Teaching yourself to speak Indonesian by translating William Blake poems and free-associative rhymes might not seem like the best way to wend a path toward inclusion in the country's ritual ceremonies, but that's the path Arrington de Dionyso trekked.
Before searching out the recombination of culture and music, the Olympia, Washington-based musician helmed Old Time Relijun dating back to the '90s. After the dissolution of that band, de Dionyso picked up the bass clarinet and put together Malaikat dan Singa, an American group fusing the odder moments of post-punk's rhythmic ideals with Indonesian ritual music into massive and occasionally dizzying moments. It's all been in service of finding a transcendent instant of cross-cultural harmony.
He might have found it. The documentary Reak: Trance Music and Possession in West Java follows de Dionyso's participation in a ceremony tucked away in a region of Indonesia removed from big-city concerns. But despite the seemingly huge gulf between what's depicted in the film and Western popular culture, de Dionyso says he managed to find common ground. "Nirvana's really big over there," he says. "Everyone's asking me if I know Kurt Cobain."
Willamette Week: When did you first visit Indonesia?
Arrington de Dionyso: I took a trip out there in 2011 and then again in 2013. This last trip was 2015, so about every two years. After Old Time Relijun kind of started becoming inactive—we never broke up, everyone was living in different cities, so it wasn't a practical thing anymore—I was trying to envision what a new project might be, and I was really inspired by the idea of genetic engineering with music: grafting stylistic elements that would appear unrelated, but would actually have a lot of commonality. I was listening to some pretty aggressive post-punk British sounds from the '80s, particularly Blurt. I was listening to a lot of dancehall from Jamaica. I was also teaching myself the Indonesian language, kind of delving into these different styles of Indonesian trance music.
You started Malaikat dan Singa when you were figuring out the intersection of these musics?
We had a couple videos on YouTube after the [Suara Naga] album came out. I knew this would happen, but I didn't know how it would unfold. By recording this surrealistic, sort of post-punk, Indonesian trance tour de force, I knew that eventually it would reach people in Indonesia, especially younger people, looking for more interesting rock-type sounds. And to my great delight, there's an incredibly rich and diverse scene. There's a huge punk scene, death metal scene, people exploring free improvisation and experimental music. So, by recording my album, I was able to reach those people who found out about me on YouTube. Without doing anything else, I was able to get a little bit of a fanbase going, so that when I made my first trip out there, people were excited and looking forward to hearing my music.
So, you found Indonesians playing Western-derived music? How common is it that people listen to more traditional strains of Indonesian music there?
There are a lot of people looking at how to present older sounds. It's a really interesting conversation that happens. You have people doing traditional music, doing the same thing that they'll always do. Then you have people who, maybe that doesn't completely fit with where they are in their lives. A lot of traditional music is more—there're things attached to it. There are things a rice farmer would play. So, if your grandfather was a rice farmer, you might be into hearing the music for nostalgic reasons. But if you live in a city and work in a more urban environment, it might not be directly relevant to your identity.
There are a lot of people who are really proud of their musical heritage and they're looking at ways to more integrate electric sounds and take an experimental approach to the different strains of traditional Indonesian music. It's not that unusual. It's not common either—maybe they're doing a jazz-derived thing and some gamelan elements will be involved. Or there'll be a heavy metal thing, but they'll have different instruments. Or they'll be playing traditional instruments and they'll be doing something that's more electrified. It's a really ripe territory for integration within the music scene happening there. For me to engage with that as a foreigner and create this exchange and learn a new language to attempt to do that, then it's kind of this extra element of exploration that happens.
When I go to Indonesia, there are a lot of people interested in what I'm doing and they want to collaborate. Through those networks, I've been in touch with people doing more traditional trance music in the villages where it's not always about the specific music, it's about the spirit of the event itself. You can integrate new elements into it and as long as you're kind of in tune with the group as a whole, following the contours of the trance ceremony, it's works out musically. You can bring in new sounds and no one's offended by it.
What you're talking about is something I think about as "ecstatic music"—anything from Coltrane to music in a Pentecostal church. So, is it more interrelated culturally than musically? What's a typical ceremony like?
To really understand what's happening, we have to suspend our understanding of what we'd call "religious." What's happening in the film doesn't conform to an easy definition. It's a village in West Java that practices Reak. It's this type of trance ceremony. As much as it's a spiritual expression, there's also an element of entertainment. There's an element of sport, we could say. The boys participating in it are like a team. They have matching T-shirts. They get together and as they perform, they become possessed by a transcendent nature spirit.
In Indonesia, is religion more incorporated into daily life than in the states?
I don't even really think anybody would call it a religious expression. It's just a part of the continuum of how people connect spiritually. The boys involved are teenages, between 12 to 16 year olds. There's this element of coming of age. Not that it's sexualized, but it's kind of like they're coming into their own as men. There's an element of initiation.
Have you taken part in a bunch of ceremonies like the one depicted in the film?
I've actually been to quite a few of them. This was the first one I've done in West Java. West Java and East Java, there are a lot of similar things that you'd find, but also a lot of differences. West Java has a very distinct ethnic identity that's different than the rest of Java. I've done a lot of these in East Java. They're pretty similar, but the music's a bit different. This one was really special. There was something raw and visceral that I haven't always found. Some of the other ones are almost theatrical presentations. This one felt a lot more connected with people's daily life.
Was this the first one you shot?
Some of the others I've videotaped, but not as well as this one. The footage that I got from this one was a lot better. The documentary part of it just kind of created itself. It wasn't like I was intending to create a documentary at all. When we set up the ceremony that I performed in, it was a last-minute thing. I was like, "If you know anyone with a video camera, let's invite them."
We were there for about an hour and then these two guys show up and started filming. They very generously gave me their footage. We agreed to work on it together as far as putting it into a film. But the video was good and the audio was really good. So, I worked with some editors to get it into a cohesive piece.
Both of your parents are ministers, so how central to your music and art is religion?
Any music I play is going to be spiritual music. People have so many ways of defining what religion is. When I think of religion, I think of people laying out what they believe and what they don't believe.
From my experience with this exchange, and the music that was happening, nobody really had anything to say about what they believed. It's just about feeling the spirit and being in touch with that spirit. For as much as we might approach this as a cultural thing, there are a lot of important universal things about it. I really think that's communicated in the film and people viewing it will understand some of that universality. A lot of what's happening in the film, it could be anywhere in the world, in a way. It kind of looks like a hardcore punk mosh pit or people speaking in tongues. There's a sense of improvisation. The dancing people do when they're possessed is really spectacular, in terms of their movements. It's really incredible. It's all about finding that body-mind-spirit connectivity.
Does taking part in these types of ceremonies give you the same feeling as playing in Old Time Relijun or Malaikat Dan Singa?
When I play music, I play music to find the trance, and that's something that I've been familiar with and worked toward for a long time in all of my projects as a musician. There might be things that I'll encounter that will be a little bit less familiar because of the culture context. But once we get past the differences, in every setting I've done this kind of performance in over there, it just clicks. People can tell that I'm coming from that place and it's something they're familiar with. It's interesting to see where it goes with the combination of our backgrounds. It's an exciting way to collaborate. It's exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for musically. If I'm playing in a free jazz setting in the U.S. or Europe, I'm still trying to get to that space.
In this setting, they not only get to that place, they have a larger way of understanding it—it's more integrated into their lives. It's not just a concert you show up to.
SEE IT: Reak: Trance Music and Possession in West Java will screen at 5th Avenue Cinema, 510 SW Hall Street, on Thursday, May 5. 8 pm. A Q&A with Arrington de Dionyso will follow. Free. All ages.