Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Sawung Jabo bangs a gong for world music

By Sonya Sandham

SYDNEY (JP): If you thought you had heard the last of Sawung Jabo and his words of condemnation for social injustice, think again. He is back with more songs, a new outlook and a band with a difference.

Ten years on, Jabo is as passionate about his homeland as he was when, together with Iwan Fals, he penned the words to the song that gained him national notoriety -- Bongkar.

While Indonesia is still Jabo's primary inspiration, the social issues that influence his music have changed. He now finds himself torn between two loves.

"While I still consider myself to be an Indonesian who is a musician, I spend at least six months each year living in Australia with my wife and our two children," Jabo said. "I am forever commuting between Australia and Indonesia.

"It's really difficult but challenging because I love, really love, my family but I love Indonesia, too."

Jabo has lived in Australia since 1992 with his wife of 20 years Suzan Piper and their children, Johan, 18, and Shanti, 13, who both go to school in Sydney.

In Australia only a small but growing circle know who he is or the profound impact his songs have had on Indonesia's cultural landscape. In Australia he is just another musician with a dream.

This anonymity has prompted Jabo to change the way he presents his music and to form a Sydney-based band.

"My songs are written in Indonesian so the thrust of my statements have to come more from the dramatic staging of the show than what I say on stage," he said.

"With my new band, I had to find a different way of expressing the same thoughts. My songs now place less emphasis on political commentary which would not be understood by the largely English- speaking audience. Instead the performance itself makes statements with the use of sirens and military references, for instance.

"My music now is based more on traditional beats and rhythms in contemporary arrangements."

His new band, GengGong, was formed in 1999 and played throughout the political and economic crises consuming Indonesia. This took its toll on Jabo and he experienced periods of "black despair" as relations between Australia and Indonesian sank to their lowest point in 30 years.

"Through this band, the role of the musicians and my wife as manager is to work toward a good relationship between the cultures through the arts, and to spread the word from one person to another," Jabo said.

"My role in Australia is to introduce Indonesia to Australia. Sometimes the governments in Australia and Indonesia say things that have nothing to do with the people on either side of the problem, but it's always these people who are affected if something goes wrong."

Jabo said Indonesia had undergone a lot of changes, but he remains optimistic about the future. "I believe Indonesia is heading in the right direction, but not as quickly as I expected. I know it won't be easy. We've done a lot but there's still a lot to be done.

"I am still trying to understand the full extent of what's going on in Indonesia at the moment. It wouldn't be right for me to make statements about things I don't fully understand myself, so I would just say that I'm trying to assess the situation in Indonesia right now.

"The crisis had a big impact on me but I never lost my optimism or sense of humor. I kept writing music through these times because that's who I am.

"Indonesia is a never-ending source of inspiration for me. I am always inspired by everyday life. Anything, anytime."

Jabo and his band GengGong are currently on tour in Jakarta and have completed their first CD, which is yet to be released.

The band's members are all Sydney-based musicians with an Indonesian background or with a fascination with Indonesian culture.

Ron Reeves, who plays percussion, first met Jabo at the Akademi Musik Indonesia where Ron was a teacher and Jabo a student. Kim Sanders, who plays Turkish and Bulgarian wind instruments, toured with Jabo in Indonesia in 1996. The fourth member of the band, Australian-born Reza Achman, has been involved in the Indonesian community in Sydney and was a natural fit in the band thanks to ability on drums and percussion. All musicians have a strong interest in world music.

GengGong will be touring the country until the end of August. They will perform at the National Gallery on Aug. 21 at 8 p.m; in Desa Mangli, Jember, East Java, on Aug. 24 and Aug. 25; and at Desa Antasari in Bali on Aug. 27.

For more information about GengGong check out their website at or e-mail the band at