Exclusive Interview with Riza Arshad

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A brilliant pianist with many achievements. He has big amount of contributions to the development of jazz, visionary and has unlimited ideas appearing in different bands carrying different concepts.  He never back out from any challenge, always dare to do new things consistently exploring the new world, and as the ambassador of Indonesian jazz internationally, has been faithful to do what he really loves for more than 20 years. All these things describe just a few of this incredible man, Riza Arshad. Riza Arshad is without a doubt one of the most influential men to meet if you want to have the right perspective about the world of jazz. A friend once said, if there’s someone you should dig in order to know jazz along with its progress, Riza Arshad is definitely one of the man you should meet.  And that’s not exaggerating. He keeps surprising us with his stunning concepts that shaped some of his groups to stand tall as the important milestones in Indonesian jazz history.

Together with his “soulmate” Arie Ayunir, Riza Arshad formed two very important groups, Trioscapes and simakDialog. Both are important but with different style and concept. You will get delicious subtle funk with many delightful toppings in Trioscapes. And if you want to know how the portion of east  and west, traditional ethno-music and modern jazz to make the finest blend, you can check out his cross ethno-jazz progressive ensemble simakDialog. This group has received critical acclaims world wide through their authenticity and uniqueness in music concept. Trioscapes and simakDialog will never fail to give you chill whenever you listen to them.

Riza Arshad is the man who always fights for what he believes. His passion to jazz is immeasurable. With up and down business for many years, somehow he’s still fired up. He got the chance to learn from the legendary jazz icon Jack Lesmana, and later moved on to learn from Bambang Nugroho and Indra Lesmana. Besides establishing himself in music, he also graduated from Fakultas Seni Rupa dan Design (Fine Art and Design Faculty) ITB. He worked as jingle maker where he learned many aspects of music in general which challenged his productivity in making various kind of jingles simultaneously. Living in art for almost all of his life has shaped him to be a highly creative brain, and that can be seen through all his masterclass works.

It was a must to catch him while he came to Bandung. We set an exclusive interview with him at Potluck Coffee Bar and Library, and it went on until 6 hours nonstop. There are a lot to talk about. We want to take a peek into his brain, how wild the stream goes in side. We want to dig his concepts inside his bands, the story behind Goethe Institut’s Serambi Jazz, and the new dawn of jazz movement and so on. Let’s get to know Riza Arshad.

Riza Arshad-Interview (6)

First of all, you have unlimited creativities and we’re curious to know what’s been going on in your brain. How is it like?
Brain provides enormous facilities. There’s no technology can measure the capacity of a brain since it is complex and complicated. When it receives the good information, the brain will produce good things that can be beneficial for us and others. I’m living in jazz music. For me, jazz is a culture with values that we really need to understand. My brain produces jazz in wide scopes.

With the various concepts you have delivered through several different groups, how do you personally see jazz?
Well, jazz is like the world of fine art. Let me give you an example. Think of Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, or Affandi. They all had different styles right? But they all started with drawing the real ones, learning about the human anatomy, etc. They all grew to have their own styles like we all know since then. It’s also like being in a room. You can stand or sit in a certain spot, and others can be in different ones, but you are all still in the same room anyhow.  The same thing happens to Jazz. You can have your own jazz style, others might have different styles, or you can change your style, but still you got to be staying inside the same room,  jazz.

The brain can produce wild ideas, the creativity is unlimited, but still we got to have basic terms, like harmony for example. But the freedom of expression is the major. We are limited, but we’re free at the same time too. You could see jazz musicians play in accuracy, like Errol Garner for example, he’s into details so much, but then you also see musicians like Thelonious Monk who took the radical style, playing totally free. That’s jazz.

We’d like to dig more about having several groups with different concepts. How do you manage it?
Well, for me it’s like peeping through a window one at a time. It’s no big deal. It was good for me to have the chance working on jingles before. Earning my living from jingles made me able to change my music style from one kind of music to the other. And because of that, I got the chance to play every kind of music. That makes me able to move from one style to another in fast without any problem I guess.. so, here’s what I do. When I’m doing simakDialog, I set the limit on how far I could go, the same thing goes for Trioscapes. There might be some overlapping concept here and there, but still they both give different results.

riza-arshad-trioscapes

Okay.. talking about Trioscapes, will you please share us how it all began and why you took the era when jazz was just connected to rock in the early 70’s as your style?
Arie (Ayunir) and I gave a big attention to subtle funk at that time. The kind of music like Weather Report’s style, when jazz and rock were just found their fine blends. We were also really into ECM, like Keith Jarrett‘s style for example. One day we tried to find a bassist who could actually dig this concept. We put our eyes on Yance Manusama who played funk really well. He was such a natural talent. He reminded us of Steve Swallow and James Jameson.

