Arts & Culture

George Town Festival 2019: Vulnerability Through Armour and Skin 2019

Instruments to awaken the human spirit.

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B-Side went down for the final weekend of George Town Festival 2019. This week, we’re dropping a special five-part series, featuring performances and interviews with their South East Asian lineup. This is Part 2 of 5 — keep a look out!

Read BIRD – Part 1 here.

“I was interested to experience how we can juxtapose different movements or different images or different tempos in terms of your body or your choreography. And have that become a new language, so not only are your ears listening to very complex rhythm and very complex music, but your eyes are, I guess, in a way also either following or fighting against that music,” shared Ghafir Akbar, the director of Armour and Skin 2019, in the post-show dialogue. Instead of sitting back, the audience should be engaged with the show, he stressed.

This sentiment could be strongly felt throughout the dynamic performance. Atmospheric and conducting the energies within the theatre with ease, the performers demanded our attention from beginning to end. Vocals interweaved between melodic scores of the gamelans, while Chinese drumming reverberated all around. It was almost like sitting in a chamber with surround sound. Beyond the aural experience, the performers’ stage presence was undeniable, enhanced by cultural costumes and stage choreography.

What does it mean to be a musician, and is it really just something to do with an instrument?

Indeed, what we had the privilege of witnessing was magic — the spirit of performance, the heart of sharing and the generosity of interchanging energies.

Ghafir, Gamelan Yuganada Bali founder I Wayan Sudirana and HANDS Percussion founder Bernard Goh sat down with B-Side for a candid interview on their journey that birthed Armour and Skin 2019.

Tell us how Armour and Skin 2019 came about.

Ghafir: It is essentially a music performance incorporating instruments from Chinese drums to Malay gamelan, Balinese gamelan, and everything in between; everything that makes sounds, or probably noise on stage. But it focuses on the more traditional forms of these two instruments and explores what it means to a more contemporary audience. It looks at a more conceptual part of Balinese gamelan, which is the ‘interlocking’ idea that maybe Sudi can explain later. See how that bronze sound of the gamelan responds in a conversation with the skin or the surface of the Chinese drums.

And what it means in terms of collaborating between two instruments, two countries, two cultures, two styles of artistic visions, and exploring what it means for the South East Asian diaspora of this kind of music. How important it is to see and hear it today.

I think that is the crux and concept of the show. We also tried to build a visual language, so that you are not just coming to see musicians playing on stage. They are performing for you, which means they sing, dance and act. The experience is not just an aural experience. It is also a very visual experience.

Sudirana: ‘Interlocking’ has been very famous for Balinese gamelan, and is well known for playing something fast. Although ‘interlocking’ as a concept is about putting two things together, it is not literal in this case. If I can put it this way, the music is one composite melody being shared between two.

So ‘interlocking’, or in Bali it’s called kotekan, is the joint playing of two parts that will become one composite melody, rhythm or feeling. We can put it that way. It is such an enjoyment or hard work.

I won’t put it in a painful way of putting things together, because you can’t just go “Here, you do this, you do that.” It does not work like that.

For this particular production, it started three years ago with an idea. It is not something that happened instantly. Besides the interlocking of ideas, the kotekan is the framework that helps to establish what we do. On top of that, there is this idea of charisma, of taksu. In Bali, taksu means ‘the spirit’. It’s placed or housed inside each musician, so there is a lot of sincerity.

Taksu is behind everything.

Bernard: You know, we have loved the gamelan since a long time ago even though we are a bunch of Chinese drum players. We like to explore and challenge ourselves, so my members were introduced to gamelan Melayu more than 20 years ago, and then the Javanese gamelan a decade ago. They can be quite similar, but of course, they have their differences.

From time to time, we listen to the Balinese gamelan and felt it was something out of this world. Our principal and some of my members said, “Sir, let’s do Balinese gamelan.” But during that time, it was very hard to get a teacher like Sudi, who is good at what he does and effective in speaking, imparting knowledge and language is not an issue. We first met three to four years ago at the Bali Spirit Festival, leading to other productions in between, and this time with other collaborators, we made Armour and Skin 2019 happen.

In creating this performance, was there something you found challenging?

