Interview by Swastika Nohara based in Jakarta
A slim Javanese musician bursts out a musical scream, quickly echoed by another vocalist, Bangkit. Other band members of Plenthe percussion jump in to join their rhythm. Amidst the pouring rain that evening, the passionate young musicians are shouting and drumming away, arousing a roomful of fans who soon join the cheerful atmosphere Plenthe created. Bangkit leads the crowd to clap along to the beat, in between his drumming.
Plenthe has a pair of strong hands, which seem to be a natural extension of his kendhang, a traditional Javanese two headed drum used in the gamelan ensembles.
Plenthe, 32, lives in a small house in Mutihan village, central Java approximately 500 kilometers away from the capital city of Indonesia. In this semi-communal house, he shares his musical journey with locals and fellow musicians from far away places. He has toured many countries, performing at various international art festivals in the Netherlands, Australia and Zimbabwe. His band, Plenthe Percussion has released three albums, each selling over 1500 copies. Plenthe is very happy with this considering the free internet-download and massive bootlegged CD market in Indonesia.
Plenthe has an open-minded curiosity for all kinds of music. His door is always open to music lovers. He says his passion is to bring the homegrown traditional tones to the world.
Art Zeen: You seem to have played with sounds from a young age, can you tell me about your musical journey?
Plenthe: I started drumming since I was in the third grade. In class, I used to drum everywhere – the desk, the chairs, the cupboard. Eventually my teacher scolded me and I had to repeat third grade in elementary school. I kept on drumming with a group of friends on the street. One day, a friend called me ‘Plenthe’ , which resembles the sound made from my kendhang. Since then that name lingered.
Art Zeen: Are you from a musical family?
Plenthe: No one in my family plays music. My dad is a batik illustrator. So I had to find my own way to study music. I moved out of my home in middle school so I made money from playing music on the street. Then I came across Didi Kempot. He is a well-known musician who combined traditional Javanese songs with kerongcong and dangdut music. He took me in to perform with his group on stage. So you see, I’ve played percussion in different settings, and witnessed the great impact it brings to the audience. You may have heard that these gigs often end with brawls. Sounds indeed can evoke negative behaviour, anger, lust, which often lead to clash. But at the same time, it can also bring a positive impact, helping people liberate themselves, express their thoughts and feelings.
Art Zeen: As a percussionist, what does sound mean to you?
Plenthe: I learned about sound and music through trial and error, doing countless experiments blending different sorts of tones. I play with sounds of nature, combining them with percussion and modern musical instruments. Tone resembles the musical composition, while sound is responsible for bringing out the story of my music and the emotions: happiness, sadness, contemplation, as well as anger and war.
Art Zeen: You combine traditional tones such as the pentatonic Javanese notes with modern ones. How about your making of musical instruments, does your kendhang also take in modern elements?
Plenthe: For sure. I mostly play Sundanese kendhangs but when I make my own instruments sometimes, I use rope instead of bamboo to give a certain style that’s appealing for a young audience. But for the drum head I stick to the traditional buffalo skin. Sometimes people buy my kendhangs after a show, which is what happened after our performance in the Netherlands. Sure, I sold it, I can always make a new one…except for one kendhang that I would never let go, not even to lend out, though many people have asked for it. That’s the one that I have used since I was in the third grade. I have an emotional bond with it.
Art Zeen: So you performed in the Netherlands. What brought you onto the international stage?
Plenthe: It happened after I met Peni Candra Rini, a sindhen (traditional Javanese singer) who earned her international reputation through performing around the world. We made a vocal and percussion arrangement inspired by the story of Ontosoroh (a strong female character in a historical novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer). We recently got back from Adelaide, Australia, having performed in a contemporary music event, and we have been invited to visit Melbourne again next February.
Over the last three years with Plenthe Percussion , we have received a lot of invitations to perform in many places, but sometimes we can not accept them because it costs a lot for the whole team of five to travel with our equipment.
Art Zeen: You have made your music heard by a wide range of audiences. What is your next move?
Plenthe: My dream is to inspire a new wave of music that incorporates traditional music of gamelan and is embraced by a young audience. I often see young people here neglect gamelan because they don’t see it as cool music. I want to create more music that crosses gamelan with modern music such as jazz, groove or even punk. The challenge right now, is that we don’t even have our own set of gamelan. We cannot afford it. It costs up to $20,000 USD to buy the whole set. We have to rent every time we need it for a performance, or ask the event organizer to provide it for us.
Art Zeen: About your Mutihan house, it seems like many young musicians come and collaborate there. Do you intend to take this idea further?
Plenthe: I’ve always wanted to run a place where musicians and artists would come and work together…pretty much like what’s going on in our Mutihan house right now, but on a bigger scale. It would be a place where people can just come and collaborate, compose, dance or draw – a place for young people to come and learn, and discover their own artistic journey.