Java Jazz 2019: Festival, Diversity, and Community

One of the rewarding aspects of exploring Indonesian jazz communities is my relationship with members of Warta Jazz, an Indonesian jazz news source and website. What began as an organization to produce a monthly physical news bulletin in 1996 with the aim to socialize jazz in Yogyakarta, grew into an ecosystem[1] centered on jazz with festivals, workshops, archives, movie screenings, and educational events. As part of my participation in this ecosystem, I attended and took photos of the Java Jazz Festival 2019 held at the Jakarta International Expo in the northern Kemayoran subdistrict of Jakarta from March 1–3. This festival is a major annual highlight for the Indonesian jazz community and this year featured seventy-five Indonesian artists along with thirty-six international acts. The festival draws a largely Indonesian audience, although many foreigners, usually those working in Indonesia or nearby countries like Singapore, also attend. While official numbers have not yet been released, in previous years the audience was around 115,000 for this three-day festival.[2] Many people in the jazz community have been generally positive about the direction of the festival citing a concentrated effort by festival founder Peter Gontha, a well-known businessman and former Indonesian ambassador to Poland, and his daughter Dewi Gontha, who has guided the event’s programing for the past several years, to make the event more jazz focused. 

The idea of making the event “more jazz” is a critical theme throughout the Indonesian jazz community. In previous years, many have criticized the festival for ignoring the local jazz community in favor of popular music acts to attract larger crowds, causing some community members to boycott. During the festival, I often heard from audience members, performers, and organizers that the Java Jazz Festival “isn’t all jazz,” recapitulating the matter. Despite this concern, many Indonesian jazz musicians, organizers, archivists, and educators do attend every year and often present new works at this large-scale media event. The debate of “more jazz” focuses on how the word jazz is defined in and by the Indonesian community, a debate common to almost every jazz community. The varied positions in this debate seek to define the place of jazz in Indonesian society, signaling issues of authenticity and authority. How these positions are delineated and who has the authority to do the delineating reflects more about the classifiers than anything that became clear or strict demarcations for the Indonesian jazz community as a whole.

What this festival made evident was that Indonesian jazz musicians were hungry to hear international jazz performers live. Since jazz is a genre where individual performances and liveness are respected, this festival provides the major opportunity for Indonesian musicians to hear international jazz musicians outside of recorded formats. Most of the Indonesian musicians I spoke with were excited to hear international musicians like Gretchen Parlato, Robert Glasper and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah with super group R+R=Now, and GoGo Penguin. I, conversely, was completely stunned by the magnitude and quality of Indonesian musicians, even though I have been attending jazz events in Indonesia for over two years now. The Indonesian jazz musicians performed in a range of styles, from straight-ahead, modern (often meaning commercial), ethnik[3] (drawing up a variety of traditional Indonesian musics), and contemporary (often meaning experimental). These styles, just like the word "jazz," quickly became blurred as Real Book chops informed contemporary collaborations, and ensembles with traditional instruments belted out pop hits. Popular music ensembles added horn sections, extended solos, and outstanding players to make their music “more jazz.”

Three Diverse Groups

While an abundance of ensembles are worthy of attention, for this Notes From the Field account I will focus on three groups that caught my attention during my coverage for Warta Jazz: Anteng Kitiran, Indro Hardjodikoro, and simakdialog. The first group, Anteng Kitiran, is a Yogyakarta based ensemble featuring Eko Yuliantoro (violin), Krisna Pradipta Tompo (keyboard/piano), Gagah Pacutantra (drums), and Harly Yoga Pradana (bass).

Anteng Kitiran playing on the indoor demajor Lobby Stage March 2nd, 2019

The group’s compositions combine pelog and slendro tunings from Central Javanese gamelan with jazz modes and scales as well as hints of Western classical music training resulting in refreshing new sounds. The group is not fully dominated by any of these traditions, as violionist Eko Yuliantoro moves between kroncong[4] inspired legato while self-consciously infusing Central Javanese aesthetics and danceable grooves that feel both modern and refined.

