Riza Arshad of simakDialog

Dan: Hey Riza, how are you doing? Preparing for your NEARFest show in June? Don’t worry, we’ll ask you more about that later. Let me ask you something about each of your albums, starting with Lukisan. What does the name mean, and what are some of the track titles? What is the album about, if you could say it is about anything?

Riza: Lukisan means ‘picture’ or ‘painting’. It’s the first album of the Band which was recorded between 1994 – 1996. It was sort of telling what music the band was into during its early days. Presenting our music was just like an artist presents his painting. As the first debut in introducing our music, we were trying not to be too ‘difficult’ for listeners – where during mid 90s jazz base style of music was having hard times. Our purpose was clear to reintroduce and maintain the existence of alternative improvisational music – in our case mostly jazz-based music, but can also be others. We funded the project ourselves & distributed directly via one of major distributors. It was a bit unusual, at that time – every band and artist were supposedly distributed their albums through major record labels. What we did was sort of pioneering the early era of independent artist in National major music scene. I wrote 7 out of 9 songs in the album, amongst them are Zaman t’lah berganti (Time Has Changed), Tidak Mutlak (Inabsolute), Tak Berakhir (Never Endings), Kerinduan (Longing for you). While Tohpati wrote 2 songs – originally untitled, then I put title of the songs later on.

Dan: Tell us about the music on this album – it’s very light compared to stuff you would produce later. Very mellow, and some vocals in Indonesian, as far as I can tell.

Riza: We were heavily influenced by more European jazz style (all those ECM, new age), which was quite popular amongst my generation. The cross-over between classical/jazz with more electronic. The only song with vocal actually was not sung in Indonesian language, it was a Florenese language – a certain tribe language that comes from Flores island, eastern part of Indonesia. Since Indonesia has a very vast cultural diversity across the country, I think it was a good idea to put this as part of the album. A good friend of mine vocalist/guitarist Ivan Nestor wrote the lyric and sung the song.

Dan: I ask the same question about Baur that I did about Lukisan – what does it mean and what is it about? Also, why did you decide to include some English track titles here?

Riza: ‘Baur’ was the continuity of ‘Lukisan’. Baur literally means ‘Mixed’- we felt we had come to a period of maturity in presenting our music compared to ‘Lukisan’. The way we communicated as a band became more intense and solid – especially playing in this ‘regular’ jazz quartet format. I wrote 6 out of 10 compositions; 1 was done together with Tohpati (‘The Tramp’) and the other 1 was written by Indro Hardjodikoro (‘Australia’). ‘Du Wangka’ was written with Ivan Nestor and the title track ‘Baur’ was written by the band. The rest of the songs entitled ‘Getting Closer’, ‘Tak Dinyana’, ‘Mahesa’, ‘One Has to Be’, ‘No More Flirt’. My other collaboration with Ivan Nestor was continued in this album, we wrote an opening tune ‘Du Wangka’ which is Florenese language means ‘let’s start the session’. He helped me put some words on ‘The Tramp’ as well.

Dan: The music on this album is different as well. In fact, people who have only heard Demi Masa would probably be very surprised if they heard these two albums. This one is more similar to standard jazz, in my opinion. Tell us about it.

Riza: I guess, Baur clearly told what the band and its creative direction were all about. It was a standard quartet jazz format that was possible to expand itself in presenting the music, with no necessary to bring the 5th, 6th other person into the band formally. As much as possible we were able to do any performance only with 5 piece-band at the most. We treated it as an ensemble – a small orchestra as we love expanding sound & composition to unlimited zone. But later on I felt it did not represent what we actually had as we had grown up – there was a ‘disconnection’ kind of feeling that made the music was a little bit ‘dull’ in a sense of getting on the basic groove (or “spirit”) of the music.

Dan: The third album is titled Trance/Mission, but I must admit I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. Would you mind telling me (and the audience) what we’ve been missing?

