Standing in front of Indonesian television cameras that would broadcast her to thousands, Hannah Marie Standiford was stunned by her situation.
She’d been in Java only six months before she was asked to sing an Indonesian folk tune on the television show “Kick Andy” — the Indonesian equivalent of “Oprah.” Two days later, wearing a traditional fuchsia dress, the Richmonder launched into “Yen Ing Tawang Ono Lintang” to open the show.
“To me, it was absolutely absurd,” Standiford says of her February performance. “I think I did it pretty well, but I’d only been singing in that style for three months.”
Appearing on television was just one of the adventures Standiford undertook in her year long study of the country’s music. Another venture had her laying the groundwork for Rumput, a new Richmond group that aims to combine the styles and sounds of Indonesian kroncong (pronounced “kronchong”) music with American old-time songs.
The frontwoman of Hannah Marie and the Bearded Ladies, and formerly Cardinal Compass, Standiford became interested in Indonesian music after attending a performance of the University of Richmond’s Gamelan Raga Kusuma three years ago. Formed by music professor Andy McGraw in 2007, the 25-person orchestra plays traditional Balinese-style gamelan on what looks like a collection of odd xylophones to the outsider.
“Gamelan is mainly composed of metallophones that play in very percussive, interlocking patterns,” Standiford says, “and Balinese gamelan in particular is very fast and lively.”
McGraw first visited Indonesia in 1996, and was fascinated by the diversity of culture available on the country’s roughly 18,000 islands, which include Java, Sumatra and Bali.
“I was really blown away at how different each village was musically, linguistically, culturally,” McGraw says. “The food was different everywhere, and for an American raised in Kansas City where America is more or less the same every highway exit you get off of, you experience a real cultural difference.”
Something familiar struck him about a different style of music that appeared in some of the villages he encountered.
“This is the aftermath of the Portuguese arriving in Indonesia over 500 years ago and their sailors,” McGraw says. “Some of them were African, South Asian, Moorish sailors who had these instruments, these Western [string] instruments.”
Blending traditional Indonesian music with Western-style instruments, the hybrid kroncong was formed, becoming an important piece of the national identity in an otherwise ethnically pluralistic country. Familiar with American old-time music, McGraw instantly saw similarities. Instead of performing as individuals on a stage, the group played in an inward facing circle, and elements of their sound reminded him of folk music from the Ozarks.
When Standiford was awarded a grant last year to study music in Indonesia, she and McGraw hatched a plan to film kroncong musicians in the hopes of replicating the music here. Like the cross-pollination that originally formed kroncong, they also hoped to mix it with American folk music. Using an iPhone, Standiford filmed musicians playing as a group, then filmed the musicians individually so Western ears could figure out the individual parts.
“It was really difficult for [the Indonesian musicians], because they really do not practice individually,” Standiford says. “You practice as a group. That’s how you learn.”
At night, Standiford used her spotty Internet service to send videos back to McGraw, who’d begun forming Rumput. By this time, Standiford had begun arranging and teaching Javanese musicians such old-time standards as “The Ballad of John Henry.” Now that Standiford has returned, Rumput is playing gigs, including shows at Balliceaux, Crossroads, Stir Crazy and a shared bill with Fado Nosso at the Camel.
Next April, Rumput will perform in an event at the Modlin Center for the Arts called “Shadow Ballads.” Combining Appalachian and Asian music styles, it also will mix puppetry forms from these places. Artists from both countries will blend Indonesian shadow puppetry with American crankies, a form of folk theater depicting ballads on paper and cloth rolls.
Among Rumput’s early fans, many of whom hail from Indonesia, is Carl Hamm, host of WRIR-FM 97.3’s “If Music Could Talk.” A world music aficionado, Hamm had Rumput on his show this summer and was impressed by its sound.
“The background music sort of has this pulsing, hypnotic effect, but the lilting quality of the vocals adds another layer that is just so sweet and beautiful,” Hamm says. “It would be really easy to mess it up if you didn’t know what you were doing or didn’t study it really well.”
“They are such professionals,” he adds. “And if you didn’t know that they weren’t Indonesian as you were listening to them, you would think they were.” S
Rumput plays Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m., at Balliceaux, 203 N. Lombardy St. $5. balliceauxrva.com.