Dijf Sanders is standing in the dark, thrusting a dead cat towards the moonlit rice paddies. The man is tall, thin, Flemish, mustachioed. His dead cat is not an animal sacrifice but a windscreen designed to fit the muzzle of his microphone, cables leading from its fur to a high-quality digital recorder slung around his shoulder. Put the attached headphones on, and it’s like diving into an aural microscope, with even the faintest sound becoming crystal clear. The croaks of hidden toads burst from the darkness in phasing, interlocking patterns, the electronic screech of cicadas an ever-present backdrop. I pass the headphones back and Dijf stands entranced, the tropical cacophony buzzing in his head. His ears, I can tell, are wide open.
That’s a quality I came to appreciate in Dijf (pronounced, by the way, just like Dave.) When he’d first written me ahead of his Europalia artists’ residency, Dijf had expressed some uncertainty about choosing Java as a destination for his sonic adventuring. Java is by far Indonesia’s most populous and built-up island, and he must have imagined it as coast to coast urban sprawl. Nah man, I’d insisted. I love every corner of Indonesia, but I’d be hard pressed to find an island as brimming with musical riches as this one. All you’ve got to do is check out my musical map to see what I mean.
Dijf did the same, having a listen through my posts across Java and making a list of those musics and sounds which intrigued him most. We built up a nearly two-week itinerary spanning West and Central Java, a trip which would take us from the gridlocked streets of Bandung all the way to the modern kingdom of Yogyakarta at the island’s center.
We started in Bandung, the mountainous capital of West Java whose musical nooks and crannies I know so well. Dijf crashed on my couch for a few nights as I took him around, exposing him to the gritty Sundanese urbanity of the jaipong club and hooking him up with my tarawangsa bros Teguh and Wisnu. Wanting Dijf to get a taste of the Sundanese countryside, I took him out to the jungles and tea plantations of Subang, where we hiked to a waterfall in search of the celempung guru Pak Rosid and stayed a night in Banceuy, a village brimming with brilliant musicians and thick with adat, or traditional customs.
Our next stop was Banyumas, that magical liminal zone between the Sundanese mountains and the royal palaces of Solo and Jogja. Here we were in good hands, staying with local music expert Yusmanto and his family as we made day trips around the countryside in Yus’ beat-up old van, stopping in at villages across the area to connect Dijf with old musical friends I’d met the year before. With his microphone always at the read, Dijf soaked up the soapbox bass of kaster, the earthy bamboo rattle of gondolio, and the spirited bamboo gamelan of calung. Dijf’s adventurous spirit led us all the while to places even I had never gone, from dancing on the stage of a wayang kulit shadow puppet show (to roars of delight from confused villagers) to wading waste deep into a muddy river as old women slapped out percussive patterns on the water. It was also in Yus’ village of Karangjati that Dijf was seduced by those nature noises on the village fringe.
The trip drew to an end in Yogyakarta (or Jogja as we say here), that royal kingdom near Java’s south central coast. While Jogja is famous for its royal gamelan tradition, we took a different path, meeting up with experimental instrument maker Mo’ong to record plastic bottle bagpipes, recycled glass gamelan instruments, and PVC pipe drums.
All along the way, Dijf had explained his plans to each musician he recorded, asking their permission to use their sounds both as inspiration and as raw material for new compositions to be dreamt up in the studio. It was not always easy to explain the concept of digital sampling to the older generation of musicians, but each had given their blessings with a smile. Dijf himself could not yet say what the result would sound like. All he could promise was that he’d try his best to keep intact the soul of this place and the people we’d met.
The result, I’m happy to say, is spectacular. I may be biased, sure: the album is chock full of sonic snapshots which capture those musical friends and magical moments which Dijf and I shared on that whirlwind April tour (I may even feature on a track or two!). What’s fascinating, though, is to see Java through Dijf’s eyes (and ears), with each track a slice of tropical impressions as interpreted by an open-eared outsider. Dijf is reknowned in his native Flanders for his expert production, and it shows here: on album single “Jaipong,” Dijf takes a sample of amplified Sundanese vocals in a Bandung club and throws it into a funky sound world brimming with syncopated organs and breakbeats. The organic blend transcends lazy looping: the sampled kendang drum blends seamlessly with the instruments played in Dijf’s Belgium studio. You can hear that he was really listening here: he takes the moody, pentatonic madenda scale of the jaipong singer and makes his own melodies with it, somehow finding a link with the equally moody pentatonicism of Ethiopian funksters like Mulatu Astatke.
Those checking out this album in hopes of Buddha Bar beats and exotic sampled flutes will be sorely disappointed. The Java that Dijf Sanders managed to capture is not just an idealized, orientalist dream of timeless temples, paddies, and white sand beaches. It’s a window into a more complex memory of an equally complex place, distorted village amplifiers mixing with shrieking insects, music recorded in urban dorm rooms mingling with the sounds of a studio across the world. Dijf may have been on the island for less than two weeks, but those ten days seem to have seeped into his bones.
Dijf Sanders is headlining a series of shows in his native Belgium together with Aural Archipelago favorites Thambunesia (sape’ from Kalimantan), Turikale (Batti-batti from Sulawesi) and Ata Ratu (Queen of Sumbanese jungga.) Dates are:
01/12/17 - Brussels
02/12/17 - Bruges
03/12/17 - Ghent
More info at the Europalia event page here.