Jan Schulte had been dreaming of the jungle for years. The Dusseldorf-based electronic musician (often recording under the name Wolf Müller) most recently channeled these dreams of exotic lands into an acclaimed compilation called “Tropical Drums of Deutschland,” a collection of German tracks, mostly from the 80s, which live in the misty, exotic realms some call the Fourth World. Many of the compilation’s tracks have signifiers of exotic musical Others (hand drums, gongs) swimming through synths and drum machines. The artists, it is clear, had little connection with the farflung places from which they were seeking inspiration. Schulte describes his inspiration for the collection as being “a general fascination for music that describes places where the artists have never been.” The cheeky album cover drives it home: a lush jungle of ferns and palms spread out under the safe shelter of a European greenhouse.
Earlier this year, the Brussels-based Europalia International Arts Festival sent Schulte on a journey to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for an artist's residency with me as his guide. The aim was to send Schulte out into this mythical place and see what inspiration he could find. Would the reality match those fern-filled dreams? What would the resultant tracks sound like if they described places the artist had been?
I warned Schulte right off the bat: we wouldn’t be trekking into deep jungle and meeting with primitive cannibals. The alternative, I hoped would be more interesting: a world which might dash exotic but shallow visisons but would hopefully replace them with a more grounded, complex reality. The first leg of the trip would be in search of something near and dear to Schulte’s heart (and sound): mouth harps. Schulte often fills his own tracks with the psychedelic flange of mouth harps (often called jew’s harps, but I tend to avoid that name) which he plays himself. Such instruments are now rare in Kalimantan, but I had a lead from my friend Nursalim Yadi Anugerah, a young Pontianak-based musician and composer who specializes in music of the various Dayak peoples of his province.
We became a gang of four not-so-intrepid adventurers: Me, Yadi, Europalia curator Christoph, and Jan (from here on, we're on a first-name basis!) Flying into the steamy interior city of Sintang, we rented motorbikes and set off into the countryside. As I’d warned Jan, we did not hack our way through dense jungle with machetes. Rather, we followed dusty pothole-filled roads past gas-belching trucks, quiet roadside villages crumbling in the tropical heat, and palm oil plantations which stretched to the horizon. The most adventurous moments came when the road would dead-end into a placid blue river, and we’d have to load our motorbikes onto narrow motorboats and ferry them across.
We stayed in the village of Engkurai for a few days with Pak Bunau, a Dayak Kebahan artisan who not only makes kadedek mouth organs but also the taruntung mouth harp Jan was eager to hear and play. Jan and Pak Bunau swapped mouth harp lessons: Jan pulled at the taruntung’s string, trying his best to get the palm fiber harp to sound, while Pak Bunau cautiously put Jan’s European-style harps to his teeth, equally clueless how to make a sound. I was happy to see these relationships emerging: Borneo would no longer be just a mythical place for Jan. Rather, it would become a locus of real relationships between musicians. Nothing would be appropriated, simply shared with consent, understanding, and respect.
Those dreamy days in Engkurai soon came to an end as we packed up our bags full of taruntung and kadedek and waved smiling goodbyes to Pak Bunau and family. The next few days were a testament to the difficulty of travel in this corner of Indonesia: we slid through sticky mud puddles on motorbikes, dozed for hours (and hours and hours) in cramped, humid buses, and got stranded in far-flung market towns on more than one occasion. Jan took it all in stride, simply happy to be in a place that was greener and smilier than Dusseldorf.
The second leg of the trip was in Kapuas Hulu, a deep corner of West Kalimantan known for still having pockets of pristine jungle and traditional culture. Yadi led us to the area called Kayan Mendalam, a gorgeous river-side collection of communities where the local Kayan people hold proudly to ancient musical traditions even as their worlds continue to shift. For a few days, the Kayan musician and shaman Ibu Ana gracefully shared her home with us, a stilted wooden house full of pictures of Jesus and the sounds of buzzing cicadas. We spent our days taking lazy baths in the river, with Jan disappearing every once and a while into the forest behind Ibu Ana’s house to record those insectoid buzzings.
We ended our trip with an excursion to Sungai Utik, a community near the border with Malaysia which is known for fiercely protecting their native jungle against greedy land developers and shady government types angling to transform the land off which they live into another homogeneous palm oil plantation. Finally, Jan could see the jungle of his dreams. It was lovely, but must have been a bit of an anticlimax. The real beauty was in the people we met there, the tattooed men who climbed palms to harvest fresh palm wine for us and who later dined on civet meat with us in their longhouse as thunder boomed in the distance.
The man called Wolf Müller has been back in Europe for months now, trying, I imagine, to find a way to process the experiences and sounds he met in Borneo and capture them in something that does them justice. I’m sharing a preliminary track with you here: in it, you can hear Pak Bunau’s taruntung mouth harp setting the moody drone, with echoes of kadedek melting into minimalist xylophone straight from Ibu Ana’s house. These are not sounds simply sprung from a Teutonic imagination; rather, they are documents of real moments, real relationships, music humbly shared with curious foreigners in the understanding that their music will be shared with whole new audiences, their sounds transformed but unmistakably real. The resultant sound is, to flip Schulte’s quote around, music that describes places where the musician has been, where the musician has shared, and laughed, and river-bathed, and listened. It describes a place called Kalimantan, a place which has none of the pruned order of that European greenhouse, but is all the more beautiful for it.
Jan Schulte (Wolf Müller) has a handful of upcoming Europalia tour dates where he'll be playing brand new music from this Kalimantan project. The dates are:
10 11 '17 @ BOZAR NIGHT with Ellen Allien, Paula Temple and more, Brussels
11 11 '17 @ Meakusma & Amer Lab. pres. Europalia Indonesia, Eupen
11 01 '18 @ Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Gent
This post was commissioned by Europalia International Arts Festival.