Interviews

Against Ethno-Kitsch: Trance Music in a Broken System

Arrington de Dionyso, Nehemiah St-Danger & Jake Jones of Arrington de Dionyso's Malaikat dan Singa (all images courtesy of the artist)
Arrington de Dionyso, Nehemiah St-Danger & Jake Jones of Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa (all images courtesy of the artist)

CHICAGO — “I’m pretty opinionated about music,” says artist/musician Arrington de Dionysio, whose creative work has taken him to Indonesia and back. “I’m not interested in sampling ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ for its own sake alone, the results are usually boring and insincere, a kind of pandering the lowest common denominator of ethno-kitsch.”

The Olympia, Washington-based artist/musician’s creative repertoire of performance art, music, visual art and mysticism has taken him to Indonesia and back, and now he’s prepping for a second return. His project Malaikat Dan Singa, a trance punk ensemble, is a transformational spiritual experience for all who participate, combining dancehall rhythms with gamelan scales and mystically inspired incantations in Indonesian through a throatsigning technique combined with a modified bass clarinet. During his first trip in 2011, he began collaborating with musicians he met there, immersing himself in creative culture there.

“Wukir Suryadi is an instrument inventor and experimentalist of the highest calibre, regardless of specific cultural background, he is a master musician and a dear friend,” Arrington tells Hyperallergic. “We play very well with each other — we can barely maintain a basic conversation and yet he is one of the most intuitive musical partners I have ever performed with.”

From the 24 Hour Drawing Performance and Mermaid Auction at Front Space in Kansas City, MO on February 23rd 2013 with Peregrine Honig © Paul Andrews Photography 2013
From the 24 Hour Drawing Performance and Mermaid Auction at Front Space in Kansas City, MO on February 23rd 2013 with Peregrine Honig. (© Paul Andrews Photography 2013)

Why Indonesia, and what about throatsigning is it that keeps Arrington intrigued? He tells me that he has been interested in Indonesia since 1989, when an family friend participated in an artists’ residency there and traveled through Bali and Java. This friend brought back a few cassette tapes, which fascinated the young musician.

My liberal arts degree self felt skeptical about a white dude traveling to Indonesia to participate in the music of a culture that could easily be read as “exotic” to Americans, and could quickly be dismissed as another form of cultural imperialism. But I had already come across one aspect of Arrington’s visual art — collaborative “24 Hour Drawing Performances” which present spiritualized forms as bodies in their quivering states, located somewhere out there on an astral plane — and found myself quite intrigued by both the process and the outcome. I encountered this artwork through the internet, however, and I knew I needed to experience this creativity in-person before arriving at any conclusions.

Lucikly, Arrington was performing a show at Schuba’s tavern in Chicago. I’m not sure how to describe this fully spiritual and mystical experience other than to say that it sent me into a trance, my body swinging and bending and flying to the mix of gutteral throatsinging, bass clarinet bumping and steel-string plucking. Released from the everyday — and completely not under the influence of any substance, by the way — I felt catapulted into a utopic state, that same ecstatic state via Shamanic trance that the bodies in Arrington’s drawings occupied.

Musician & artist Arrington de Dionysio
Musician & artist Arrington de Dionysio

“I’d like to believe that I am coming rather from a fascination with how certain groups of sounds work together,” Arrington said. “It just so happens that gutteral throatsinging, dancehall rhythms, post-punk ‘Beefheartian’ guitars, growling bass clarinet and Indonesian scales all coalesce and work together in a way that I not only find irresistible, but find that it communicates what I have to say to the world musically more than anything else regardless of the specifics of time or place in which I now live.”

In a return trip to Indonesia, which Arrington is currently raising funds for via his Kickstarter campaign Kembali ke INDONESIA!, he’ll continue this collaborating with Indonesian musicians. I am curious to see what happens during this second visit across the ocean.

“I’ll be playing my bass clarinet alongside the double reed ‘tarompet,’ collaborating with these musicians front and center,” says Arrington. “I am very familiar with the workings behind going into trance while playing music, and as such it becomes less and less exotic every time, it’s just really fucking fun to play with these guys!”

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