved are free to determine their own packaging and design for the album, come up with their own merchandise, and even remaster and remix the tracks to their heart’s content,” Rully reveals.
“This is what we need during this pandemic: a lot of people making a lot of small connections”
Thirty-eight labels from all corners of the globe will be releasing their own versions of ‘Alkisah’. There’s a lot of Indonesian representation, as might be expected, but the album’s also being released by labels from Italy, Germany, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, just to name a few countries. “It isn’t about trying to ‘dominate’ the world,” Rully insists. “It’s about making it more easily accessible, and maybe even cheaper to get a hold of.”
The music on ‘Alkisah’ is also more accessible than Senyawa’s past releases. Rully reveals that the new material is “more lyrical and more normative”, and that he’s more focused on presenting a narrative through his lyrics – an approach hinted at by the title ‘Alkisah’, whose closest English language equivalent is “once upon a time”.
But what of Senyawa’s legion of international fans that likely don’t understand Indonesian? Smiling, Rully mischievously asks in return, “Did Bob Dylan translate his lyrics into Malay?” Besides, online translation tools can help curious listeners get a rough idea of ‘Alkisah’’s story, he says.
Wukir’s custom-made bamboo instrument, the bambu wukir, has also been retired and won’t be making an appearance on ‘Alkisah’. It’s a surprising move, given how strongly Senyawa’s music is associated with the weighty percussive attack of Wukir’s eponymous creation. But it fits the idea of a fresh start, and goes to show the two of them aren’t resting on their laurels. “We’ve explored the bambu wukir thoroughly over our earlier albums,” Rully explains, “and we’re trying to move away from the image of Senyawa that we’ve established.”
Exciting times, then, for the duo of Rully and Wukir. Charting a path through new musical waters while also experimenting with a radically different way of distributing their work is a tall order. But it’s all par for the course for Senyawa. They’ve spent ten years honing their craft and relentlessly pushing themselves as musicians, and it only makes sense that they’re taking things even further, and on multiple fronts, with ‘Alkisah’.
As our conversation about ‘Alkisah’ winds down, Rully expresses a hope that the decentralised distribution of the album might spark a trend and that bands bigger than Senyawa follow in their footsteps. “If that were to happen,” he says cautiously, “we might actually see some change.” Lofty, perhaps, but an industry that’s been shaken by COVID-19 is as fertile ground as any for this sort of transformation. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Rully Shabara Herman and Wukir Suryadi won’t be standing still, simply waiting to find out.
Senyawa’s ‘Alkisah’ is out on February 12, 2021