The official music video for Anteng Kitiran’s “Gusti Pundi Mukjizat Dalem”

The group has only recently formed and has yet to formally release an album, but their compositions display the influence of the Yogyakarta jazz community associations from the Jazz Mben Senen and Ngayogjazz communities. Their mixture of traditional sounds and commercial aesthetics is similar to the well-known Yogyakarta group Kua Ethnika, who also blend traditional instruments like Yogyanese bonang[5] with a funk section consisting of bass, drum set, and guitar. Kua Ethnika’s blending allows for both tunings to exist simultaneously and has resulted in what Purwanta Ipung, their bonang and multi percussionist, has called rasa baru (new flavor/feeling) (Ipung 2018).

The second group is Indro Hardjodikoro and his festival ensemble, which featured drummer Elizer Robby, pianist Edwin Putro, and guitarist Yankjay Nugraha. Hardjodikoro is a longtime bassist in the Indonesian jazz community, playing in groups like Trisum, Halmahera, and simakdialog, as well as several projects with Erwin Gutawa and Tohpati. At Java Jazz, he presented songs from his new album Light On, which was released at the festival. Songs on the album feel lighter and sweeter than some of his other fusion projects, although his ensemble interpreted the songs with more festival-friendly grooves. While one would think Indro would be content showcasing his latest release, he premiered an upcoming project with Sruti Respati, a kroncong singer from Central Java. Their project locates jazz in the Indonesian patriotic, kroncong, film, and popular songs from the 1940s-1950s, even though those songs and genres were not labeled that way. Indro and Sruti performed a number of compositions by Ismail Marzuki[6] (the composer of many of Indonesia’s popular and patriotic songs from the 1930s-50s) and “Nurlela” by Bing Slamet, a pop star who was active from the late 1940s until the early 1970s.

Indro Hardjodikoro and Sruti Respati (Yankjay Nugraha in background) performing “Nurlela” originally performed by Bing Slamet on March 3rd, 2019


Indro and Sruti demonstrate how jazz has been a part of the Indonesian popular music repertoire for quite a while. Their project begins to unpack some of the complexities in Indonesian popular music history as many of artists from the 1950s and 1960s had a complicated relationship with the word "jazz." While many of the songs from this era have sonically recognizable jazz aesthetics, the word "jazz" does not appear in most of their descriptions. Rather, the songs are labeled as other genres such as hiburanirama lenso, or pop. It will be exciting to follow this project’s development, as Indro and Sruti continue to locate jazz in Indonesian patriotic songs, kroncong, and pop, and further highlight the connections of these earlier genres with the contemporary jazz community.


The last section of this piece is devoted to a slightly longer reflection on the group simakdialog, who officially premiered their new 2019 album GONG at the festival.[7] The story behind GONG is heartbreaking yet characterized with brilliant compositions and a spirited recording. The composer, pianist, and core of simakdialog — Riza Arshad — died in January of 2017 after only recording three of the album’s seven tracks. The thorough liner notes contain the full story of how this recording was carefully reconstructed from lost and jumbled data and completed with the help of Arshad’s pupil and inventive pianist, Sri Hanuraga (often shortened to Aga) along with support from Roullandi Siregar of Arsip Jazz Indonesia (The Indonesian Jazz Archive). The tracks Arshad recorded, such as the opening track “GONG 1,” reveal the depth of the connection between the piano trio of Arshad, bassist Rudy Zulkarnaen, and Sundanese kendang percussionist Cucu Kurina that then connects with Mian Tiara's particular and delicate vocals. Their aural bond, cultivated through listening and their long-term commitment to each other, allows them to intimately respond to each other, and foster a uniquely collaborative sonic space accentuated by their distinctive instrumentation.

Arshad’s compositions breathe life into a new musical language, blending jazz piano vocabulary with Sundanese music. All the melodic and harmonic material for each of the GONG (1-4) compositions is generated from the overtone series of different sized gongs.[8] One of these overtone series is explicitly stated in the opening phrase of "GONG 1," played by the piano:

(Score fragment from the GONG liner notes)

Also heard in this video:

simakdialog with Cucu Kurina (Sundanese percussion), Rudy Zulkarnaen (bass), Mian Tiara (voice, metal toys, and auxiliary percussion), and Sri Hanuraga (piano) performing an excerpt of “GONG 1” at Java Jazz Festival March 2nd, 2019