And what about simakDialog? It’s Arie’s and your ideas too right? Will you please share us the story of how simakDialog started?
Yes that’s right. I had a trio with Arie Ayunir and Bintang Indrianto before. But Bintang only played with us until 1990 or something, Anto Hoed was the replacement before Jeffrey Tahalele took the position. Then we made a group firstly called Dialogue to play with Dewa Budjana on guitar on national TV station TVRI. Later we found out that there was a French group having the same name, so we got to change the name. I added “simak” in front of it.

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Why choosing the word “simak”?
Well, if you look at the dictionary, “simak” means to listen carefully, in full attention. I think it’s perfect. simakDialog, to listen carefully to the dialog.

Alright. Now let’s talk about the role of Arie Ayunir since he was involved in both groups. Who is Arie Ayunir to you?
He’s an amazing man. I’ve known him for 15 years. I can say that he’s my music soulmate. He’s encouraging knowledge. He’s a great friend and we have a lot in common. We both like to pay attention on music and people. For us, no art is bad. Maybe we can’t understand it, maybe we don’t agree with it, but it’s not bad. Having different opinion is normal. I graduated from the Fine Art Faculty of Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) and we were taught to think that way. Just like Arie and me, we have a lot in common yet. Having different opinion is common to us. But still, we’re really attached to each other. We had several ideas and they appear in different forms, such as Trioscapes and simakDialog.

Riza Arshad-Interview (1)Then Arie had to move to Colton, California, Aksan Sjuman came in replacing him in Trioscapes. It was through Arie’s recommendation right?
Yes that’s right. He personally suggested Aksan to take his part.

Why did he choose Aksan?
Aksan Sjuman graduated from Europe. Surely it wouldn’t be difficult for him to understand our concept. And I think now Aksan is like a soulmate as well. We are doing many projects together.

What do you personally think about Aksan?
He is an outstanding composer and brilliant player. He’s just as wild. He has the same vision that the art world is indeed indefinite. He always likes to think out of the box, but still he knows exactly his space. I feel really happy to be able to do something with him. We’re preparing a new project together as a matter of fact.

Really? How would it sound like?
It’s going to be more into ECM style and it’s going to be more acoustic.

Can’t wait for that! Both of you came from the background that “forced” you to play and understand many kinds of music. While you started with making jingle, Aksan was active as movie scores, orchestra and even making a lot of music for ballet. That should make you both highly creative. Speaking of the space, how far exactly can you stretch it?
People are contextual. Every human being sometimes experiences an anxiety. Sometimes we need to do something extreme to spice up our lives. I have roots, but sometimes I can break it in order to reduce my anxiety. So, it depends on the individual but still we have to calculate it well.

riza-arshad-simakdialog2Can you share us the conceptual journey of simakDialog from the beginning?
We were inspired from “YES”(the famous English progressive rock group in the 70’s) among other influenced. In the first and second albums (“Lukisan” and “Baur”), it could still be felt that we were inspired by Metheny, Weather Report and others. Frankly, I wasn’t satisfied with them both. But finally we could get away from the stereotypes since the third album, “Trance/Mission“. It felt really different and original, and I realized it when I listened to it right after returning home from Malaysia.

And that was the album that grabbed the attention of Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records too right?
Yes that’s right. But we got distributed internationally by MoonJune from the next album, “Patahan”.

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“Trance/Mission” is a unique name. Why using that name in the first place?
It was what we felt at that time. The album was made under the circumstances where we really needed to leave everything we knew and moved on to enter the new unknown world. It was like a “mission to be tranced”. That’s where the name came from.

Interesting! What about Patahan?
“Patahan” (means fault) is a geological form to describe the region landward of the volcanic chain on the other side from the subduction zone. Whenever the earthquake happened due to the fault activity, it would cause a big turbulence even damage to the earth. That’s what we felt at that time. We experienced a difficult situation. We didn’t know where else to go, experienced financial problems and all in our creativity. So the album was made based on that circumstance, like experiencing patahan. Surprisingly, the most favorite song from that album was “Kemarau”. I got many responses on that song especially by the overseas listeners. That surprised me, but that song was really original and different though.

Riza Arshad-Interview (7)If simakDialog were your child, in what stage is it now?
As a child, simakDialog is passed its teenage period now. It should already be able to compete in the society, giving significant contribution to it. What important is we have to know which destination we should bring simakDialog to. Actually this is the most crucial moment after its existence for more than 15 years. What we have to do is establishing the system, it’s more important than anything else.

