«Since the beginning of human life, everyone had a knife»: interview with Senyawa

MAGREB talked with Rully Shabara and Wukir Suryadi of Senyawa, the amazing Indonesian band that sounds like the voice of volcano mixed with the dark soul of the rainforests of the eternal night.


What inspires you the most? Once Shabara explained on stage about some song how it was inspired by memories of his village being destroyed by a volcano…For music of such power, do you use the inspiration of comparable power, like the ultimate rage of the fire element?

The relationship between human and nature is always the big theme in Senyawa`s songs, with lyrics or energy wise. The dynamics of this relationship is interesting; strong, destructive, beautiful, and at the same time can be really fragile.

W: the whole universe with its whole contain

We were recently fascinated by “Aluk todolo”, Indonesian celebration, when dressed corpses are walking the streets among the living men. What do you feel about this tradition? Could you tell us something about similar or any other rituals on Yawa, originated from the far far past. How did stuff like that influenced your music?

Rutualistic and shamanistic traditions are big part of Indonesia`s culture. They are everywhere and have many kinds. This is the kind of tradition that influence us in our music, energy on stage, and to some extent the sound. In Java there is an ancient horse riding trance dance called Jathilan or Kuda Lumping which is very popular but is not fancy or grand like typical gamelan orchestra. More raw and accessible.

W: that’s the richness of our culture diversity. Of course I really appreciate it.
everything related to traditions always have ritual connection between either humans with nature or humans with their inner mind. Because I was born and raised here, either conscious or not those things affect me when I express myself with music. You can say that it is natural because honestly my subsconsious mind affect my nerves and every senses when I was doing my work with music, and it comes naturally.


Senyawa’s music is very avant-garde by form, but very traditional in the sense of “vibration”, like, you truly feel the power, the wrath of Indonesian gods or spirits. Do you know spiritual in traditional way people in Indonesia, could you tell something about them? We want to understand, how the stream of such power and such mythological imagery as Senyawa came to life, what was the environment that became a place for your project to born.

Unlike most of western world, spiritual belief and myth are still strongly felt almost everywhere in Indonesia. People worship the idea of something unexplainable control the waking life. Traditional people even still practice black magic and conduct many ancient rituals for many different purposes. Of course in an environment like this, making use this kind of energy as inputs and influence to your music would be like treasure, something that you don’t get easily anymore in more urban and modern environment.

W: do you believe that, since the beginning of human life, everyone had a knife. And we have different ways to sharpen it, and it depends on the process of making it sharp.
I believe that there is a superior power outside this nature, something that balances human life is a part of this nature, and there is natural law. One thing that human must do is to make effort.


Senyawa’s music is obviously influenced by metal…to say, sometimes your music sounds like System of a Down playing eternally in the Indonesian hell placed in forever night forest…how do you think, why metal in extreme forms, like black, is still very popular among young people all over the world? How does it help to evoke the individual’s spirit?

Metal music is a also a tradition that has its own cultural roots for many young people for generations. They also have their own rituals, costume requirements, worshipping, etc. not much different than other traditions. But, as in every tradition, it is sometimes fun to occasionally break them.

W: young blood, boiling blood, they need special meal supply for their ears,souls and minds. Young age is the time decide, and look for identity. That time is thirst, hunger. Metal in its extreme form is their meal supply that can give nutrition until those young bloods’ thirst and hunger are satisfied. Fast, countinous, heavy and hard rhythm will come to hearing sense to all over the body, unconsciously will make body to follow them, eventually consciusly will follow that rhythm.


How does the process of composing Senyawa’s music looks like?
We always start with pure improvisations. Then slowly make it into songs. For the past maybe 3 years we never did any rehearsal for new songs anymore. We only did improv one or two songs on stage during performance whenever we wanted to make new song, and if it is good enough we try to do it again the next show until it slowly becomes a piece, but the song never stops evolving even after it is recorded.

W: it starts from improvisation that already has materials to be improved, then we do bargaining, then we reach a deal, and then voila. We often do these in our live concert on stage.

It is known to us, that you two were introduced to one another live on stage at the Yes No Klub in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in July 2011, so the group was actually formed before you even exchanged greetings. So it was like a union of two streams, the forming of something higher than conscious human mind, something powerful, pure art? Are you still working on that feeling? What are the future plans for Senyawa project?

That feeling is the most important aspect that we always try to pursue, even though not always successful.
Senyawa is starting to move on to other fields as well such as theater or dance projects. We keep doing collaborations with different people every time so that we always get fresh inputs and new directions to broaden the perspectives.

W: it’s up to you on how to interpret our meeting, I am open to every opinion. Maybe long time ago our ancestors had met before.
W: to gain more knowledge, to break the wall of limit, to gave birth to a music that you’ll never imagine.


You have performed with Andrew Mclennan, Yasukai Akai, Tatsuya Yoshida, Bae Il-Dong, Lucas Abela, KK Null, Keiji Haino, Melt-Banana, Jon Sass, Damo Suzuki, Jerome Cooper, David Shea, Kazu Ushihashi and so on…what was the most interesting collaboration for you, and why? How does it feel, when you’re mixing your own style, your own gods with some other’s deities (for example, with the deities of people of other race, of completely different cultural background)? Is it more like a fight or like a dance? Or both?

Collaboration with Kazuhisa Uchihashi is interesting, we call the project Mahanyawa. Overtime we do collaboration with different people, they always bring something new to our music so every collaboration is exciting and important. Soon we will launch KAFR a collaborative project with Rabih Beaini, where we will be entering deep into the weird electronic music scene.

W: I don’t want to answer this question, every collaboration is interesting. Everyone has different characteristics.


Senyawa started as a local act, and now you’re playing all around the world…What do you feel about it? Is it like letting out the spirits of your native islands, getting them on cruise and feeding them with new power?

We still haven’t played enough in other islands in Indonesia. We feel like we need to complete that before we say we are satisfied and fully feel blessed.

W: I am worry enough, I think I need to balance so I will take my priorities right. The questions are, music follows you, or you follow music? You are controlled by music or music controls you?
eeding them with new power?
W: hmmm.. maybe yes may be no. It depends.

You said once “When we were still colonised by the Dutch up until 1945, people didn’t have guns or proper weapons to fight with, so the weapons we used were sharpened bamboo spears”. Do you feel that your music is a weapon? If it is so, who or what is your enemy in this war? Is it triviality, consumerism, boring reality, forgetting the roots?

I prefer to use the word `extension` than weapon. Music is an extension of oneself, to reach out anything that is unreachable otherwise by words, body, or even feeling.

W: the spirit is like a weapon, the enemy are hate, greed, arrogance, everything that makes humans forget about their humanity.


Could you name 3 books movies or albums that really impressed you recently?
I don’t know if its relevant but recently I really enjoyed watching movies such as The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Lobsters, and Miracle Fish. I have been listening to Ghedalia Tazartes a lot recently.

W: Gatotlotjo from RM Suwandi, JONATHAN LIVINGSTONE SEAGULL, no particular album or film

What is the most memorable experience or dream that you had recently?
I dream of water quite often

W: There is no memorable experience recently, but once I dream about owning a house…