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A Seed takes Root

by Douglas Myers

In the short space of twenty years West Java has seen the birth of a dance form which is already "traditional". It is an interestign comment on the cultural adaptation of the Indonesian people.

Much is written on the "demise" of culture but very little is written about the "birth" of new forms.

Jaipongan is an excellent example of the virility of the Indonesian people and their culture and the way in which cultural change takes place with a natural momentum.

The musical arts of Sunda include some of the most beautiful sounds in the world. The gamelan Sunda, the gamelan degung, the Kecapi with either suling (flute) or vocal accompaniment all provide moments of rare musical beauty. The Kecapi, when played as a solo instrument using the sorog scale can emulate the "koto" of Japan and rival it in beauty.

This is the story of the birth of a dance form. Culture is the way in which people live and interact by mutual agreement. Dance and music are expressions of the emotions of a culture. The performing artist has the role of expressing the artistic and aesthetic elements from within the community. He expresses his creativity through performance and the community accepts this by showing interest and appreciation. Three factors make a performance; the performer - the performance - the appreciation of the audience. The rewards of performance are gained through the design (choreography) and creativity of the performer.

There was a boy who lived in Sunda. His father was a Silat enthusiast, that is to say he specialised in the Indonesian form of the martial arts. Often martial arts performances are presented with a musical accompaniment. The boy's mother played the Kecapi, a zither commonly found in Sunda. As a young child, Gugum was already familiar with both the traditional music of his homeland and the sophisticated control of the body which his father demonstrated. His family environment was one where music and movement combined to influence his outlook for the future.

At school Gugum was introduced to a new world of sound which included the western diatonic scale. He warmed to this and by the time he had entered high school he had joined the band and begun his career as a musician. Then came a directive from above which said that western style music was no longer to be used in schools and that there should be a concentration on the local culture. Gugum became more interested in Sundanese instruments and culture during his last years at high school and continued this interest as he studied accountancy and administration at university.

As he grew older he looked around him at the traditional forms of music and dance in Sunda. He was a young and virile man. He wanted to move. He wanted to express his vigour. Within the range of cultural dances available to he there was nothing which he felt allowed him to express what he wanted to say. The dances were too slow and constrained to allow the movements of the impetuous young man, expression. Dance must be rhythmic and beautiful. A universal element is that it allows individual expression. It is also a social art as the performance must relate to its receiving culture in order to be appreciated.

Between the years 1971 and 1974 Gugum continued his search fro a performance model which would interest his peers. He read many books and talked to many people about the problem. He decided that the answer lay in making his own dance. He worked on a scenario for body movement. He came to the conclusion that there should be room for the dancer to express the feeling of the moment, that is, room for improvisation as part of the dance scenario. A dynamic dance which also reflected the mood of the society.

Jaipongan is a social dance for young people. It differs from other dances of this type in that it demands certain standards from the dancers, in fact, the following of the basic choreography is very important.

First and foremost it is a performance which has its own choreography, musical accompaniment and a style which not all performers will be a able to achieve. It requires the skill gained from courses in dancing this particular dance and therefore demands a higher level of interest than normal.

Having settled on the basic dance form Gugum now had to translate the music from his mind into sound. He looked for a musician. He selected a man, younger than himself, to play a drum accompaniment. The first quality he looked for in his accompanist was the same vigour which he wished to express in the dance. The drummer he chose liked the limelight. He did not use the traditional constraint but flourished his drum strokes in a new way and was able to add the flavor for which Gugum was looking.

Gugum experimented with various musical patterns. When he was unable to drum them, he sang the patterns to the drummer and the drummer would then perform them. To build up further musical parts for performance, other drummers were added one by one to represent the gamelan instruments which were not yet available. The already choreographed dance was coming to life with a specific musical accompaniment. A touch of Sundanese tradition was added when his wife began to sing in the traditional Sundnese style to accompany the rehearsals.

Gugum was never quite satisfied. In 1978 the Indonesian department of Education and Culture was looking for a group to send to Hong Kong to represent the country in an International Festival of Folklore. Enoch Atmadibrata, a man who knew the culture of the Sunda area better than most asked Gugum for permission to attend a rehearsal of the new dance for. While complying, Gugum pointed out that the dance was not yet ready for serious performance. Atmadibrata disagreed.