Arshad’s composition and solos in “GONG 1” often leave out many chord tones, allowing the progressions to be simultaneously interpreted along multiple lines. The piano solos also contain clusters of tones with several neighbor pitches, for example the solo in "GONG 1" (performed by Arshad) and the solo in "GONG 3" (performed by Aga), which craft a blurred quality. With their clashing fundamentals as well as simultaneously ringing overtone series, the pitches invoke something of the inbetween, perhaps an illusion of microtonality. The ability to connote other tuning systems on the piano through these clashing intervallic relationships pushes the instrument and ensemble into different modes and helps invoke new feelings. This is the sonic example of Arshad’s goal to synthesize jazz piano trio vocabulary with Sundanese music, which Aga artfully describes in the liner notes. “As early as 2002 he [Arshad] started using Sundanese kendang as a part of rhythm section for simakDialog’s album Trance Mission. He may not be the first to come up with the idea to use Sundanese kendang as a rhythm section in a jazz ensemble, but he had a bigger vision than his contemporaries in this regard” (Hanuraga 2019). This fusion of traditions can be heard elsewhere on the album including the downward runs during Aga’s piano solo in "GONG 3" and the gaps and pauses in Kurina’s concluding kendang solo in “GONG 1.” These performances make space, silence, and the inbetween an integral part of the sound.

This space created by the members of simakdialog follows in the tradition of Mile Davis’s second quintet, with a focus on intense intragroup listening and group improvisation based on bonded personal and musical journeys. The group listening tradition of Davis’s quintet can similarly be heard in the later ensembles of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and John McLaughlin. This group listening space cannot be attained simply by training but requires training together and committing to both the project and the players, something increasingly rare in the digitized, fast paced music industry.

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A display at the Java Jazz Festival 2019, acknowledging important figures from and for the Indonesian jazz community. Notable Indonesian jazz figures like Bubi Chen, Jack Lesmana, Dian Pramana Poetra, Riza Arshad, and Nick Mamahit (who has not been acknowledged until recently).

Simakdialog uses their discussions and diligent acts of listening to themselves and to other communities to foster their sound and cultivate their philosophy. Their name is a portmanteau: simak (Indonesian for attentive listening) with dia (Indonesian for her/him), lo (Betawi for you), and gue (Betawi for I).[9] In other words, the name means listening and discourse between her/him, you, and me. The group has for a long time been on the cutting edge of the contemporary Indonesian jazz community, pushing and creating new spaces through their rare drive to promote intercultural collaboration. Beyond combining new instrumentations, Arshad’s contribution to understand and incorporate Sundanese musical idioms into jazz composition has set a new standard for the Indonesian jazz community.

The release of GONG seemed to be one of the significant events at the Java Jazz Festival 2019, when founder Agus Setiawan Basuni updated his WhatsApp status to ‘Jazz Dia_lo^Gue’ a few weeks before Java Jazz 2019 festival. Roullandi Siregar from Arsip Jazz Indonesia — who helped simakdialog compile their recordings, support their tours, and produce GONG — also described this performance as one of the main events of Java Jazz 2019. Unfortunately, he could not get a desirable group photo during their performance on the barricaded stage, so we took a conciliatory photo with the promotional photo outside the venue instead.  

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Roullandi Siregar from Arsip Jazz Indonesia (The Indonesian Jazz Archive), posing next to the promotional photo for simakdialog’s new record GONG.

The Java Jazz Festival 2019, the 15th edition, helped present many of the current projects from Indonesian jazz community, from ventures that utilize their history in the present, those drawing on multiple traditions, and those forging new frontiers. This festival, with its high-ticket price, still demonstrates how jazz remains within an upper-class milieu. But this is no longer the only major festival in Indonesia, with many other events throughout the year such as Ngayogjazz, Ubud Village Jazz Festival, and Jazz Gunung providing other high-profile opportunities for Indonesia musicians. These other festivals along with the backgrounds and goals of the Indonesian jazz musicians and event organizers demonstrate how jazz has gradually become socialized within a larger Indonesian community.

While I highlighted the Indonesian jazz groups in this piece, I'd like to emphasize that this festival was also very much a commercial pop festival that hosted a band like the international rock group Toto as one of its headliners. A majority of the audience seemed just as interested in instagram-worthy photo opportunities as in the various national and international popular music acts. This placement of “real” jazz within popular music events is common in Indonesian festivals as promoters negotiate financial needs with aesthetic choices. While the “real” jazz acts often seek to distance themselves from pop, if one looks at historical examples such as Ismail Marzuki, one realizes that these styles have not always been so far apart.