Riza: This album marked the physical metamorphoses of the band – we started to bring more influences we had as an ensemble that grows in the place we live – Java island. It was the beginning of a cross culture process – where Sundanese instrument/percussion took major role as time keeper. Things shifted – the way we wrote and presented musical harmony and composition too. That what made this album sounds way different to the previous two. It’s a contemporary jazz group with Sundanese/Javanese flavor. I felt the band started to have a significant identity and gave compliments in the music scene. That’s how we titled this album ‘trance/mission’– which means a lot to us – to let ourselves in trance stage in this transition mission. There are 11 songs in this album. I wrote 10 out of it while one was written by Tohpati. Most of the songs tell about how we felt of being in transition spheres like ‘this Spirit’, ‘Throwing Words’, ‘All In a Day’’, ‘Promising Leads’, ‘Finding the Path’, ‘Unfaded Hopes’, ‘Sampan (Sailboat)’.

Dan: The next album, Patahan, is a rather standard jazz live album – meaning it’s huge and full of improvisations and expansions of themes you composed in other albums. Tell us about this album.

Riza: Patahan is continuation to trance/mission – the band was offered to held a sort of collaboration concert with Tjut Nyak Ina Raseuki a.k.a Ubiet, a most respectful Acehnese ornamentalist/vocalist. At that time we had prepared some materials for the next album and had thought of putting all tracks in the studio. Goethe Institut – the German cultural center came along the way and initiated an idea to commemorate & appreciate whom who had worked in restructuring Aceh province post tsunami. It was a beautiful project. I titled ‘Patahan’ in geological terms means ‘fault’ – a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, across which there has been significant displacement that caused tsunami. In a sense, we went in to a deeper musical understanding that generated such experiences we never had before. We thought that those certain feelings had put us into unusual yet great situation musically. This happened in my composition ‘Kemarau’, where we tried an alternative way in composing the music since the impact of blending this intensive Sundanese rhythm pattern began to blow our mind. This album also marked the beginning of no longer using regular drum in the band. The other tune ‘Wothseeing’ was inspired by the beautiful Nepal scenery as we performed there in 2004.

Dan: Finally, two years ago you released the wonderful Demi Masa – like Lukisan full of Indonesian, but unlike it (at least to untrained ears such as my own) full of native musical elements. Demi Masa seems to have garnered a great deal of praise from across the prog and jazz worlds – are you satisified with what has been said about it? I certainly think it deserves the praise it has garnered. Do you see it as a great work?

Riza: I’m so grateful to see those who have listened and got the message of the music so well. This is our main goal – addressing right message to the right people. simakDialog’s music has shifted through a quite long process to be accepted as contemporary music across the globe. Until today, we still gather doing weekly workshop to find what’s the next musically. Our three great Sundanese percussionists – Endang Ramdan (prime), Erlan Suwardana (2nd) and Cucu Kurnia (metal toys) reside in Bandung – 2 hours drive to our home base in Jakarta. We know and realize that it is not that much yet that we can do in doing regular concerts or tours due to our limited sponsor support. But after 18 yrs this year I hope things will change. We are keen in bringing and sharing what we have to everyone everywhere. That what sharing is all about.

Dan: It must be a great honor to have been asked to play at NEARFest 2011. What should I expect from simakDialog when I attend the show?

Riza: Thank you very much, the pleasure is ours. We are now preparing our 6th album. We will present a deeper concept from what we usually have done to the music, which is basically continuing what we have accomplished in the past. Just open your heart and ears.

Nick: I notice some elements of free jazz in your performing. I don’t know if it’s the way you use your Fender Rhodes that makes me feel that vibe. Is this intentional or am I crazy?

Riza: (laughs) No, we are the insanes :) I intentionally did that, I admit jazz is my musical roots despite of classic and rock. I’m so crazy and get inspired by its presence. The reason of putting Rhodes in the music is to mimic what we have in a gamelan orchestra which is the ‘cling’ sound of Rhodes presenting gamelan in a way – even though I love to play acoustic piano too for some reasons in the band. It’s soo jazz and exotic when the sound blends with these sundanese percussion section. Open improvisation on ‘Tak Jauh’ is intentionally done to marks the existence of jazz influence the band has.

Nick: What can you tell us about the history of Indonesian jazz?