The group was chosen to go to Hong Kong. Help was given to find all the right instruments needed for performance and suddenly the new dance form had come of age. Here was a new dance from Sunda, about to be seen abroad and nationally which had seldom been performed in its homeland. Bandung did not yet know the dance.

The patronage of Enoch Atmadibrata helped to establish the new form quickly in its local area of West Java. In 1979 it had its "coming out" at a Festival of People¹s Dance which was held in the Gedung Merdeka in Bandung. It was overwhelmingly received. It was difficult to get into the performance as many more people wanted to attend than could be accommodated. After this Atmadibrata arranged a seminar where Gugum, as principal dancer and choreographer, explained some of the concepts behind the dance.

Its name, Jaipongan had been derived from the sounds use to teach the drum in the Sunda area. As early as 1974 the word "jai-i-pong" was being used to entertain in performances by Ali Saban in the local Topeng Banjet group from the village of Karawang. It had not been attached to the dance which was being developed independently at that time and was still nameless. The three distinct sounds made on the drum were vocalised as "jai-i-pong" The dance became known as Jaipongan.

The performance of the dance was based upon three stages of skill. Although the style of dancing known in the Priangan as Ketuk Tilu, which was most popular with the people of the area from about the year 1917 until the sixties, was the basis of Jaipongan style it was also influenced by the styles used in Silat and by improvisation. The latter can be added by the performer to express himself and might not conform with either Silat or Ketuk Tilu.

Silat or Topeng Styles

The music was based on the Sundanese gamelan but the styles of drumming were quite different. Indonesian national television featured the group and suddenly the dance was a national sensation. The dance quickly became popular in Bandung and the Sundanese area. The group was in constant demand. Officials were shocked by what they saw as "suggestive" movements in the improvised sections of the dancing. I was maintained that the dance was "too fast" and it was described as "erotic". The tight guidelines of the dance make it difficult to describe as "erotic" as it is strictly seated on the basic choreography. Nevertheless the performance of the dance was banned. Popular demand was already assuring the success of the form and now the ban sent the dance "underground" and made it even more desirable. The ban was local. Outside the area of Sunda, the dance could still be performed.

The ban was in force from 1981 to 1983. Gugum started a school to train performers and teachers of the dance. The course which thoroughly trained people in all three levels had many graduates and they took the dance to many parts of Indonesia where it became one of the set types of performance taught in Dance Academies across the nation. Groups from many parts of Indonesia performed it throughout the world. The school has issued 660 diplomas since it started. The group based in the school have toured to Hong Kong, Japan, Bangkok and the USA and have recently toured in Europe. Performances can accommodate up to 100 dancers at a time but usually consist of about ten. The minimum number is five.

Money has been made by the performing groups and money has been made by the recording stars who have made cassettes to satisfy the need for the music nationwide as the form has become more popular.

While it may be easy to criticize Jaipongan for being "commercial" its success boils down to popular taste. An interesting aspect of its acceptance in the West Java area was a distinct decrease in cultural influences from outside Indonesia. People in this area were much more likely to buy a Jaipongan cassette than one of western music and for a period discos declined in favour of Jaipongan. That the younger generation of today prefer the music of Jaipongan to other traditional music is not a bad thing. It says something about the times in which we live and it is good that they enjoy this music so much.

Looking back at the age of forty nine on his achievements, Gugum sees Jaipongan as a dance which has been born out of the essence of the traditions of West Java. He says "the people receive" because the improvisation which is possible within the form allows them to express both their talent and their culture in a special way. The West Java area has always had a strong tradition of the martial arts (Silat) and the members of these groups also found it easy to join in Jaipongan dancing. There is also a strong tradition of pantomime in the area which makes it very easy for people to see the improvised sections as an outlet for theatre performance.

Like all popular art forms, Jaipongan has adapted to the needs of the community. One of the problems of "traditional" performance ,is that it happens at certain specific times and for certain reasons and often in seclusion. Jaipongan has broken down these barriers. It now exists in the popular dance arena and can be found at the local disco in Bandung. It is more than just a folk dance or a free type of dance without design because the limitations of the improvisation have already been set by the creator of the dance. That it has become also a dance which is used throughout the nation and is therefore now "Indonesian culture" is something very special. Well done Jaipongan!

This article first appeared in The Archipelago Vol 1. No 5
Copyright 1992. Douglas Myers

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