Jakarta. Yogyakarta’s avant-garde theater troupe Teater Garasi staged “Menara Ingatan” (“Minaret of Memory”), the group’s rendition of a traditional art performance originating from Banyuwangi, East Java, called gandrung, on Wednesday and Thursday (May 24-25) at Teater Kecil Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, Central Jakarta.

Helmed by digital artist and music composer Yennu Ariendra, the performance offered a fresh take on the traditional art form using experimental electronic music and dance numbers, and introduced darker themes to the story.

“Last year we held a concert with the same title, inspired by the mythology of the Blambangan Kingdom in Banyuwangi, but it was just a musical performance then. We’ve now expanded it into muziktheater, the German term for music-based theatrical performance. It took us two months to develop it,” Yennu told reporters after the show on Wednesday.

Gandrung is traditionally a three-act stage play combining traditional music and dances native to the Osing people of Banyuwangi, East Java. The three acts are called jejer, paju and seblang subuh.

According to local stories, gandrung was created by the first regent of Banyuwangi called Mas Alit. Gandrung troupes roamed the country, visiting hamlets of war-torn Osing people who had to flee from their homes as the Blambangan Kingdom — the last Hindu kingdom in the area, surviving until the 17th century — fell into decline.

Behind the excitement it brought as entertainment, gandrung spoke of rebellion and survival. “Osing” itself literally means “no,” a reminder of the tribe’s valiant struggle against newer powers, including the formidable Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Kingdom, the Kingdom of Bali, the Mataram Sultanate and then right at the end, the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC).

Banyuwangi’s Dark History

Yennu, a native of Banyuwangi, used gandrung as a platform not only to retell historical tales of his birthplace, but also to express his memories of the place and give glimpses of his view on modern Indonesia.

“We can use gandrung to talk about anything without ruining the composition. I want to show repeated patterns of coercion and violence in Indonesia. We have to remember, Blambangan Kingdom also collapsed under political pressure,” he said.

Yennu’s modern take on gandrung was partly inspired by a succession of genocides that the people of Banyuwangi experienced in the second half of the twentieth century: the 1965-1966 anti-communist pogrom, the “petrus” killings in the early 1980s and the 1998 “ninja-style” killings of local leaders accused of being black magic practitioners.

In 2008, Yennu collaborated with artists from other disciplines, including dalang (puppet master) Ki Catur Kuncoro and sinden (Javanese traditional opera singer) Soimah. Their main subject was the often violent political conflicts within the Mataram Sultanate.

However, Yennu never felt satisfied with the form of the collaborations.

“This has been a long process. I almost gave up. Then I went home to Banyuwangi and talked to the people there. That was when my memories of the place were rekindled and I realized that gandrung was the perfect form for what I want to convey,” Yennu, who also plays guitar and synth for indie band Melancholic Bitch, said.

Reinventing Gandrung

Yennu took the traditional gandrung’s structure and political message to a new level. In muziktheater, which goes beyond musicals and operas, the story is primarily told by the music. In “Menara Ingatan,” that took the form of a mash-up of electronic music, traditional gamelan and dangdut — with a sinden and a female rapper singing lines in Indonesian and Javanese. There were also some acoustic ballads to break up the rhythm.

The actors and musicians also used farming and mechanical implements like hoes and crowbars as percussion instruments to create natural rhythms during the show.

Dangdut koplo, a variant of dangdut which mashes up dangdut rhythms with trance and often features erotic dances, was also inserted in the second act.

“Koplo was featured in paju [the second act] because traditionally it’s the place to talk about encounters and clashes. It’s the perfect place to talk about today’s pop phenomena in the play. Originally, paju featured dancers throwing their sashes around members of the audience accompanied by kendang [drums] music,” Gunawan Maryanto, co-director of the play and one of the performers in the show, said.

Instead of seductive dangdut dancers, actors wearing dog masks danced during the koplo scene.

“The inspiration for that was the Minak Jinggo character, one of the kings of Blambangan. He was supposed to have a human body and a dog’s head. He represents the stubbornness and rebelliousness of the Osing people. Mataram and Bali couldn’t defeat them. It was only the VOC that finally managed to suppress them,” Gunawan added.

Gunawan, an actor best known recently for his award-winning performance as poet Wiji Thukul in the biopic “Istirahatlah Kata-Kata” (“Solo, Solitude”), played a big part in the narrative development.

“Though most of the script was music, a theatrical performance still needed events. We had to work out what types of events to include and how the lyrics could correspond to them. The process was mainly intuitive, interpreting how a song made us feel and building an event on top of that,” said Gunawan, whose poetry book “Sejumlah Perkutut Buat Bapak” (“Turtledoves for Father”) won a Khatulistiwa Literary Award in 2010.

The staged events involved actors and dancers and were not necessarily interconnected, but each served a purpose.

“There are men knocking on doors. They could be husbands who never came home because many Osing people were separated by war from each other. The wagon onstage also represented that separation. Gandrung was a performance on the move, so the wagon represented its history and also the history of the Osing people as perpetual refugees,” Gunawan said.

A total of 14 artists from different disciplines were involved in “Menara Ingatan,” including Belkastrelka singer Asa Rahmana, playwright Ugoran Prasad and visual artist Timoteus Anggawan Kusno.

The performance turned out to be a surprise hit. Initially, there was only one show scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Since ticket booking exceeded expectation, the organizers decided to add another show on Thursday afternoon.