Name: Batavia Collective
Members: Doni Joesran, Elfa Zulham, Kenny Gabriel
Occupation: Keyboarder (Doni Joesran), drummer (Elfa Zulham), Bassist (Kenny Gabriel)
Current release: Batavia Collective's "Affirmation" is out now via R&S.
Recommendations: Alice Coltrane – Turiya and Ramakrishna; Ata Ratu
If you enjoyed this interview with Batavia Collective and would like to know more about them, visit the project on Instagram, Facebook, and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Well basically, all of us grew up around music.
Besides being lifelong music-listeners and enthusiasts, Doni studied Improvisation Stream at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne-Australia, Zulham at Prins Claus Conservatorium in the Netherlands, and Kenny at SMM in Jakarta.
For Doni, it was Joe Meek that really got him hooked on sound design. Meek is considered one of the most influential sound engineers of all time; being one of the first to develop ideas such as the recording studio as an instrument, and becoming one of the first producers to be recognised for his individual identity as an artist. Currently Doni’s deep into Mehliana: Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana’s group as they managed to change his mindset about what constitutes the term ‘jazz’.
For Zulham, it’s Deantoni Parks, that’s the way he wants to explore his drums sonically for Batavia Collective.
Last but not least, Kenny first took interest in electronic music when he joined a talent competition for an Indonesian TV show in 2016. He was much more of a jazz/soul/r&b fan before that. He had to learn to produce electronic music from scratch, so that really opened up his ears to sound design.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Batavia Collective itself started back in 2018 when we had another project that we worked on together. While we were in the studio, we started to do a series of jams, one of them turned out to be our first single. It was one of those moments when the groove was tight, the vibe was right and everything just clicked.
Each of us has their own musical journey. Everyone here is an expert in their instrument, and being in a group involves constant learning and adjusting to each other. But we can agree that a touch of Goldie and a hint of Mehliana went into the sound of Batavia Collective.
We are known as jazz musicians in our community here in Jakarta. Zulham is the music director for Java Jazz, the biggest jazz festival in South East Asia. Each of us has been in the music industry more than half our age and already tasted commercial success in Indonesia’s mainstream lane, we think it’s nice to have a change of pace sometimes.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Of course, we embraced it, hence the name Batavia, it’s the name given by the Dutch when they occupied the city back in colonial times. We tried as best as we can to capture the essence of Jakarta in our sound. Its’ chaotic yet it’s also laidback. It's rough yet it’s also homey.
It’s that love and hate situation. Our home city of Jakarta is a chaotic mess, yet it has an undeniable charm which always draws us back. The city carries the chaos of bebop, underlined by the grace of Duke Ellington. Somehow it fuels our fire and rage yet it also has us reaching for the minor chords.
We did a tribute for Jakarta a while ago, it’s up on Goethe Institut’s youtube channel that you can check out here.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Each of us here are versed in writing jazz compositions, but with Batavia Collective it’s a different game. We want to make club-ready jazz music, so the challenge is how to make complex yet well composed music that is easy to digest and is also danceable. We just released our debut single, so we think there will still be many different challenges ahead.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Doni was always a pianist, in this project he tried experimenting with different synths and sound effects. He just bought a couple of Behringer modules. Zulham loves hip hop. Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson is his idol, but lately he’s been grooving a lot to Deantoni Parks. So the variety of equipment those two used has had an impact on Zulham too. Kenny’s first instrument was a trumpet but nowadays people know him as a keyboardist and a DJ, and for BTVC he plays the synth bass.
We stayed away from the expensive and vintage equipment, as it’s just common knowledge here in Indonesia that we have poor electrical routing, especially if it’s a dodgy venue. Back then we had a vintage Korg Polysix and Moog Prodigy but it keeps having trouble so we ditched them and just got something reliable and heavy duty like Behringer, Korg, or Nord.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
As far as the instruments we use are concerned, every single one of them has had a profound effect on how me make our music, if not necessarily ‘questioned’ it. Every new instrument we try and fool around with always has its own charm and uniqueness that would gravitate towards us.