Basuni, Agus Setiawan. 2017. “Dunia Jazz Indonesia berduka, pianis Riza Arshad wafat.” Accessed April 19, 2019.

Hanuraga, Sri. 2019. [Liner notes]. In GONG [CD]. Jakarta: demajors.

Indonesian Badan Ekonomi Kreatif Republik Indonesia. Recana Strategis Badan Ekonomi Kreatif Tahun 2015-2019. By Triawan Munaf. Released September 5th, 2017. Accessed April 19, 2019.

Jumlah Penonton Java Jazz 2005-2013”. Accessed March 21, 2013.

McGraw, Andrew. 2012. “The Ambivalent Freedoms of Indonesian Jazz.” Jazz Perspectives 6(3):273-310.

simakdialog. GONG. Demajors Independent Music Industry. 2019, Compact Disc.



Ipung, Purwanta. 2018. Interviewed by author. Bantul, Special Region of Yogyakarta, November 13, 2018.



[1] I am still examining the term ecosystem. In many of its promotions, Warta Jazz is called an “ecosystem” or “jazz ecosystem.” I believe, the term is often being used with a specific economic bent that has proliferated throughout Indonesian businesses and cultural projects. One example of an explicit definition comes from the strategic plan for the Badan Ekonomi Kreatif (Creative Economy Agency), which seeks to build, “ecosystems that are able to: (1) encourage growth new creative economy efforts; (2) increase the added value of creative products in the national economy; (3) produce top-quality products in the creative economy that can become known and enjoyed in the global market. Creative economic ecosystems include the availability of competent human resources, access to capital sources, business infrastructure, intellectual property rights, regulations, and institutions that create a conducive business climate to develop the creative economy" (translation by author).

MEMBANGUN EKOSISTEM yang mampu: (1) mendorong penumbuhan usaha baru ekonomi kreatif; (2) meningkatkan nilai tambah produk kreatif dalam perekonomian nasional; (3) menghasilkan produk unggulan ekonomi kreatif yang dikenal dan digemari di pasar global. Ekosistem ekonomi kreatif mencakup ketersediaan sumber daya manusia yang kompeten, akses jfmdjdjjfh ke sumber permodalan, infrastruktur usaha, hak kekayaan intelektual, regulasi, dan kelembagaan yang menciptakan iklim usaha yang kondusif kepada pengembangan ekonomi kreatif (Munaf 2017:16).

I want to especially thank Agus Setiawan Basuni and Ajie Wartono for their help, friendship, and invititing me to come to events to meet many great artists and organizers.

[2] The number of 115,000 is posted on the Java Jazz Festival Wikipedia page, and the number is quoted in a number of other journalistic articles. Official numbers have not been released since then and the original twitter post from the Java Jazz Festival page has since been removed. “Jumlah Penonton Java Jazz 2005-2013.

[3] Also called world musik jazzjazz etnik, and ethnic jazz. See McGraw (2012:301).
[4] Kroncong is an Indonesian musical style with a strong Portuguese influence prominently featuring ukulele-like instruments (called cak and cuk) played in an ensemble with flute, violin, guitar, a three-stringed cello played in pizzicato style, string bass in pizzicato style, and a female or male singer.

[5] The bonang is a musical instrument used in Javanese, Sundanese, and Surinamese gamelan. It is a collection of small pot gongs placed horizontally onto strings in a wooden frame. The Central Javanese bonang is either in slendro or pelog tuning.


[6] Although Marsuki is mainly known as a composer, he also played saxophone in 1936 with the Jazz Division of Lief Java (“Sweet Java”) Orchestra.


[7] Samples of the record can be heard here and purchased here

[8] The liner notes contain a longer history of Arshad’s interest in gongs and their overtone series. It remains unclear what or if any specific gongs or gong sets actually are used in the compositions or if they remained as inspiration to be further interpreted through the composition process.
[9] The Betawi language is the spoken language of the Betawi people in Jakarta, with many Hokkien Chinese, Arabic, and Dutch loanwords, and is frequently mixed with Indonesian slang terms. Lo and gue have multiple possible spellings and can be traced to the Hokkien Chinese words lu and gua.


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