As you are now in the process of making the 6th album of simakDialog, which direction is it going towards now?
As I said earlier, we’re focusing on establishing the system. I’m having intense discussion with the rest of the band members, especially with the “kendang” (the double headed traditional set of drums)  players (Cucu Kurnia, Erlan Suwardana and Endang Ramdan) in order to know our room of creativity clearly. simakDialog is a crowded band, so we have to be really smart in concept to avoid monotony. Through these great kendang players I learned a lot more about traditional music. And it’s important since we always want to blend the modern and traditional music perfectly until they can’t be recognized.

And that’s what the overseas reviewers said too..
Yes. I remember one reviewer said that simakDialog has the ability to combine two different worlds without feeling forced. For them it’s like a new system, and we’re happy about it because we never want to be compared to the other bands. Another review interestingly said that simakDialog forced you to understand their system. And that’s exactly what we wanted.

Is there any difficulty in creating the concepts so far?
As a matter of fact, yes there is. I think the problem is in choosing the instruments. You may notice that we don’t have any drums in simakDialog. We use set of kendang and toys instead. Because of that we have to match many things. For example, traditional kendang player would give a very different sound of 4/4 bar unlike the sound you used to hear from drums. We have to understand each other really well to create a perfect blend.

And as we notice, simakDialog interestingly keeps on moving deeper into the ethnical areas. Is that the path you’re going?
We can’t be static. We have to keep on moving to discover new things in creativity. Just like I said earlier, we all have the anxiety to do something new. We don’t want to stick in just one place. I want simakDialog to teach how to think in different ways. At the same time I have to keep my existence as an active worker. Luckily I have a great team in it. Look at Cucu Kurnia as an example; amazingly he can do “ostinato” with kendang. (ostinato is a musical terminology to describe a phrase which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice, in which each note is usually has the same weight, and could appear either by a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune or even in a complete melody). simakDialog is like a chef, we combine all the ingredients to make a specific kind of food.

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With all the concepts changing, how do you keep your fans? They might disagree with the new thing you deliver right?
Well yeah. Just like me, I only like Led Zeppelin until their 5th album, the same as Koes Plus (the legendary Indonesian band) or YES. We can disagree and feel disappointed with the changing concept brought by the band. But I just have to tell you this. If you can’t hold your creativity anymore, at least you got to have a certain boundary. I really like Ornette Coleman, he constructed free jazz brilliantly, and I’d like to try that style. But certainly I won’t do it with simakDialog. I can have another project to realize it instead.

You are also the curator/music director of Serambi Jazz. It was made to rejuvenate the Germany and Indonesia friendship established about four decades ago by the historical performance of Indonesian All Star/Indonesia 5 and their recording of “Djanger Bali” in Germany. How did it start?
It all started when Goethe asked simakDialog to perform at GoetheHaus at least twice a year. We couldn’t do it so I gave them a better idea. At that time I was just finished with series of Pasar Jazz. I offered them the same package, but with wider space for the bands to explore. They agreed and excited with the idea, and Serambi Jazz was born.

Why giving the name Serambi Jazz?
Serambi (Veranda) is a roofed opened gallery where you welcome your guests before entering the house. That was the idea where the name came from.

The mission of Serambi Jazz is to re-establish the mutual friendship between Germany and Indonesia in cultures especially in music and jazz. Besides carrying that mission, what else do you have in mind about this event?
We want Serambi Jazz as an alternative, completing all the other running regular jazz events in Indonesia, such as Java Jazz Festival, JakJazz, Jazz Goes to Campus and so on. Also we want to level up the jazz and present art at the same time.

What is the criteria for selecting the performers at Serambi Jazz?
The criteria are simple actually. They got to have high dedication to Indonesian jazz development, or simply say those who live their life in jazz. We have many great players that are not widely known yet, so we hope to introduce them to get more appreciation from the society. I also focus on bringing the young musicians that has the ability and dedication.

And for the German musicians, since you always present workshops too, do you take the ability to teach as the criteria too?
Absolutely, besides being a good jazz player they also have to be able to teach because I really want us to learn from them. Many of the musicians have a lot of potentials to share their knowledge. We can always learn something from them. Let’s take one example, Henning Sieverts. Besides having a unique concept of translating classic paintings (der Blaue Riter’s collection), he is also a lecturer and a journalist.

How do you select the performers in every series?
Well, we select them together. For the German musicians, usually Goethe gives the list, then I decide who to invite.

