Grooving to the old and new

Review Concert


Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

Mixing age-old music and literature with a contemporary and urban music genre such as hip-hop can be a tricky affair.

It takes balance and the right mix of care and consideration for the traditional arts as well as an acute understanding of how the more modern genre works.

Indonesian rap collective Jogja Hip Hop Foundation, one of the headliners of the Esplanade's Malay arts fest Pesta Raya this year, is one music act that knows how it is done properly.

In the wrong hands, merging classical instrumentations such as the gamelan with spitfire rap verses and anthemic choruses - in their native Javanese tongue, no less - might sound gimmicky.

But the quintet - Kill the DJ, M2MX, Balance, Ki Ageng Gantas and Radjapati - consistently pulled the feat off with class. Whether you understand the language or not, the verses ebbed and flowed, carried along by the guttural bass lines, bouncy beats and trance-like gamelan samples courtesy of the group's female DJ, Vanda.

Fiercely proud of the city of Yogyakarta as well as their Javanese roots, the anthemic Jogja Istimewa, for example, is a love letter to their home city, with a military march intro and infectious earworm of a chorus.

Dressed in batik shirts and baggy pants, the group did not rap exclusively in Javanese though. On Song Of Sabdatama, another ode to their city, the verses were split between three languages.

"We are from Jogja/The heart of Java/ Our rhyme is mantra/Flows down like lava" goes the English refrain, after which they took turns rapping in Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese for the rest of the tune.

They brought musical reinforcements in the form of Soimah Pancawati - part traditional singer, part jester, part one-woman hype machine. Dressed in a red kebaya and batik combo, the songbird was just as adept at holding down the melodic lines as she was in dropping rap verses while doing both classical and goofy dance moves.

Their second show in Singapore - they performed at the Esplanade's outdoor theatre in the 2009 edition of Pesta Raya, the group also premiered two new collaborations with opening act and home-grown Malay rappers Mawar Berduri and Suratkhabar Lama, made of former members from popular hip-hop outfit Ahli Fiqir.

Both songs, Gurindam 12 Raja Ali Haji and Dendang Melayu, the riotous encore, reference the works of 19th-century historian Raja Ali Haji.

The mostly teenage and young adult audience were enthusiastic and vocal throughout the 100-minute show. A pity then that the ushers stopped a few of them from going up on stage despite being invited to sing by the members of Jogja Hip Hop Foundation themselves.

Classy performers that they were, the quintet then proceeded to get off the stage to join their audience on the ground and got them to sing along to the addictive Cintamu Sepahit Topi Miring. Perhaps the Esplanade can consider making exceptions to strict rules about fans going up on stage, especially for performers such as Jogja Hip Hop Foundation who thrive on audience participation.

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