If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” American jazz legend Louis Armstrong was once quoted as saying.
As a genre of music that is supposed to be felt rather than just heard, it is undeniable that jazz has become more popular in the country. The two international festivals held in Indonesia almost every year is proof of this interest.
But while many people associate jazz with its country of origin, the United States, it is a little-known fact that Europe also has a thriving jazz scene.
The German Jazz Exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Jakarta, set to reopen on June 7 after a brief hiatus, sheds light on the music in Germany. The exhibit covers the beginning of jazz in the ’20s when it first swept over the country, its struggles under the swastika and Nazi regime, the different developments in East and West Germany, as well as the present scene currently centered in Berlin.
At the exhibition’s two music stations, visitors can listen to some samplings.
“We’ve been really surprised at how many people came to the exhibition opening,” said Frank Werner, head of cultural programs at the Goethe Institute. “Even [Governor] Fauzi Bowo, who is apparently a jazz lover himself, sent us a big bouquet of flowers.”
Compared to other exhibitions that the institute has held in the past, the current one has been getting much more attention. The Goethe Institute, however, had already recognized Jakartans’ passion for jazz even from way back.
“Since 2008, we have observed and analyzed Indonesia’s jazz scene and saw that it is very Anglo-American influenced,” Werner said.
This has let the institute to organize the Serambi Jazz concert series in collaboration with local musician Riza Arshad. “He was looking for a new venue to hold jazz concerts,” Werner said. “Initially, he just wanted to use our auditorium, but I quickly recognized that we should do more than just that, not least because there are actual connections between Indonesia and Germany when it comes to jazz.”
People may not know this, but jazz ties between Indonesia and Germany reach far back. Joachim Ernst Behrend, the acknowledged German “pope of jazz,” had visited Indonesia in the ’60s. When he returned home, Behrend, who also worked as a TV and radio journalist, introduced some Indonesian jazz tracks to his native land upon his return.
Werner said that while some German jazz musicians of the older generation were known to Indonesian jazz enthusiasts, knowledge of the current German jazz scene was almost non-existent.
“So I offered Riza to develop a new program together,” he said. “That was when Serambi Jazz was born.”
The concert series, held every two months, introduces both German and Indonesian jazz musicians to the local audience. The German musicians that come to play also offer workshops.
“At the beginning, not many people came to these concerts,” Werner said. “Maybe because it was a new concept, introducing bands unknown to the local audience. But it has slowly become its own brand, a platform for contemporary jazz.”
He added that he initially thought about collaborating with the big jazz festivals, but eventually decided against it because he wanted Serambi Jazz to stand on its own merit.
The next Serambi Jazz concert will be held on June 10. Indonesian guitarist Nikita Dompas and acoustic bass player Indrawan Tjhin are set to take the stage.
Concerts are an integral part of the Goethe Institute’s cultural program. Devy Ferdianto, conductor and director of the Bandung-based Salamander Big Band, belongs to the group of musicians who have already performed there. “The first time we played there was in 2007 and also for our anniversary in November last year,” he said. “The acoustics there is the best in Jakarta.”
He added that the Goethe Institute had definitely done a great job of spreading the music in the country.
Up until 2008, the Goethe Institute had several projects in the field of electronic music, but the focus has now shifted to jazzier tunes.
“There are so many talented jazz musicians in Indonesia,” Werner said. “But unfortunately, there are not many possibilities to study this genre. Many of the musicians are self-taught. But the jazz scene in Indonesia is indeed a vivid and interesting one.”