• Bluesukan outside Studio 8 / Photo: Prama Hanindia Wirakusuma

  • Reyog Jazz Ponorogo 2019 / Photo: Otto Stuparitz

  • Jason Limanjaya at the Bluesukan session / Photo: Prama Hanindia Wirakusuma

  • Uwa Farell and Jason Limanjaya / Photo: Prama Hanindia Wirakusuma

  • Cucu Kurina at the Bluesukan session / Photo: Prama Hanindia Wirakusuma

  • Band with Studio 8 recording team / Photo: Prama Hanindia Wirakusuma

Bluesukan combines jazz and West Javanese traditions

Otto Stuparitz, Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology, discusses the central role of dialogue in Sundanese traditional music and jazz improvisation, as well as the coming album release by his ensemble Bluesukan.

By Otto Stuparitz
Otto Stuparitz received a 2018–2019 Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship from the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and an Indonesian Studies Travel Grant to conduct research in summer 2019.

During my field research on the historiography of Indonesian jazz, I founded a quartet with Jason Limanjaya on piano, Cucu Kurina on the Sundanese kendang (drum), Uwa Farell on the Sundanese suling (bamboo flute) and myself on electric bass. We called ourselves Bluesukan, a portmanteau of the Indonesian word blusukan and the blues.

Our group focuses on making music by creating spaces for attentive listening and dialogue. We draw inspiration from other ensembles in Indonesia’s jazz community, especially the group simakDialog. Currently, we are in the process of releasing a seven-track album, with five compositions and two alternative takes. It was recorded in October 2019 at Studio 8 in Bandung, mixed at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music Studio, and is now in the mastering stage for release this summer.

The Practice of Blusukan

Blusukan means an informal, impromptu visit by a political figurehead with local people. The practice has often been undertaken by Indonesian politicians to get to know and understand their constituents. It can be traced through Javanese history as an affable cultural form of interpersonal communication between rulers and citizens.

During his 2014 presidential campaign, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo embraced this practice by regularly visiting dense urban kampungs (villages). It allowed Jokowi to build an image of himself as a politician who listens to the needs of people, which he could then integrate into populist policies and deliverable services. Blusukan is perceived as supporting a more representative democracy and expanding direct engagement between the Indonesian central government and communities on the ground.

I first encountered the practice on my way to renew my visa in Bandung. Near the immigration office, a large crowd of onlookers had spilled onto the street as Jokowi was conducting a blusukan at Pasar Suci for his 2019 presidential reelection campaign. Obviously, I missed my appointment.

The Inspiration for the Name Bluesukan

As a creative outlet during my ethnographic research into archival narratives of jazz in Indonesia, I had begun performing older Indonesian compositions, such as Bing Slamet’s “Nurlela,” with one of my close friends in Bandung, pianist Jason Limanjaya. We played at events in central Bandung through the community organization Jazzuality as well as jam sessions at Klub Jazz and the TP Stage.

Jason wrote a new 16-bar blues composition, which he called “Bluesukan,” combining blusukan and the blues. The song showcases Jason’s modern jazz skills as well as his interest in Sundanese traditional music. His composition uses his own interpretation of the Sundanese pelog mode within an improvisational jazz structure, resulting in something on the fringes of both traditions.

The group Bluesukan began through this collaboration. The idea of a musical exchange between jazz and traditional Indonesian music is not new. However, the intention of our project, inspired by the practice of blusukan, was to attentively foster connections between Bandung’s jazz and traditional music community.

See a short promotional video for Jason Limanjaya’s composition, “Canggu.”

Forming the Group

The other two musicians who joined the group, Cucu Kurina and Uwa Farell, have backgrounds in the traditional Sundanese music of West Java. They have both participated in projects that blend this experience with elements of jazz, blues and rock. I knew Cucu from his work with well-known jazz ensemble simakDialog. At his recommendation, I had been taking kendang lessons with Endang Ramdan, who had also played with simakDialog.

When I met Cucu at Institute Seni Budaya Bandung (Indonesian Arts Institute Bandung) in 2019, we discussed why the Sundanese kendang is featured more often in jazz ensembles compared to other Indonesian drums and drumming styles. During late-night conversations with coffee and cigarettes, we talked about ways traditional kendang rhythms could be applied to jazz compositions.

Cucu’s path toward becoming an in-demand drummer for Indonesia’s jazz community began through a collaboration with the founder of simakDialog, Riza Arshad. Arshad, who recently passed away, is known for his unique style of music. He studied traditional kendang patterns so he could better apply this rhythmic feeling into his jazz compositions and solos. The group’s most recent posthumous 2019 release, “Gong,” is a clear example of this approach.

The name of Arshad’s group, simakDialog, combines several words: simak (Indonesian for attentive listening), dia (Indonesian for she/he), lo (Betawi for you) and gue (Betawi for I). The name simakDialog mirrors the group’s music-making process, which employs diligent acts of listening and discussion to cultivate their distinct sound and philosophy. Jason and I sought to echo this music-making outlook in our name Bluesukan and acknowledge the historical position of jazz as middle- to upper-class music in Indonesia.

The Bluesukan members have played with each other in other configurations. Jason Limanjaya had played with Cucu on a project with guitarist and vocalist Nayra Dharma. Uwa Farell played at community events with the other members using his blues inflected suling in the Bandung-based band, West Java Syndicate.

After Bluesukan played a few gigs in Bandung’s central Braga district and an out-of-town performance in Indramayu, the quartet came together to record its first album. Please enjoy this meeting of worlds through listening and dialogue:

A freestyle drawing by Vannya Anjani for the song “Barang-Barang Paling Kesukaanku.”

The final seven-track recording is being mastered at Manifest Music in Santa Monica and is expected to be digitally released this summer. There are two tracks available for free streaming with a donation option through Bandcamp, Spotify and most other streaming platforms.

All proceeds for this project go back to the musicians, who cannot presently perform or tour, and have limited teaching opportunities during this lockdown period of the novel coronavirus pandemic.