Extreme elements

[Senyawa @ Old Market Music Festival, 5 September 2015]

I’ve found myself seeking heightened sensory experiences lately. Maybe it’s to cope with the tedium of working life, or to jolt myself out of rigid patterns of thought, but going down the pub for a quiet pint just won’t cut it right now.

On Saturday I ended up at Old Market Music Festival, a free all-day event hosted by The Exchange and Stag and Hounds, two adjacent venues with a reputation for hosting alternative live acts from Bristol and beyond, with the former in particular putting on shows which lean towards the experimental and/or extreme.

While I saw a couple of interesting acts, they were all blown out of the water by Indonesian duo Senyawa, who were performing in the UK for the very first time. With no preparation and no context to place them in, hearing them was like being slapped round the face by a howling stranger in the street, and then for some reason feeling euphoric about it afterwards.

Hailing from Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, the band produce music embracing some of the weirdest sonic juxtapositions I’ve ever heard. Both members of the group – Vocalist Rully Shabara and instrumentalist/instrument-builder Wukir Suryadi – grew up listening to heavy metal. Together they fuse Javanese folk traditions with elements of metal and drone, and genre-defying experimentation, all approached with a kind of punk ferocity.

Senyawa playing on the road in Yogyakarta.

Part of the reason they sound like nothing else is their use of homemade instruments, designed and assembled by Suryadi. One of these, a menacing bamboo instrument called a Bambuwukir, is fitted with steel strings, producing timbres that sit somewhere in between thrash-metal guitar and harp. In addition, he has built a smaller two/three string instrument that is relayed through a set of loop and effects pedals to create hypnotic riffs, as well as a percussion instrument producing heavy bass tones that looks as though it is built from arrows placed through a resonator.

Attempting to describe what transpired feels a bit futile, as they are a band that really need to be experienced live. But their set could be explained in terms of contrasts: between the plaintive, melancholic tones generated by Suryadi, who stays calm and composed throughout, and Shabara, a totally uninhibited and incredibly intense performer, who moves effortlessly between falsetto warbles, death metal groans, ear-piercing screams and garbling vocal leaps. He is also aided by impeccable comic timing and a theatrical physicality. At one point in between tracks, Shabara interjects: ‘that one was about the sea, this one is about a volcano’, going on to describe how their village was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 2010. Drawing inspiration from the extremes of the elements might go some way to explaining their approach to music-making.

Throughout, all energy in the room feels hyper-focused. The reactions of the crowd vary from stunned and rooted to the spot to laughing hysterically and head-banging in a trance, all understandable reactions. It is a participatory experience as well: during the final track the audience are invited to howl, shake and scream in call and response with the singer, a necessary catharsis after the creative madness we have all just witnessed.

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