Understanding Tony Prabowo

Understanding Tony Prabowo – a composer easily categorized, in the logic of the present-day market, into a peddler of ‘World Music’ – is about understanding the state of contemporary music.

It is a world and mindscape in which divisions between ‘East’ and ‘West’, ‘ethnic’ and ‘contemporary’, ‘world music’ and the rest no longer rests on a set of easy conceptions. It is also a world in which attempts to blend the two are not merely confined to the sort of interculturalism on a level where the proverbial East meets the proverbial West.

The term ‘World Music’ itself was invented in 1987 when a group of independent record producers such as Ocora, Nimbus and Peter Gabriel’s Womad met to brainstorm on how best to market their music. They threw out a couple of terms, such as tropical music, ethnic music, international music, and somehow settled on the term ‘world’. There was also the ‘hippie’ era when Ravi Shankar’s collaboration with The Beatles represented the prevailing interest in non-western cultures.

And yet, such borrowings have dated back many centuries. Mozart integrated Turkish rhythms into his music. So did Liszt, Schubert, and later the 20 century greats such that many people were concerned, especially in the postcolonial age, about the abusive use of ‘Oriental’ and other ‘exotic’ elements in this intercultural process.

Still, ‘World Music’ as a label trivializes the individual cultures represented as a mass. It promotes a ghetto mentality. A notion of cultures as monolithic, consisting only of the ‘one’ thing. A way of seeing cultures not as hybrid in itself, made and remade through changes and differences. And so composers like Tony Prabowo – a ‘Western-style’ composer in Indonesia and an ‘Indonesian’ composer abroad – is cast in this imaginary, make-believe space. Rather than being free to make a meaning forhimself, he encountered a meaning that was always already there, preexisting, waiting for him.

It is against this struggle that Tony Prabowo sticks to his craft, citing as his defining traits his ‘freedom’. That is, freedom to make a meaning for himself the way the music comes in his head, freedom to keep his tradition as it lives within him, together with other influences that make up the storeroom of his memory.

All of which sheds light on Prabowo’s 20-year friendship and collaboration with renowned Indonesian poet and writer Goenawan Mohamad. Those familiar with his writing, especially in the weekly thought pieces of the newsmagazine Tempo (known as Catatan Pinggir, or Sidelines), would know that the problems of identity and difference are among the topics closest to him. Like Prabowo, Mohamad believes that we are always a subject in process.

The success of this partnership also owes itself to the involvement of both artists in Komunitas Utan Kayu, a Jakarta-based artists’ collective engaged in visual art, dance, theater, film, literature, philosophy and political activism. The ease of navigating boundaries between art forms has taught them to sidestep literal interpretations for the reciprocity of inspirational essence.

In the words of Goenawan Mohamad:

“The words should not be translated into musical notes. The music should come out independently, not linked to the words. That is why … only provide a set of images, a certain mood, and the composer should be free to treat the words more as elements of sounds in his total composition than as messages to be wrapped in bundles of musical notes. It should be new poetry.”

And so we witness Prabowo paying tribute to writers by translating their words back into the realm of pure sound.