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Indigenous Australian rhythms inspire Indonesian composer's collaboration

A man sits at a grand piano holding a book of sheet music and smiling at the camera.
Ananda Sukarlan has just returned to Indonesia from the Northern Territory, where he was preparing a musical collaboration with an Indigenous artist.

ABC: Nurina Savitri

Indonesian composer and pianist Ananda Sukarlan is preparing a concert in collaboration with Djakapurra Munyarryun, a Yolngu performing artist from North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Sukarlan recently visited Munyarryun's community to familiarise himself with Yolngu culture and tradition.

Renowned Indonesian musician Ananda Sukarlan will soon debut Voyage to Marege — his first composition to incorporate Aboriginal Australian elements. The piece will be performed in Jakarta at the end of August and involve Djakapurra Munyarryun from Yolngu, North East Arnhem Land, and another musician from the same community.

In preparation for the performance, Sukarlan visited the Yolngu community in Dhalinybuy, North East Arnhem Land, where he met Munyarryun and his family.

During his time there, Sukarlan experienced the Indigenous Australian culture that he'd previously only observed from afar. He had a go at playing the didgeridoo and learnt to fish the Aboriginal way.

He also learnt more about the importance of music to Aboriginal Australians.

Sukarlan says the piece was inspired by C.C. Macknight's book of the same title, published earlier this year.

The book and composition tell of the historical connection between Makassan fishers from South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and Aboriginal people in Northern Australia.

"The first seven minutes [of the work] will be filled with Makassar-related songs. The point of departure will be a Makassar song called Ammaciang. It's a Makassarese love song in which love is expressed poetically," Sukarlan says.

Apart from Munyarryun and a fellow Yolngu musician, Sukarlan also invited a 44-member orchestra to be involved.

According to Sukarlan, merging the different musical elements was a truly challenging experience.

Despite his years of experience and many compositions under his belt, Sukarlan says the project offered him new lessons in music.

"I came to realise that sometimes we ... can make music without melody," he says.

"We know that these 44 musicians can all play melody.

"[But] I need to shift the flow of the orchestra so they won't sound melodic."

From left to right: a man with a didgeridoo, a child and a man with clapsticks on a beach as the sun sets behind them.
Djakaputra Munyarryun (right) and Kevin (left), who plays didgeridoo, will visit Indonesia at the end of August.

Supplied: Ananda Sukarlan

Makassan music, on the other hand, was influenced by Dutch and Portuguese colonists, and differs from other Indonesian music.

"They use musical scales that don't exist in any Indonesian traditional music. It is called the Dorian scale.

"It concentrates on melody, different from the didgeridoo, which ... produces texture."

The concert was commissioned by the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Cultural Counsellor Alison Purnell says the concert will commemorate the two countries' long-standing relationship, especially among those in the eastern part of Indonesia and those in northern Australia.

"The South Sulawesi traders sought the trepang or sea cucumbers in northern Australian waters, resulting in a thriving trade route which lasted until the early 1900s."

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The work will also be performed next year at the Darwin Festival 2018 and the Makassar International Writers Festival 2018.

This article is also available in Indonesian.

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