Adelaide Festival's dream team of screams

Live Review: Senyawa and Chiri, Adelaide Festival

Barrio, Hajek Plaza
Adelaide Festival Centre
Thursday, March 8, 2011

An evening of screaming never sounded this good, and these two intimate ensembles – featuring musicians from Indonesia, Korea and Australia between them – put stadium acts with their rows of Marshall amps to shame for sheer explosive power and vocal chops.

Senyawa and Chiri are the kinds of acts usually seen turning the concept of traditional world music on its head at WOMADelaide, but performed here as part of the neighbouring Adelaide Festival’s surprisingly diverse contemporary music series, Dreamers. Perched on a padded milk crate in the outdoor “Barrio”, surrounded that night by a shanty town of local crafts kiosks, ad hoc art installations and creatively costumed street performers, I had a truly transcendent experience.

The duo Senyawa hails from Yogyakarta, the Javanese arts capital of Indonesia. The local style of male singing comes as a shock to most who hear it for the first time, but Rully Shabara takes it to the next level with ripping shrieks and ferocious outbursts that could sit just as easily within a hardcore rock or black metal band – certainly his gangster-like outfit of leather jacket, black gloves and bandanna added to that impression. So too did his highly charged stage craft: clenched fists and beating of chest with the occasional martial arts pose or traditional dance move thrown in, all seemingly the most natural physical manifestation of this sound world. Often his raw energy passed into a trancelike state, as if he was speaking in tongues.

Mike Patton would be lucky to have this guy on speed dial as his scream guru. Shabara’s freakishly wide vocal range allows him to transition from deepest, guttural chant to soaring, sometimes surprisingly delicate, falsetto. His vocabulary of wordless utterances incorporates the animalistic sounds of bleating sheep and clicking of insects. Elsewhere, he explained, his lyrics revel in nature: one song is about “mountain”, another about “soil”. I’ve never seen someone channel much rage over the subject of soil, but perhaps it’s not what appears to us as rage – in Senyawa’s compositions and improvisations Shabara may in fact be expressing ecstatic spirituality and catharsis.

It might be even harder to describe Wukir Suryadi’s eclectic accompaniment, on a stringed bamboo instrument of his own invention called the bambuwukir, with its impressive range of functions and methods of sound production. A koto, mbira, electric guitar and tabla all in one, the whole amplified contraption could be bowed for sustained, drone-like tone, plucked for percussive effects and distorted and sampled through an electronic hook-up. (Its phallic bearing also allowed for some classic rock posturing as Suryadi straddled his creation.) The conflation of exotic sounds was so enveloping that I often had to remind myself there wasn’t a full band onstage. It was also a delicate beast, requiring tuning after almost every song.

And then – though, unbelievably, his strident tone showed no signs of fatigue – Shabara evidently decided he was done screaming his lungs out for the night. “That’s enough!” he ended simply.

Following Senyawa’s onslaught was Chiri’s sophisticated meeting of Korean traditional singing and free jazz. Touchingly named after the mountain where p’ansori master Bae Il Dong spent seven years in isolation screaming into a waterfall to “break” his voice and discover his “true tone” (a rite of passage for those training in p’ansori), the trio is one in that rare breed: a fusion band that actually works. I was half expecting an irate elderly Asian man in a robe on one side of the stage lecturing two swinging jazz cats on the other, but trumpeter Scott Tinkler and especially drummer Simon Barker are alive to the possibilities of cross-cultural collaboration while remaining respectful to the complex ritual elements of p’ansori. The resulting groove is mesmerising.

Bae Il Dong’s richly textured roar contrasted beautifully with the smoother-toned trumpet. At first, I felt that Tinkler downplayed his virtuosity as secondary to the sheer force of the voice, even focusing his solos on rapid-fire repeated notes to match the declamatory nature of Bae’s delivery. Happily, he did have the chance to let rip with the high notes later in the set, with the singer enthusiastically echoing them with a genuine sense of play. Even more astounding was how sensitively Barker integrates Bae’s distinctive rhythmic fluidity into his kit work. He also explored the sonorities of traditional Korean percussion, wielding two saucepan lid-like gongs with the delight of a toddler (though with considerably more skill).

Unlike Senyawa’s fairly abstract descriptions of rivers and Indonesian public transport, the epic medieval tales that make up the p’ansori songbook have convoluted plots involving dragon kings and other colourful folkloric characters. Long vocal meditations introduced as Funeral Song, Love Song and Song of Spring Fragrance all sound like the same song to me: all intoned with vigour and elegance, and imaginatively embellished by the band.

Although I couldn’t understand a word of what was being sung in either language, the elemental force of Senyawa and Chiri’s storytelling reaches into the soul, and will stay with me a long time.

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Adelaide Festival's dream team of screams
Korean p'ansori singer Bae Il Dong
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