A Conversation with Djoko Mangkrengg Performing Arts Ensemble
The Djoko Mangkrengg Performing Arts Ensemble are a remarkable collective of musicians based in Singapore, where they perform traditional music alongside their own arrangements of songs like ABBA's Mamma Mia!
Revoice! was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview this unique ensemble, and corresponded with Shahneezar Shahnan, a member of the team that runs and supports the ensemble, via email...
Could you introduce your ensemble to our readers?
We are the Djoko Mangkrengg Performing Arts Ensemble (Djoko Mangkrengg means 'young enthusiasts' in Javanese). The ensemble is made up of 13 - 19 year olds, and no audition is required for members - most of them are or were studying Gamelan, Angklung, or Kulintang in their respective secondary schools. Our team of music educators, Alunan Enterprise, leads the group in musical training and preparations for performances. The ensemble provides an opportunity and platform for the students to continue and advance their knowledge in the art form and further hone their performance skills after secondary school level. The ensemble was formed in 2009 by our late music director, Mr Mohamed Khamis Selamat, who passed away in November last year. He had a strong mission to create a platform for students to continue their passion after they have graduated from their respective schools, as there were close to no opportunities for them to continue practising this art form. Djoko Mangkrengg hopes to provide the platform for these musicians to carry on playing and performing.
There are two parts to the ensemble - one is a Gamelan-only ensemble while the other is a modern ensemble with Malay ethnic instruments such as the Angklung, Kulintang and Gamelan at its heart, fused with Western instruments such as strings, woodwind & percussions. Our late director’s aim was to create a distinctive Singapore sound through this concept.
How would you describe the music you play?
Our repertoire ranges from malay music such as Dato’ M. Nasir’s Keroncong Untuk Ana to pop music such as Adele’s Someone Like You, and also new compositions created by our own musicians for the Gamelan ensemble. Here we are performing the Bruno Mars song, Marry You:
Most ethnic Malay ensembles in Singapore tend to focus only on traditional Malay songs, but Djoko Mangkrengg offers a different take of Malay ensemble music by incorporating Pop elements. By playing Pop Music, we intend to create content that is more accessible to listeners who are not familiar with the Malay instrumental sound. As human beings, it is natural for us to be drawn towards familiarity and be connected through shared experiences. Music helps to mitigate the numbing effect created by the overwhelming amount of information we are flooded with today and as artists, and we believe it is our responsibility to help people understand it emotionally and physically.
Our desire is not to move towards a single homogenised global Malay traditional sound, but rather to share and experience the profound and subtle interplay of diverse perspectives, tastes and interpretations through our music. We believe that diversity of cultures is valuable to society and that a monocultural outlook discourages discourse and reinforces monotony.
What is your process when arranging music?
We start off by listening to the song repeatedly to immerse ourselves in it and to understand the different layers of the music. An important process is envisioning and mapping out the sound, focusing on how to inject the Malay essence in the song through the Angklung, Kulintang and Gamelan. We will usually write out the first 8 bars of the melody before going on to the accompaniment lines and supporting harmony. Through this process, it takes approximately a week or two to complete a 4-minute song.
Traditionally, Gamelan scores are written in number notation. Our arrangements, on the other hand, are written in standard Western notation. This is to ensure a common point of reference with other ensembles, such as concert bands and choirs. It is also important that we stay relevant to the current times and that we adopt a method that is widely understood.
Finding the right sound balance seems to be a recurring challenge we encounter while arranging the songs. As mentioned earlier, most of our musicians are students and therefore our arrangements are written with them in mind in terms of technical capabilities as well as availabilities. The arrangements must be flexible enough to accommodate challenges such as performances that clashes with the exam period. Some of our songs require a singer and we have to bear in mind the suitability of their voices to the songs as well.
Can you tell us about the instruments in the ensemble and the tuning system(s) you use?
Traditionally, the Gamelan is tuned to the Slendro and Pelog tuning system. Slendro is a five tone (Pentatonic) scale consisting of approximate whole step and minor third intervals. Pelog, on the other hand, is made up of 7 tones. Generally, Gamelan ensembles tend to only have keys for five pitches. Our Gamelan set was initially tuned to the diatonic system but Mr Khamis decided to push boundaries and progressed towards a chromatic tuning system in 2014. This move has allowed us to explore a wider range of repertoire and also provides us the opportunity to collaborate with other instruments that are tuned to standard Western tuning. The instruments in our ensemble include Angklung, Kulintang, the Gamelan family, strings, percussion instruments such as the Surdo (an African drum), Sundanese drums and cajon.
Who are your musical inspirations?
One of our main musical inspirations is our late music director, Mr Khamis himself. He was our mentor for more than 10 years and we are grateful for all that he taught us, and the opportunities that he gave us. He constantly reminded us that to always remain grounded and be humble. One of the key things he embedded in us is that growth, progress and change are important. He emphasised discipline and perseverance, qualities which he himself embodied - after suffering a stroke attack in 2003 he lost the use of one of his hands, yet still continued to lead the ensemble, conducting with one hand only.
What are your future plans for the group?
We hope to recruit more members to expand the ensemble further to an orchestral size. Performing on the international stage and making this art form known on a global scale is one of our biggest missions. This was Mr Khamis’s dream for the group, and our team is continuing his legacy to ensure it materialises.
We want to be heard everywhere, and to make our music, our unique concept of fusing traditional Malay instruments with Western instruments, and our distinctive and unique chromatic Gamelan tuning system, seen and heard internationally, not just in Singapore.
What is your favourite piece to perform?
Recently, we were involved in the Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation, with one of our schools, Meridian Secondary School in the Angklung and Kulintang category. I was humbly given the opportunity to conduct my arrangement of the song Salam Terakhir originally by Sudirman Arshad. Salam Terakhir, or The Final Farewell, is a tribute to Mr Khamis and it was very emotional for everyone who had crossed paths and has been touched by his music and him as an individual. The students put up a heartfelt performance and as their conductor, I was beaming with pride when I saw their desire to perform their best.
With Djoko Mangkrengg, my favourite piece to perform has got to be our arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, made by Shaik Khalil (a member of Alunan Enterprise). We performed this during the Gamelan Fiesta 2014 at Singapore’s Republic Polytechnic and it was a hit because of the audience’s familiarity with the song and unique blend of Angklung, Kulintang, Chromatic Gamelan & Western instrumentations. I look forward to the day when our ensemble performs this piece again!
Any music can be a favourite piece to perform depending on the condition that one is in. To perform and create music is to confront centuries of human confusion and suffering, intermingled with triumph and progress. Traditional music matters and it is crucial for us musicians to keep looking back at the music made by the people before us. Not just because it is beautiful, but because it can inspire us to make the future more beautiful.
Alunan Enterprise hopes to continue Mr Khamis’ legacy and we look forward to creating more meaningful music that expresses, communicates and inspires people. We have taken the baton from him, we will carry it as far as we can, and we will hand it on when it is time to do so.