When we arrived home, the group had already started gathering at the guesthouse for our mysterious evening adventure. The only thing Lily knew was that we were going to see some mystical musician guy that Ibu Syafa knew, and Chris suggested that we should wear hijab. Okay. But was it a concert? A meeting? A prayer service? A show? Was it formal? Informal? No one seemed to know. But our Indonesian friends were very, very excited about the opportunity to meet this person. “It’s a very rare opportunity,” they said.
His name is Emha Ainun Najib, but he was known by our friends as Cak Nun (pronounced like “chalk noon”). Apparently he is an incredibly well-known Sufi mystic in Indonesia who has published over 40 books of both essays and poetry. His wife is also a very well-known singer and musician, and they perform with a large band of gamelan and other instruments. Once a month he apparently holds these very large “meeting/concerts” where hundreds of young Muslims interested in the mystical and social teachings of Islam gather to ask him questions and hear his wisdom.
When we arrived there was a large crowd gathered under a pavilion. Some men were sitting on a stage taking questions from the audience. Their responses were clearly very comedic, and intermittently the crowd broke out into uproarious laughter. Actually it struck me as something like an Islamic version of the Daily Show. We were led into a house that seemed to be serving as a kind of backstage VIP lounge.
Ibu Syafa and Ainoen both began encouraging me to perform a song with Cak Nun’s band. At this point I had gotten used to people suddenly asking me to sing something at a moment’s notice, but this was way different. There was a huge audience out there.
“Okay,” I mused, “would I have a chance to meet the band beforehand? Because I don’t know what song I could play that they would know.”
“Oh they are very talented,” Ibu Syafa said. “I think they can play along with anything.” I tried to explain that music doesn’t actually work that way… that even the most talented musicians in the world need to havesome basis for creating harmony together. You have to at least know the song, or the chords, or something. They either didn’t believe me, or they just didn’t care.
Part of my struggle playing music in Indonesia has been my lack of knowledge about the context. So much of music and the arts is contextual, and part of what I do as a performer is engaging creatively with context, knowing who my audience is, knowing what they know, understanding how to play with their expectations. This is not something I can effectively do here. I can’t even speak their language. My identity as an anti-pop indie-folk artist from North Carolina/New York has no meaning here. In Indonesia, I am an American. And the American music that Indonesia knows is Justin Beiber and Michael Jackson. These people just want me to play “Heal the World,” over and over and over again.
I thank God for the Beatles, and for John Lennon, because this is where I can usually strike a compromise. I decided that if anyone asked me to play a song I would just sing Imagine. Ainoen agreed that they would probably know it.
“Will I at least get to hear the band before I go out there and try to sing with them?” I asked. I felt like it would help if at least I knew what theysounded like.
“Oh yes,” Ainun assured me. “They will probably play a few songs first and then maybe you will go out.” That sounded okay to me.
But actually, that is not what happened. What happened instead was that suddenly Ibu Syafa took me by the arm, stood up, and led me out onto the stage in front of her. She sat me down between herself and the host, in front of TV cameras and flashing pictures and over a hundred smiling faces murmuring to one another in Indonesian. Lily, Mark, and the rest of the gang were behind Ibu Syafa, so they ended up sitting further off to the side of the stage.
Under the bright lights the host spoke to the crowd about us in Indonesian. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but it was clear that every now and then we were the butt of some joke when the crowd would laugh hysterically at our expense. Sometimes Ibu Syafa would try to translate for me, but jokes — like music — require a knowledge of context, and so they never totally make sense across the language divide. I just tried to keep smiling.
Then we were asked to provide responses to questions from the audience. They asked us about the real purpose of the war in Iraq, about 9/11, and about Islamophobia in the United States. None of us had been prepared for this but we stumbled our way through some responses, and Ibu Syafa translated them for the crowd.
