Tue, 24 Jun 2003

Luluk prefers honestly over popularity

Joko Anwar, Contributor, Jakarta

Standing in a hotel lobby waiting to interview a highly regarded jazz violinist at 1 o'clock in the morning, you might worry that she may be intimidating.

Anyone who has ever seen her manic playing on stage would not blame you for being worried. Regardless of her petiteness, she looks as if she is capable of doing major damage when she plays. Her energy is truly awe-inspiring.

You might also be expecting a musician who would give answers too artsy for a fearful journalist, an expectation that may have been borne of seeing her all too often wearing leaves as part of her performance coiffure.

But when you finally meet Luluk Purwanto, all the worries vanish.

Although she has resided in the Netherlands for many years with her husband, Dutch pianist Rene Van Helsdingen, she still reflexively addresses you "Dalem", the highest form of address in the Javanese language.

Even after a long day of work, Luluk still looked vibrant, bustling with energy. She was born on June 25, 1959, but she could easily pass as a 30-year-old.

"I do push-ups everyday, four times 25 reps. That's it," she would say while lighting her cigarette. Minutes later, you are already chatting like friends.

Luluk Purwanto is highly regarded, and many consider the classically trained, virtuoso jazz musician as one of the best violinists Asia has ever produced.

She is very passionate about the music, and she looks as if she would do anything to defend it.

"Kenny G is not jazz!" she would say.

You would immediately agree, and as a pop-fan, you show some spirit in defending your choice of musical genre by saying that Kenny G is not pop either. You also want to tell her about your frustration, because they always play Kenny G before movies at theaters here.

Luluk's music is best described as cross-cultural jazz, as she often incorporates traditional Indonesian songs in her performances, such as Java's Ilir-Ilir (Breezy) and Sunda's Es Lilin (Popsicle).

"I don't have a mission to bring Indonesia (to the international audience). I just simply happen to like those songs," Luluk says.

This is entirely understandable, as she spent her childhood in the highly artistic towns of Surakarta and Yogyakarta in Central Java, which, even today, have managed to escape overexposure to globalization.

"I would kleyengan from listening to traditional music back then," she says, and then tries hard to find an appropriate translation of the Javanese word. Later, she tells you that it means to "feel high".

The daughter of classical vocalist parents, she had a peripatetic childhood. Her family eventually moved to Medan, North Sumatra, when her father was appointed the director of a music school there.

Her eclectic ethnic influences would eventually make their way into her music.

Showing a strong gift for music at early age, Luluk, who began studying classical music at the age of nine, received a scholarship from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia, at 14.

With husband Rene and two other Dutch musicians, she formed Luluk Purwanto & The Helsdingen Trio in 1988. To date, they have played hundreds of concerts throughout Europe and Asia.

In 1994, they began touring in a 40-foot Stage Bus, a bus which had been converted into a reinforced stage complete with a grand piano and full sound-and-light capabilities.

The tour was a homage to the early days of American jazz, when bands toured the country on buses.

Since she began her career as a professional jazz violinist in 1980, she has collaborated with local jazz gurus such as Abadi Soesman and Ireng Maulana, and has recorded 10 albums.

Her latest album, titled Born Free, was released by Zebra Records in the U.S. in 1998, and although its sales figure was reportedly fair, the album received warm response from critics and jazz enthusiasts.

Even if she may be not as popular as other Asian female musicians such as Vanessa Mae, a classically trained violinist who plays pop arrangements of classical music, Luluk says that she does not envy her.

"Vanessa Mae is very good, but I can't and don't want to play like she does. Give me another name. Kenny Garreth, Brian Blade, or Nanang H.P. Those are the people I envy," she says.

Kenny Garreth is a well-known jazz saxophonist, while Brian Blade is an established jazz drummer, and Nanang H.P. is a 28- year-old wayang (shadow puppet) puppet master from Java.

"They're so honest. I prefer to be honest, rather than popular."

Then, how can she tell that someone is honest in their music or not?

"Oh, you can tell. Tune into MTV and you can see who is honest and who isn't. Who do you listen to?" She would ask.

You could mention some boybands, but she would not know them, anyway. Whoever you mention, don't you dare mention your Kenny G collection!

Luluk and Rene, whom she married on July 11, 1987, are now back in Jakarta to help organize the JakArt@2003 festival, for which she is working as festival manager.

"The festival is meant to bring the art out of the locals, because by nature, Indonesians are very artistic people," Luluk said.

"Indonesians are ethnically very diverse, and that's good; difference is good. Unlike the U.S., for example. They're the same from end to end."

Judging from her energy, Luluk will be around for a long time doing what she lives for -- playing her violin.

"But don't ask me about goals. I'm a goal-less person," she says enigmatically.