Homegrown & Well Known: AYU LAKSMI

There are many things that you don’t know about this lady rocker-cum-World Music Diva. These questions and answers will help you understand Ayu Laksmi deeply, how she evolved from thinking that screaming—being a rock singer—was cool, then finding out that chanting—being a new-traditionalist artist—was even cooler

I’m sure that lots of people don’t know that you were a (very popular) “lady rocker” in the 80’s. I know that you are tired of being asked this question, but I think it’s quite a unique phenomenon, what made you decide to change direction from Rock to World Music?
Changing direction was not a plan, and trying different genre of music was not either. You can say that I’d always been fond of searching, experimenting. I always explored various genres of music. When I got into a certain kind of music intensively—in this context: rock—people thought that was my final destination (and tagged me permanently as a “lady rocker”). I don’t mind that label, I was more than happy at that time to be noticed by the general public. Plus back then I was still young and it just felt cool to be a rocker. I was glad that I could reach “fame and fortune”—relatively, at least, on a national scale. But then I realised that the “lady rocker” thing, screaming out loud, was not really me. Nothing against the music. It just didn’t represent my true character, it felt far from my inner soul, and was actually quite the opposite of my real musical preference. Even though the chance for me to become, if I may say, a famous celeb back then was very worthwhile, but I couldn’t live a ‘this-is-not-me’ pretend life any longer. I left Jakarta for Bali, the place I called home—and it’s still my home.

Not long after that I fell in love with Latin music. I just felt it was sexy and exotic. I started performing Latin-style music in bars, cafes, hotels, private parties, everywhere. Things evolved fast, and I ended up on an international cruise ship singing Latin (and jazz) music, in Spanish and Portuguese. One little funny and memorable point about that era is that lots of people thought I was from Latin America. Haha.

And then the first Bali bomb exploded. I was invited to perform in a charity concert representing Bali. I was a bit confused about what to offer. Latin, rock, jazz, I didn’t think they were Bali, or somehow suitable, enough. I felt the universe was somehow whispering to me that I should offer something that is very common in Bali, something comforting and representative of my Bali side: old ancient chanting (usually used in Balinese Hindu ceremonies). So I chose the traditional chant “Arjuna Wiwaha”. I rearranged the melody into a more contemporary version, and adjusted the mantras so the whole thing worked together. The career I have today all began from there. Oh yeah, the reaction from the public wasn’t completely positive. A few observers even thought I was destroying my singing career. Honestly speaking, the occasional pessimistic reactions bothered me a bit, as I really wasn’t sure if I was on the right track. But my gut feeling told me to stick at it. The first few months weren’t easy. But support from friends whom I really respect and trust kept me going. I’m glad that I followed my instinct.

It seems like you’ve made the right decision because slowly but surely people have became very enthusiastic about your new music and style.
I think so. What I’m sure about is that I’m so happy these days. I am no longer searching for who I really am, musically. I feel at home with World Music—as those Ethnomusicologists called it, which I didn’t really know before. Meanwhile the response from the public has evolved beautifully. In the beginning it was not too explosive, but interest in what I am doing has slowly grown as time goes on. The kind of acknowledgements I sometimes hear is that my music is meditative, absurd, unique, or it gives them goosebumps. Some comment that my music has solid Archipelago nuance, incorporates a fusion of traditional harmonies, or is somehow similar to Kitaro, Enya, Enigma, or Deep Forest. Or as Robyn Cash put it in a music review: “The result is an album in which Ayu unleashes her husky alto with its wide vocal range, sometimes deep and heavy as if not the voice of a woman, at other times sharp & shrieking, then again smooth & sensual, all fusing into a contemporary musical style that has become the trademark of Ayu Laksmi.” I find all of this kind of feedback complimentary.

I guess after I felt more stable and happy—emotionally as well as musically—from 2006, I began learning the instrument that I loved since I was a kid: piano. Learning piano at the age of 40? Well, I remembered when I was a kid I learned to play guitar, but eventually quit. I wanted to learn to play piano back then but my mum couldn’t afford it; so I drew piano keys and played using my imagination haha… Now I am able to play piano—just in a basic way—which naturally led me into learning about music programming, too. These days I usually don’t just write lyrics and hum the future songs, but I am also able to prepare the basic music structure/demos as references for the composer to have an idea of what I am planning.

To cut a long story short: I feel blessed to be given this chance to have fun in a sort of “magical rhythm of Bali” playground. Being under appreciated in the beginning was actually a good thing, it built up my determination to work even harder to prove that I could make it.

What’s the best acknowledgement you have received so far?
Time has passed. I’ve been creating world music for ten years already now. As I said earlier, today I am not only singing, but also composing my own songs, and lately have also been involved with theatre, movies, literary events and contemporary dance. The demography of my audience is much wider than before. I seem to be appreciated by World Music enthusiasts, spiritual communities, intellectuals, artists, and even kids! So I suppose the best thing of all is being appreciated by so many different types of people.

I also do not sing while people are dancing, eating or drinking anymore. I do my own show, my own way, in my own time. Also, for my last album, Svara Semesta, I was the producer and the songwriter. The whole project was my own concept, done in my own way. So this is my self-acknowledgement. Haha.

