Joko Susilo: The Master of Wayang

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It seems Joko Susilo was born to be a dhalang, a master of the Javanese art of wayang kulit (shadow puppetry). Originating from the Central Javanese village of Mojopuro and now based at the University of Otago in New Zealand, Joko performs for audiences around the world. On his frequent visits to Australia, he introduces the magic of wayang kulit to curious spectators and aspiring musicians. Coming from a long line of dhalangs, Joko began following his father to observe the action of wayang kulit shows from the age of three. “From that age, I began to develop a deep knowledge of the stories, characters and melodies of the gamelan,” explains Joko. “I held my first all-night solo wayang kulit show when I was ten years old.”

After finishing high school in 1982, Joko enrolled at Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia (STSI) in the city of Solo to pursue pedalangan (puppetry) at a tertiary level. After graduating in 1986, he became a lecturer in the pedalangan department at STSI. “For almost ten years, I continued to perform all-night wayang kulit plays while lecturing at STSI.” A major turning point occured when Joko moved to New Zealand in 1993 to pursue an MA followed by a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Otago University.

Since moving overseas, Joko realised that he would have to alter his shows to appeal to western, English-speaking audiences. “When overseas, I always use English for the narration (janturan), dialogue (ginem) and the pocapan (narration unaccompanied by the gamelan),” he explains. Conducting something so deeply-rooted in Javanese tradition for a non-Indonesian audience is no easy feat.

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Joko the dhalang in action

“Firstly, of course, not all Javanese language can be translated directly into English without losing some of the essential meaning.” Also, Joko stresses that certain Javanese values don’t always mesh with a western audience. “I have to be selective in making the dialogue. Western audiences don’t like much repetition and the story needs to get to the point.” The way the puppets move (sabet) also needs to be changed because according to Joko, “In Java they tend to use a lot of violence in the shows.” The jokes are probably the hardest part. “A lot of jokes popular in Indonesia would not go down well overseas, including the ones associated with saru (pornographic) style wayang.”

 As a lecturer at the University of Otago, the vast majority of his students are from a non-Indonesian background. “When it comes to teaching my students gamelan, I have to introduce everything in careful detail, explaining the name and function of each instrument in the ensemble. It can be very confusing for the uninitiated and not all of my students come from a musical background. I give them lots of listening tasks,” says Joko. Learning gamelan isn’t something that happens overnight. “I also need to be patient as I introduce the basic techniques so that they learn to play properly.” Starting with more western style melodies, Joko gradually immerses his students into the original sounds of Java. “With careful guidance, my students become skilled gamelan musicians.”

Joko makes frequent visits to Australia as a guest of a number of universities. In particular, he often collaborates with universities with a gamelan set but without a native Indonesian teacher. Reflecting on his experience, Joko says, “At first, I find that these students only play the gamelan based on what they read off the sheet music, without any feeling. It’s always a challenge to add some variation to the way they play and deviate from what is written in front of them.”

Other times, when he leads a group who have an Indonesian teacher, things don’t always go smoothly. “Although originating from Indonesia, the teacher may have been in Australia for a very long time and as a result, may not up be to date on the latest trends in gamelan,” claims Joko.

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With his talented team after this year’s performance at Griffith University

He adds, “That’s where difficulties arise because I like to use new songs, patterns and different techniques in my shows. Sometimes the Indonesian teachers aren’t too receptive to these changes.” In any case, Joko always enjoys great success with his wayang shows. “I receive good feedback from the gamelan groups I work with as well as from audiences.” Joko has been working with the Griffith University Conservatorium in Brisbane for the last eight years every semester, culminating with an evening performance of wayang kulit, Javanese dance gamelan.  “I also work with Melbourne University, Monash, Flinders University and the University of Tasmania.”

 When tailoring a performance to meet the needs of western and Indonesian audiences, Joko describes a number of key points to keep in mind. “In Indonesia, the audience is already used to hearing the special language of wayang as well as the sounds of the gamelan. Overseas, we have to adapt our shows to meet the expectations of the audience and the capability of the local musicians. I usually pick out more ‘catchy’ tunes. The traditional compositions we use also need to be particularly touching.” The challenge of appealing to an Indonesian audience lies in originality and pushing the boundaries. “In Indonesia, almost everyone knows the characters and stories of wayang so there’s no problem in picking a story, but in order to win over our audience and keep them interested for the whole show, we need to be more creative.

When asked about his plans for the future, Joko replied, “My dream is to become the President of Indonesia! Huahahahahahahahaha” Well, who knows? Perhaps Joko’s puppeteering skills can be put to good use in the theatrics of Indonesian politics. Anyhow, let us hope that Joko continues to share the beauty of wayang kulit and Javanese gamelan to the rest of the world for many years to come.

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