Sudirana: You said ‘challenging’, yes. You said ‘fun’, also yes. Because traditionally, the way of learning gamelan is oral, passed down from generation to generation, and as Bernard said, it is important to explain it correctly. That is part of this tradition, the oral tradition. We musicians can play it, but we may not know what it is. This is what we call ‘passive knowledge’.

When we are communicating and when we are trying to do this music in the modern society, they like to ask questions and an explanation has to be born. One obstacle would be how to explain what we are doing in gamelan to a more logical or ‘make sense’ kind of explanation. If you go to Bali or you talk to more traditional musicians or teachers, they will tell you “It has been like that” or “It has been passed down like that.” In this case, explaining what your concept is or explaining what you are doing is something that I feel is new. I would say, this is not difficult, but fun! You can make other people, non-Balinese, understand what your concept is. It is really satisfying.

In terms of the musicians in how they evolve, how they react, how they learn, how fast — I think for me there is no problem. Everybody has been great. I sent musical scores from Bali, using Western notation to accommodate my ideas, so I think that has been not a problem. We had members like Jack and Siu Siu, who were really fast in catching what I wanted. And in terms of collaborating, I think it’s about putting two things together. I was sending stuff to Hands members and then Bernard was teaching my members in Bali. And we were putting things together in two different places. I think that took a bit of thinking. Bernard flew me to Kuala Lumpur several times to get things right, beyond reading the visual score and getting the notes right. There are things you cannot get out of a score alone.

Bernard: The most challenging for me is, while we were doing this, we had so many other projects. The members were quite excited, yet exhausted. Also, I agree with Sudi: you have to read the notation, play, practise and combine with the players — that is very difficult.

And we don’t want to be too technical, playing everything from the notations. That’s the challenging part for my members. Our training was very straightforward; have to be synchronised, have to be spot on and everything.

So yesterday, Sudi just taught me a lesson, “No, be yourself.”

The Balinese musicians play so effortlessly. That is something we need to learn from each other, that collaboration. It’s not a fusion. We are musicians who can sit down together to jam because everyone is good at the gamelan or Chinese drums, and have played for more than 20 years, for example. But for a concert of this scale, we need to really sit down and ask ourselves,

“What is inside, the internal feeling?’ What is the message that we want to bring to the audience?”

This is very important and it got quite painful for the members, to be honest, because it is not their usual routine to play. There were so many things they needed to digest, to regulate. I think they really did a good job.

Sudirana: Before returning to Ghafir, I just want to add that this is not, in a sense, the popular type of collaboration where the parts were dictated. This was properly organised and shared. It’s not instant. We went through a long journey of rehearsals to make this happen.

Ghafir: Outside of the music, you have the premise of two different cultures trying to collaborate.

I think it was necessary that we started with a concept, “What is it that we want to talk about?” which is how we ended up with the idea of taksu. And then within taksu, how do we want to tell this? If this concept was a story, what was the story we want to tell?

There is no limitation; we could use any story, any concept within the universe. For me, it was a challenge to find that lane we wanted to depart from because you could go in many different ways. So where is a good starting point? That was a big challenge. Of course, geographical location was also a challenge, and everybody’s schedule and personal career.

I think once we found that, the second challenge was, how do we navigate 36, almost 40, artistic individuals? Everyone comes with a particular skill set, with a particular artistic vision, particular style, temperament, but it is necessary to take all these different people in a room and create an environment, in a way, an ‘unsafe’ environment for them, to create. Because I think when you go into an environment that is relaxed and safe and easy, to me the work doesn’t become exciting. There needs to be a sense of danger, a sense of — what’s the opposite of equilibrium — ‘not equilibrium’, a state where things can go either way. And I always believe that good art is created in times of suffering, and I am encouraged to hear how much Bernard and Sudi had suffered because it needed to be hard.

This work is not easy.

If it is easy, why are we coming to a theatre to watch it? We watch a group of artist come in, spend three years suffering together to create something vey beautiful that they believe in and everybody individually has invested. I think for me, as a director of the show, also, was to create that environment for them. For them to create and be the best performer they can be, individually and as a group.

Do you think chaos is necessary in our lives?

Ghafir: I think it’s necessary. I think the thing about chaos is that we always think chaos is equal to disorder. I think chaos is much like the idea of kotekan, the idea of interlocking. It comes from two very orderly patterns or rhythm. It’s just that when it comes together it becomes more complex and more rich.