What are the advantages of Serambi Jazz for Germany?
There are a lot actually. They didn’t know much about our jazz development before and how far the acceptance of jazz in the society. Now they are surprised to see that the people can understand jazz well, even the complex ones. There have been many lecturers want to share their knowledge to Indonesia, but before they didn’t have any channel to do that. I’ve heard many comments about how creative we are. So they are always interested to come and teach here.

Riza Arshad-Interview (2)

Now let’s talk about W/H/A/T, your group with young talented players (Sandy Winarta, Sri Hanuraga, and Indrawan Tjhin). How did it form?
The album was made two years ago when Indrawan and Aga (Sri Hanuraga) were still studying in Netherland. In 2008 coincidentally both of them returned on holiday. I asked them to play together when they went back for holiday then we just made it as a recording. Like you said, they were all still young, but they all have strong focus, high ambition, and the same passion into the “straight ahead jazz”. Look at Indrawan, he’s a real idealist. And for Aga, I think he will become an influential jazz musician in the world. Aga got grade 9 for jazz and classic and because of that, both jazz and the classical departments wanted Aga to join them in. And speaking of Sandy, just take a look at how he’s doing right now.

riza-arshad2You decided to play with the young ones Instead of playing with the senior jazz musicians at your age. Why?
I think it’s natural and normal that we like to work with the young stars. They have high energy, high idealism and amazing with their instruments. In fact many senior musicians do it too. Look at Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, or recently Indra Lesmana. (Indra has just done a special collaboration with Barry Likumahuwa and Sandy Winarta in Mostcatly Jazz and also active making the Friday Jam Session in his Inline Studio). We have experience, they have energy. It’s a perfect combination that can make something special out of it.

It’s like a pleasant surprise to see these fresh new generations with full passion and talents appear at the same time at this moment. Do you feel that this is the perfect time to have the jazz movement since we have the golden generation at present?
Yeah.. Absolutely true. If there is ever a jazz movement, it has to be now. Several years ago it seemed like impossible to find musicians who wanted to play jazz. But now we have lots of fresh talents, who understand and passionate with jazz terminologies. This is the golden generation we have been waiting for. Finally we have it. They are truly the hope of our nation. These are the talents we are looking for to pass our legacy and take our place soon. The future of jazz is in their hands.

Yeah, and the list is long enough for us to hope for something. Indrawan Tjhin, Karty Rosen, Robert Mulyarahardja, Karty Rosen, Indra Dauna, Sri Hanuraga, Nikita Dompas, Sandy Winarta, Donny Sundjoyo, Irsa Destiwi, Shandy Satya, Aditya Bayu are just a few to mention. Many of them learn abroad, some will graduate and come home soon. What do you think about some musicians who decide to study overseas?
Before they went to study overseas, I asked them to grab as much knowledge as possible, learn many things, feel the experience and always look for a chance out there. I always tell them to look at the phenomenal success of Ananda Sukarlan as the source of inspiration. As time goes by, I think we have to agree that jazz can be accepted everywhere and it’s everlasting. So it’s good if they can use the chance maximally while living abroad. The governments there really care about the live of musicians. They are willing to donate and support the musicians until they can stand on their feet fully. Because of that, I believe they can grow faster abroad.

Riza Arshad-Interview (5)Yeah, it will be very beneficial for our jazz development, that’s for sure. Besides actively playing in jazz circuit, is there anything else you expect from them?
Absolutely…. They have to have visions not only playing but also educating. I urge them to open a conservatorium so they can pass their knowledge to others. We have lots of homework to do if we want to see jazz reach the exact stage where it belongs. Sandy Winarta is going to continue his study at Netherlands, I said “go ahead”, learn everything there and feel the experience.

What is your role as a senior jazz musician?
Just like Indra Lesmana and other senior musicians, we are responsible to set the direction for these young musicians, giving them enough space and chance to grow. We have to keep our eyes on them, how far they could go with their passion. It’s also our duty to share our experience and help them in many ways. They have to learn from many things, they are not only hearing the successful story but also hearing unsuccessful one.

Thank you very much for sharing many things to us. Wish you all the best.
The pleasure is mine too.. you’re welcome

Interviewed by: Riandy Kurniawan, Febrian Dirga, Kurnia Bayu Aji
Proofreader: Alhenri Wijaya

4 COMMENTS

  1. This is a fine interview of a great creative force in Indonesia’s jazz scene.

    A true ‘Guv’nor’, I have an interview with Riza about how he views the current jazz scene in the next edition of Culture Shock! Jakarta published later this month.

    I hope you don’t mind if I link to this page on my music page in Jakartass.
    J

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