The host leaned over and asked if I would sing a song alone, without any musical accompaniment. I said okay, and though up a folk tune that I could sing a capella. But when I started singing the other host said “no, no, no.” He wanted me to sing Cat Stevens “Wild World,” with the band. I told him I didn’t know the lyrics. The crowd was all staring at me, waiting for me to do something, and at this point I was honestly starting to lose my shit a little bit. What do these people think, that just because I’m a musician that means I am some kind of magical mystical unicorn creature who can just show up anywhere and start singing anything with anyone on the spot without any warning? And besides, I can’t understand anyone, I can’t hear myself, my hijab keeps falling of my head, and I wouldn’t have worn this stupid skirt if I knew I was going to have to sit cross-legged in front of all these people. Gah!
Breathe Kristen, just breathe. All of these feelings were just the foolishness of ego. I knew that in reality, any demonstration of weakness on my part would be like a blessing for them, and truthfully, the spontaneity of this unbelievably great opportunity was an incredible blessing for me as well. In spite of the discomfort the situation was wreaking inside of me emotionally, I was determined to show up for this moment the best I could. Meanwhile, the host said that the band would play a song for me, while I figured out what to do. They started to play: gamelan, violin, piano, flute, and drums. That’s when I heard it: the sound I had been looking for. This was in fact the band of my dreams.
After their song they handed me an electric guitar. The guy was laughing a bit. I suppose they just wanted to see what I might do with it. Then much to the delight of the crowd, the hosts, Ibu Syafa, my Indonesian and American friends, and myself, I started playing Imagine and the band behind me came in right in behind me, without missing a beat.
It was thrilling. By the end half the audience was singing along. I also ended up singing with them on the chorus of Cat Steven’s “Wild World,” and near the end sang for the greatest version of Blowing in the Wind that I’ve ever heard.
And, if you can believe it, that was just the beginning. When Cak Nun finally emerged onto the stage, the entire spirit of the crowd shifted its tone. All became quiet. All eyes were on him. I didn’t know what he said to the crowd, but it was clearly full of wisdom, kindness, and also humor.
Then he began leading a long trance-forming prayer in song. The drums from behind us joined in, and the crowd began to sing along. The music grew, and soon everyone was shouting their prayer to God in song. They were giving it everything they had. A song leader took over and carried us into a kind of theophany through music. His voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard live. The rhythm of the drums seemed to be coming from the depths of the earth, while the melodies he sang collided with uncharted territory deep within me. The notes were bending and stretching like rubber in kairos time, re-working me from the inside, molding a new creation, interweaving me with God and with everyone in that pavilion through the vibrations of sound. At one point I began to weep. Later I told Lily that it was like the “good pain” that you get when someone massages a muscle that is really sore…except it felt like that in my soul.
It was the most visceral experience of God’s presence that I have felt since the day of my conversion.
Afterwards Cak Nun announced that the prayer they sang had been for us, for our families, and for the work we will do bringing peace back to our country. Then Ibu Syafa asked if we could speak with him privately, and for reasons I don’t entirely understand, he agreed. He left the stage where hundreds had gathered just to hear him, and spent the rest of his evening having a private chat with the six of us.
He brought us into a small room and shut the door. Ibu Syafa started chatting with him about the mystical teachings of Meister Eckhart and Ibn al-Arabi. Then he spoke to us until 3:30am about God, and existence, society, and religion. He also talked about music, and specifically about the music he and his wife have created with their band by combining the gamelan with so many other instruments to play music from all over the world.
He said that the creator ordered him to be Javanese, but he also feels that it is his responsibility as a Javanese person to find a way to “say hello” to everybody all over the world, sometimes through words, but also through music. He talked about the major and minor in jazz, and about the American blues, the major and minor in Western music, the Arabic major and minor, and the major and minor in traditional Javanese gamelan music. All of these are different, but the Javanese music can be transformed into new structures so that it can be used for American songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” as well as playing songs in the style of Egypt, Morocco, India, China…that way they feel that you are a part of their heart, and they are a part of yours.
“If I sing this [song from your culture], it is impossible that I will beat you. And for you it’s the same. This is interfaith without any words, without any statements.”
Yes. Thank you. Amin. This is why I came to Java. This is why I can’t imagine ever having to leave. And this is why I wrote on Facebook that yesterday was the best day of my entire life.