From the public, Svara Semesta—released in 2010, 18 years since I had published my previous album—was nominated as one of the 20 best albums of 2010, and I was also one of the nominees for the best musician of 2010, both by Tempo magazine. In 2012 Svara Semesta came up again and was nominated as one of the 5 best album cover designs by Anugerah Musik Indonesia. Generally friends, fans, music critics and the press acknowledge my efforts to reintroduce my ancient heritage with a new-traditionalist approach.

But I guess the ultimate acknowledgement I’ve received so far was when I was named the “Balinese Diva of World Music Indonesia” by the well known Indonesian Ethnomusicologist Franki Raden.

You have performed a few overseas concerts in the past 12 months. How were you received by non-Indonesian audiences?
Last year I performed in the USA and this year in Europe. The most memorable concerts were in Brussels Musical Instrument Museum in Belgium, and in the Floriade Festival in Venlo, The Netherlands. I wasn’t confident that I could attract audiences to my shows—especially Floriade, this “sacred” event which is held only once every ten years. Even some of my colleagues shared my hesitations. Surprise, surprise, with God’s help, the concert halls were both a “full house”. The audiences seemed blown away with my performances. Most of them hadn’t seen anything like the “magical rhythm of Bali” before in their lifetimes. To see them that blown away, blew me away, too. Hehe.

Anyway, there’s something I need to share here: the lack of involvement of our government in these events. All of my concert trips have been funded independently. Friends and family chipped in. People who believed in me contributed their hard-earned money. Astoundingly, I received zero from our government. I had thought it’d be pretty easy to get financial support from them. I willingly and efficiently followed all of their formal procedures—submitting proposals on time and correctly. I did everything you could imagine to seek government support, and failed spectacularly. You know, I was very optimistic in the beginning because whatever “cultural exchange” means, I certainly met that criteria. I had high expectations of receiving government assistance. But, yeah, no luck at all.  Maybe they already had better nominees than me. Who knows. I was glad that I didn’t wait too long for my proposals to be approved by them (which, as it turns out, was never going to happen). I went straight to Plan B when I didn’t sense any green light from the government: sent proposals to event organisers in Europe, and raised funds myself. I learnt the hard way. My experiences taught me to be resourceful, as everything depends on me. I have to know when to move—and be able to move quickly. The Power of Me. The Power of Now.

What are you doing today? Any big plans for the near future? Womad?
Right now I’m preparing the follow up to Svara Semesta. As well as writing specially requested theme songs, music scoring for documentary movies, and stuff like that.

Other than continuing to build my singing career, these past few months I’ve been busy with other art-related activities as well. For instance, I acted in a spectacular theatre show titled Gandamayu, directed by Fajar Arcana. Even though I have some experience in acting, and have been in a few movies, this theatre thing was quite different, as it meant performing live. As I felt very flattered that Fajar Arcana picked me to be one of his main performers (even though I had zero directly-related theatre experience), I practiced, like, 11 hours a day, every day, for ten days straight. I’m so glad that it went well. I received lots of very positive feedback as a result of my participation. Fortunately the director gave me relatively significant freedom to improvise.

Speaking of Womad, I’ve sent a few proposals but all effort so far has been to no avail. It’s okay, I remain grateful to have so many opportunities to join massive festivals in Indonesia, like IMEX Bali, Kreta Kencana World Music (Solo), Bali Creative Festival, Bali Spirit Festival, Sanur Village Festival, Borobudur Writers Festival (Magelang), etc. I will keep trying. No rush. I’m quite optimistic that the time will come. Let the universe handle it the way it should be.

How do you find the music industry in Bali and Indonesia? Good, bad, hopeful, no future?
Bali itself, I think, can create her own path via the current World Music craze. The uniqueness and dynamic aspects of Balinese style music has stirred World Music enthusiasts around the world. Eventually this enthusiasm will take Bali music to a higher level in the global scene. In the context of Bali pop music, the musicians who sing in Balinese will probably continue to struggle to compete nationally. Especially these days, as Indonesian kids are so into K-Pop, and are showing reduced interest in local creative talent. Not to mention linguistic challenges. But the Bali pop/indie music seems to be doing ok. Say bands like Superman Is Dead, Navicula, Dialog Dini Hari, after many long hard years they finally have their own avid fans. Whatever happens to the music industry in Indonesia, they’ll be fine. They are relatively independent of Jakarta. They have their own bridge that takes them to their fans. So for them to grab international markets is a realistic goal. Very possible.

I believe that the Bali music industry can exist independently, that it’s different to what exists in Jakarta. World Music practitioners, indie/alternative music musicians, all sit together and hold serious discussions. They set certain integrated goals that benefits all aspects of the Bali music industry, helped by brilliant visionaries/promoters/producers/observers who become the mediators between artists and the global market. Bali needs people like you (I mean it, seriously. What are you doing in Sydney? Come back home!), Franki Raden, Peter Gontha, many others.

Any last nagging words?
Do it now. Time is running out. The more we delay, the more scared we become to move beyond our comfort zone—what we really want will never happen that way. Go do it. Now.


*Homegrown & Well Known is my biweekly column in The Beat (Bali) mag. Basically it’s an interview via e-mail with Bali’s local big shots. This is the 18th edition, was firstly published—shorter version—on The Beat (Bali) #325, Nov 23 – Dec 06, 2012
*All photos by I Gusti Dibal Ranuh

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