Riza: It is not so clear of when jazz landed in Indonesia. Some says during the 30s and some on the 20s. As far as I know, since early 40s jazz has started its debut in Indonesia due to its big role on mainstream industry as any part around the globe. There were Indonesian musicians in that generation moved to Netherland and started their career there.

Nick: How much have you been influenced by Jack Lesmana or Bubi Chen?

Riza: I studied jazz music from Jack Lesmana. He’s sort of role model to me in educating, sharing and passing the music to the next generation. His role was so important in influencing new generation to jazz in Indonesia. Bubi is one of the most important piano player in Asia. Downbeat magazine once crowned him and aware of his presence. I pay great respect to him and admit him as one of my big influences in jazz. Glad that I had opportunity playing with them.

Nick: Also, what can you say about today’s Indonesian jazz scene?

Riza: Like in anywhere in the world, jazz never plays major role in the music industry however big in music scene since nowadays wehave 12 jazz festivals across the country. Everyone starts to adapt it as part of their life style, even though not necessary ‘real straight ahead’ kind of jazz. Sweet and light stuff that most people like it. Also, community based activity is the most popular thing to do across the country. Like in Java, some small cities have solid jazz community. Although the understanding of jazz terms varies in many places, this marks the openness of creative mind amongst its audience.

Nick: It seems like Tohpati and simakDialog do pretty well, but what about others?

Riza: We have other good players around in big cities in Java like Jakarta, Bandung, Jogja. Some good players who are just graduated from good school abroad help the music to spread. Unlike most musicians in my generation, these are promising talented musicians and they deserve to be exposed in the future, you watch.

Nick: How important is the Indonesian musical legacy when it comes to composing music for you?

Riza: Indonesia has a huge culture diversity, and each ethnic group has certain system of presenting their music. Most of them are ancient music. They have been around for more than 1000years. I have been a big fan of one them – the Sundanese music. I grew up in Sundanese environment that comes from my Mother side. I pay so much attention to the intriguing rhythm that are produced by Sundanese drum (kendang). Then adapted it naturally. It is so irresistible of not including this amazing instrument for a musician like me. They are so real and inspiring. We need the legacy to define from which point are you actually stand, come and start presenting your music – it’s become basic point of awareness to every creative worker who need significant character in their achievement. In order to be noticed this also important. Diversity (?) For most creative worker who are aware of environment where they live being inspired, absorbed and adopted thing they find out of it is the ultimate way of achieving their works. Their achievement must have inherited thing that belongs to where they come and grow from. This will define their identity as a complete artist. That’s natural and what supposedly happen. We are not living in a factory or in any environment that has an established system. For me passing what I have got as inspiration from other to other people is the most thing what creative people are to live for.

Dan: Tell us about some of the influences we haven’t covered yet in our previous questions.

Riza: Some well respected Indonesian contemporary musicians/composers – amongst them are Wayan Sadre, Tony Prabowo, Rahayu Supanggah, Rafly.

Nick: Do you see it as your mission to spread Indonesian jazz to the world?

Riza: Yeah, you and everybody may say that.

Dan: Since you’re sort of our window into this mysterious world we call Indonesian music, would you mind telling us what you know about this concept Robert Fripp of King Crimson calls “Gamelan”, and apparently included in his album Discipline?

Riza: I had listened to what he has done with KC more than 30 yrs ago, but haven’t heard particularly what he’s been done with gamelan. I can’t give any further comment, unfortunately. My guess is, he was intrigued by the way gamelan orchestra play its music with its interlocking system and harmony orchestration (with certain scale). That could make some listeners to know and dig more.

Dan: Can you tell us about the instruments/gear you use to record and play live? We would be very interested to hear about some of the “ethnic” instruments employed on Demi Masa.

Riza: We‘ve been using Rhodes mark I or II Or V, OB8 (not OB-Xa) or Roland Jupiter 8 or Mac computer equipped with Mainstage for soundscaping, midi-ed electric guitars with outboard efx, fretted electric bass, 2 sets of Sundanese kendang (or drum), metal toys (metal percussions that mostly comes from gamelan orchestra).

Dan: I think I’m done with my questions, is there anything you’d like to add before we finish?

Riza: Pass the inspiration you have got to others – that’s what I believe what we live for.

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