Generally speaking, we’ve been quite obsessed with finding where Artificial Intelligence (AI) and computer generated music could take us in the future. Just think about it, the possibilities are endless. For instance, recently a couple of researchers developed technology that relies on various aspects of music such as chord progressions, tempo and instrumentation to synthesise lyrics reflecting the mood and emotions expressed by live music-time systems that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate lyric lines for live instrumental music
How mind boggling is that?
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Jamming is right up our alley. This project itself started from a simple jam session. So we take that as a form of collaboration.
And as far as the community, the one we have in Jakarta is a small yet tight-knit one. Pre-COVID we would often to bump into each other (musicians) and share ideas. That happens all the time.
But yes, in this new world we’re living in, we indeed try and keep our ideas fresh by sharing things online, much more than we did before 2020 happened. And a silver lining on this all might be that we would be more exposed to other forms of sharing ideas because of the restrictions that were in place during the pandemic.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Do you mean pre-COVID or not? Because this pandemic really has changed everything. Currently Jakarta is under travel restrictions, so going to the studio is a challenge for us, but we always try to make time when we can. This month we got invited to join a compilation from a label in Hong Kong where we had to do everything remotely, sending files back and forth. And as we didn’t have time to take the drums, we used samples of Zulham’s drumming from our stock recordings. Things had to move on. (laughs)
As for our daily routines, as with everywhere in the world, playing music live simply isn’t an option. It has really been tough over here. We’ve all had to find alternative means of income to sustain ourselves throughout all of this.
In this condition we try to be as positive and productive as possible.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Rreleasing our first single on R&S is really special for us, as they have been known for releasing cutting edge music. To be included in the same catalogue as Aphex Twin, Nicolas Jaar, Lone, Blawan, Joey Beltram, all those legends is really something else.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
We think creativity is something that needs to be worked on. One cannot expect creativity to simply appear by some divine inspiration. It’s something that needs hard work. When we go hard into practice mode, the creativity flows. We bounce ideas and energy off each other, and that in turn produces creativity.
As for state of mind, it really falls on the individual. One can be in a disastrous state of mind, but is able to channel that energy creatively into his music.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Yes, naturally all of us have experienced music as a force for healing. And we all know that it can cut like a knife too. And that’s simply the beauty of music, isn’t it? It ties very much with our sense of memory. Music can hurt, because certain notes, melodies or lyrics simply have the power to take us back in time. Both to the good times, and also the bad ones.
So naturally it can very much be used as a tool for healing.
Funnily enough, there is an articles by Jon Wilde in The Guardian, where he tells the story of his healing through Louis Armstrong. The author explains that after going through extremely tough times of personal tragedy -being on the brink of suicide, he managed to finally be healed by the beauty of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing. It’s really worth a read.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It really depends on the specific case. But one thing is for sure, music cannot expand and grow without a healthy degree of copying and cultural appropriation. Nothing is created in a vacuum. Something new always takes cues from something older. Music has always relied on outside influences.
Let’s take jazz as an example. Without the obvious African and Caribbean influences, there would be no jazz. Same as its use of European instruments. Without them, there would also be no jazz as we know it. The combination of both created something new.
Can it go too far? Perhaps. But that enters the real of plagiarism, which is something completely different to influence.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
As alluded to before, the sense of hearing, and even more so, listening, has a direct correlation to memory and to our senses of nostalgia, fear, love, hate, gratitude, and so on. But it is also connected to so many other senses. When we hear something, we expect to see something that correlates to it. In sonic art, that is expressed through stage performance, decoration, lighting, or even video clips.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art, as the name suggests, is an artificial representation of life. Art helps us make sense of this mess of a world we’re living in. And even more so, it can give life meaning. So art can take on so many roles in life. In whichever form.
It can give a voice to the voiceless.
As for our approach, we view our art in its purest sense: a simple and sincere form of expression. We take the influences of our everyday lives, as well as everything that surrounds us - be it concrete or abstract - and use them to express our emotions, wants, needs and desires through the art of music.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music can itself be a representation of life.
Let’s look a specific piece. Say, Pharoah Sanders’ Karma. Even structurally, it already represents life, as you know there’s a beginning and an end to it. And then he takes you through the rollercoaster that is ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’, which in itself already sounds like the perfect sonic representation of life and all its struggles. Sanders lets out howling screeches that sound like the soul screaming for salvation, before going to the calmer shores of the coda where you know things must end and all is at peace.