Q&A with Dwiki Dharmawan: Indonesia’s Jazz Ambassador


Dwiki Dharmawan performs at the 2017 Jarkata International Java Jazz Festival

(Photo: Java Jazz)

A headliner at this year’s Java Jazz Festival (March 3–5) in Jakarta, Indonesia, pianist/keyboardist/composer/bandleader Dwiki Dharmawan devoted much of his energies to playing music from his recent CD Pasar Klewer (Moonjune) in three separate concerts in two cities. The Bandung, West Java, native also performed with his World Peace Trio in a second appearance at Java Jazz. Both bands featured an array of musicians from different parts of the world.

A peace activist and cultural icon, Dharmawan, 50, continues his mission to promote Indonesian culture abroad even as he celebrates it at home, seeing music as a bridge to promoting peace and understanding between people of all nations.

Having traveled to over 70 countries in a career that spans more than three decades, he’s served as a member of the Jakarta Arts Council and the Farabi Music Education Center and is the new chairman of the AMI Awards.

DownBeat sat down with Dharmawan between scheduled concerts during Java Jazz at the Fairmont Jakarta Hotel.

I understand your first musical experiences weren’t with the piano.

I started playing piano after I learned the traditional music of Indonesia—gamelan—since I was 4 years old. So the first instrument in my life is not piano; the first instrument in my life is gamelan, Sundanese gamelan. I also learned the music of angklung, [played with] an Indonesian bamboo instrument.

When did the switch to piano take place?

When I had my eighth birthday, my mother gave me a present, an upright piano, because she really liked music and she wanted me to be a pianist. I really liked piano, and I started to study Western classical music for five years, until the age of 13. So, I can already play Beethoven to Mozart to Chopin to Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky. And I really liked Gershwin. And when I was 13, there was MARA, the local radio in my hometown of Bandung that always played jazz music. Sometimes they play Dizzy Gillespie; sometimes they play some John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

When did you start to hear piano players?

I heard on the radio Thelonious Monk. Wow. I was so impressed. One day I bought an album by Bill Evans, and inside that album there was a song, “Waltz For Debby.” And I fell in love. Another day, I bought the Ahmad Jamal album Deja Vu, and [an album] by Cecil Taylor. I was excited. I tried to follow everything he did on his piano. And after that, there’s one more jazz radio [station] in Bandung, KLCBS. They had this very complex jazz music. From that radio, I would always hear other great jazz musicians. Joe Zawinul, the progressives like Mahavishnu Orchestra. So, I decided to stop classical piano and started learning jazz piano.

So roughly 10 years after you started learning gamelan and angklung?

Yeah. And, after that, I started joining in many local bands, that were mostly not playing jazz. Playing Top 40 in some clubs. Until I decided to make my own band, Krakatau, in 1984. Jazz-rock music. Fender Rhodes, mini-moog, Yamaha DX-7. Original compositions.

We played on the only Indonesian government television [station]. Live jazz-rock, once a month. And in 1985, we played at the Yamaha Band Festival in Tokyo, and I was awarded the best keyboard player. It was my first time [traveling] abroad. When I came back, I became more interested in exploring the synthesizers. And I became a local endorser for Yamaha, from 1985 to 1990.

What were the ’90s like for you?

In the early 1990s, after making several albums, Krakatau stopped, and I started to explore my own music, working with contemporary orchestras, and I’m arranging and producing a lot of Indonesian artists. And then, in 1993, reuniting with Krakatau, we began exploring gamelan music, because I’m remembering my childhood. It’s always in my head—the sound of traditional gamelan never left from my head. And then we mix that fusion of world music, Krakatau Ethno.

When we played at the Jakarta Jazz Festival in 1993, many promoters were there. Some promoters from Australia invited us to come, with all the gamelan stuff, sitar, a big band with 12 people. They liked us very much. After that we played in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, along with more than 40 other countries, including Europe and America, Africa and Asia. With Krakatau Ethno we released four albums. In America, we had good situations where we had invitations to come to different universities that have schools of music to teach and give lectures.

How long did you continue with Krakatau Ethno?

Until 2008, when I started with my solo albums and formed my band World Peace Orchestra, which is my other project. Whenever I visit countries, the orchestra always has the spirit of Indonesia. The bass player is Jimmy Haslip, the drummer is Alfredo Reyes, Jr., the percussionist is Steve Thornton, and guitarist is Frank Gambale. I played piano and synthesizer. Actually, in 2002, I made my first solo album with Sony Music International, called Nuansa.

Around that time you met Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records in New York. But you weren’t ready to record with him.

When we were in New York, and we played Lincoln Center, I met Leonardo. It took seven years to finally record, in 2015, at my friend Jeff Lorber’s studio in Los Angeles. [The record featured] drummer Chad Wackerman, Jimmy Haslip, and also Dewa Budjana and Tohpati, the guitar players from Indonesia, plus Jerry Goodman [former Mahavishnu Orchestra violin player] doing some dubbing from his home studio. That album was called So Far So Close and released in October 2015.

In between, there was another project slated by Leonardo.

In 2015, June, I went to London and ... actually, I was on vacation with my family. At the time, Leonardo contacted me and said, “You can do some recording in London with some good musicians.” I didn’t know bassist Yaron [Stavi], drummer Asaf Sirkis, guitarist Mark Wingfield or reed player Gilad Atzmon.

So, everyone on what became Pasar Klewer you’d never met before, including the gamelan player, who is from Indonesia?

Yes, including the gamelan player [Aris Daryono]! Everyone was there, except [vocalist] Boris [Savoldelli], who was in Italy and [guitarist] Nicolas [Meier], who was in Switzerland. So, Leo set up two days for live recording. I brought the sketches, like painting. “This is my music. Let’s play this, more open.” Not like So Far So Close, which is very detailed. I wrote everything. Jimmy and Chad really liked that. Asaf and Yaron were much more open. That’s what I like! (laughs). And then, in December, 2015, we play in Bali, same tunes, but in different ways (laughs)! Leo decided to release the album in November, 2016. [Reviewed in DownBeat, December 2016. Five stars.]

What’s ahead?

I’m already preparing some music for my next two albums, which will be recorded in May west of Barcelona in a castle, La Casamurada.

What’s the design behind these projects?

One is something like Pasar Klewer, but with the flamenco spirit, like multi-cultural jazz, with a Vietnamese flavor [featuring guitarist Nguyen Le, French of Vietnamese descent]. The other one is with German [touchguitarist] Markus [Reuter]. I’m thinking we can do something more with some electronic music. But still with the flavor of Indonesia.

Final question. Pasar Klewer is named after the Klewer Market, the busiest textile market in Java. What’s the meaning behind the title?

I was sitting in this small coffee shop at the market in central Java, and I realized the market is not only the place of people selling and buying, but that there is a cultural interaction inside the market. I can see that. What is the message? Traditional markets, destroyed by the big retail. Like in America with Walmart, in Indonesia we have also big retail, like Indomaret, and they destroy all the traditional markets. This is dangerous.

Traditional markets are great to me. Beautiful, people go to some simple coffee house, sitting there talking, discussion. And then some musicians come in, playing some traditional music. And people say, “Hello, how are you?” In the traditional, small market, people are talking, listening. DB

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