Even in civil society, we always think of chaos as a noise, burden or something negative. It’s because we don’t take the time to find the silence in the chaos. We don’t take time to listen to the chaos. Either we contribute to the chaos or run away from the chaos. We don’t embrace it. That’s what I hope the concert will embrace.

We look at this idea of disorder and we accept that our life can have a lot of chaos. But we know how to isolate them and appreciate them and make something new out of them. That, to me, is what chaos is for this concert.

Sudirana: I think for me chaos is like understanding. When we talk about chaos, one word that came out to me is ‘understanding’ because when people understand, they won’t think of it as chaos. You get me?

Ghafir: Yes.

Sudirana: You know, for example, kotekan, the interlocking. When other people don’t understand kotekan, they will think of it as chaos. When you are willing to go into the chaos and try to listen — because there are many types of listening, you listen while you are eating, you listen while you walk in the mall, at the airport or that deep listening. I think when you are doing this careful listening, then chaos could be a beautiful thing. When you think of chaos, as Ghafir said ‘disorder’, why must it always be ‘disorder’? I believe there is a value to chaos — you live here because of chaos. This earth emerged because of chaos, because of the Big Bang.

If there is one thing that you want the audience to take away from your creation, what would it be?

Sudirana: It goes back to the audience themselves in terms of their knowledge and understanding. We can’t go into people’s brain, “OK, you take this, you take this, you take that.” It is your understanding. For me, we are trying to pass this message: if you are able to catch it, then you will bring that home. For me, it’s like that. It’s like we are sharing something.

For me it’s like beautiful because it’s like connection, people connection, music connections and maybe people will proudly hear it as chaos, something that is broken, something that they can’t hear. Other people will hear it as beautiful because they stood the relations. I hope they’ve understood the relations of the people who performed on stage.

That is the beauty that they are able to understand what we are doing, understand the connection between the instrument to other instruments; understand the connection between musician and fellow musician. To understand that music is a universal language.

Ghafir: I think on one level is that, it is the appreciation of the richness of the music and the audience will also appreciate the level of talent that is on stage. For me, watching the rehearsal and the show, it was quite profound to see these musicians at their best.

And to add to what we have been talking about, it is also the experience of watching a concert like this. I remember going to Bali for the first time to watch a gamelan performance and dance performance; I never felt like a passive audience member. I felt it was among me. I felt I didn’t have to sit back and watch the musicians. I felt very invested in it, which I felt was a very different experience than the one I had in, say, Malaysia. When audience come, I hope they will leave with a new experience of watching theatre or concert of performing arts.

Bernard: Yesterday, I had a few friends, who are not in this art scene, almost in tears. They asked, “How could this can be done?” I said, “Three years, baby, three years.” So I think it’s the love and passion. Whatever job or whatever you are in, I mean the love between the performance and the passion to want to do something, to want to pull something together. I think it can be very inspiring for people. It’s very sincere from all our hearts. I’d like this to really reach the audience.

To create good art, one has to…

Ghafir: I think to create good art, one has to listen.

Sudirana: Oh, you took my answer!

Ghafir: To listen, to observe and to reflect.

Yeah, I think it is necessary to look within ourselves, look around us. To observe also what you do with the information you need to reflect through your own taksu, your own creativity, your own artistic vision.

Did I win?

Sudirana: For me, one has to be open-minded.

Bernard: That’s it? So simple.

Sudirana: Yeah.

Bernard: I think nowadays, there are too many things happening for the young players, musicians or artists. It’s like more difficult to find what you really want. To me, you need to be good, honest and kind-hearted. I think society is lacking in this aspect, so artists are now bringing this together.

The beauty of life, there is something about it that you have to be kind to make good art. I think there is power in artists coming together.

It is kind of similar to being open-minded but my point is, there are a lot of distractions now. You have to really clear the mind, focus and find your path.

For me, it’s a big question. This is just my opinion that the person has to be good. Not just in the arts. Not only about the skill and technicalities because I think we have a responsibility to spread that good vibe, not just in a theatre setting. We need the youngsters to know what is happening now, what is so important, otherwise we are running out of time.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Photography courtesy of Armour and Skin 2019 and George Town Festival 2019

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