Televised Performance with Sufi Mystic Cak Nun in Jogjakarta, Indonesia

I had just come home from another day in Jogja (aka paradise) when I noticed that the rest of the gang at the guesthouse was gathering for an evening outing. Lily said that we were going to meet a friend of Ibu Syafa. Chris said I should wear hijab. Okay, but what kind of event was this? Was it a meeting? A prayer service? A show? A concert? Would it be formal? Informal? For some reason, no one knew. But all of our Indonesian friends were very, very excited about it. "It's a very rare opportunity," they said.

His name is Emha Ainun Najib, but he is known across Indonesia as Cak Nun (pronounced like "chalk noon"). Apparently he is an incredibly well-known Sufi mystic who has published over 40 books of essays and poetry. His wife is a well-known singer and musician, and they perform with a large band made up of gamelan and other instruments. Once a month he holds a large, televised "meeting" and concert, where hundreds of young Muslims interested in the mystical and social teachings of Islam gather to ask questions and hear his wisdom and music.

When we arrived at the pavilion, there was already a large crowd gathered. Some men were sitting on a stage taking questions from the audience. Their responses were obviously comedic, and every now and then the crowd broke out into uproarious laughter. It looked and felt a little like an Islamic version of the David Letterman Show. We were led into a house that seemed to be serving as a kind of backstage VIP lounge, and offered refreshments.

Right away, Ibu Syafa and Ainoen began to say that I should perform a song with Cak Nun and his gamelan band. At this point, I had gotten used to people asking me to sing something at a moment's notice, but this felt a bit different. There was a huge audience out there. And TV cameras.

"Okay," I mused, "but I would probably need to meet the band first. I mean, how would I know what songs to play?" "Oh they are very talented," Ibu Syafa said. "I think they can play along with anything."

I tried to explain that music doesn't exactly work that way...that even the most talented musicians must begin with some agreed-upon basis for creating harmony together - you have to at least know the tune, or the chords, or the key, or something. They either didn't believe me, or they didn't care.

Performing music in Indonesia has not been an easy experience. Part of what I do as a performer, everywhere I go, is to engage creatively with context. I like to know who my audience is, what they know, where they are coming from, so that I can understand how to best to play on their expectations, and walk that fine line between meeting people where they are and pushing them a bit further than they would normally go. This is not something I have been able to do in Jogja. I am still struggling to understand the language, and my knowledge of the context is very rudimentary.

Meanwhile, the people here know nothing of the nuances of my own contextual identity as an indie folk artist from North Carolina now living in New York City. In Indonesia, I am just an "American." And the "American" music that most people in Indonesia know is Justin Beiber and Michael Jackson. These people just want me to play "Heal the World," over and over and over again.

I thank God for the Beatles, and especially John Lennon, because this is where I can usually strike a compromise. I decided that if anyone asked me to play a song, I would break out "Imagine" and hope for the best.

"Will I get to hear them play a little bit before I have to go out there?" I asked. I figured hearing the band might give me at least some indication of what I was getting myself into.

"Oh yes," Ainoen assured me. "They will probably play a few songs and invite you out." That sounded okay to me.

But of course, that is not what happend.

Instead, about ten minutes later, while I was still happily sipping my tea in the back room, Ibu Syafa without a word took me by the arm, stood me up, and led me out onto the stage in front of her. She sat me down in the middle of the stage between herself and the comedian host, in front of the TV crews and camera flashes and hundreds of smiling faces all murmuring to one another in bahasa Indonesian. Lily, Mark, Chris, Subandri, and the rest of the gang tagged along behind, and seated themselves behind Ibu Syafa, much further away from me than I would have liked.

Under the bright lights, the host introduced us to the crowd. He was talking quite fast, and I couldn't really understand him, but it was clear that every now and then we were the butt of some joke because intermittently the crowd would break out into hysterical laughter at our expense. I smiled dumbly and stared into the lights. Sometimes Ibu Syafa would try to translate the jokes for me, but humor also requires that knowledge of context, and never quite works in translation.

We were asked to give our responses to questions taken from the audience. They asked us hard stuff, too: about the real purpose of the war in Iraq, about 9/11, about Islamophobia in the U.S. None of us had been prepared for this but we stumbled our way through our answers as best we could, and Ibu Syafa translated for the crowd. At one point the host leaned over and quietly asked if I would be willing to sing a song without any musical accompaniment. Sure, I said, quickly thinking up a folk tune I could sing a capella.

Little did I know, he was setting me up. In front of the crowd, the man handed me a microphone and asked if I would sing a song for everyone, something from America. I didn't even get through the first line before I heard "No, no, no!" coming from the other end of the stage. Everyone laughed as a man emerged from the back and came around to where I was sitting with a microphone in one hand and a guitar in the other. He asked me if I would please sing Cat Stevens' "Wild World." I told him I didn't know all the lyrics. The crowd just sat there... staring... waiting. All eyes were on me.

It was at this moment that I started to break into a panic. I mean, what do these people think, that just because I'm a musician I am some sort of magical unicorn creature who can just show up anywhere at anytime and start singing anything with no warning and no rehearsal and no music? Besides, everyone's laughing and I can't understand what they're saying, and I can't hear myself in this mic, and my stupid scarf keeps falling off my head, and I would not have worn a damn skirt if I had known I was going to have to sit cross-legged in front of hundreds of people and TV cameras!! Gah!!!

Breathe, Kristen, just breathe.

Deeper down I knew all these feelings were just the foolishness of ego. I knew that in reality, any demonstration of weakness on my part would be a light-hearted blessing for them. I knew the spontaneity of the opportunity itself was a blessing for me, and that nothing quite like this would probably ever happen in my life again. And so in spite of the pangs of discomfort and humiliation wreaking havoc inside of me, I was determined to show up for the moment.

Meanwhile, the man had suggested that the band play me a song, to show me how it's done while I figured out what to do. They agreed, and started to play... and that's when I heard it..

The gamelan. The violin. The piano. The flute. The drums.

This was the band of my dreams! I listened in awe and pure delight, hoping that they would give me another chance. When their song ended, the host walked over again with the electric guitar, giggling a bit, unsure whether I would take it from him or whether I was actually capable of doing anything with it at all... but much to the man's delight - as well as to the delight of the crowd, Ibu Syafa, my Indonesian and American friends, and myself - I took that instrument from him and immediately started to play "Imagine." And the band of my dreams came in right behind me, without missing a beat.

By the end of the song, two-thirds of the audience was singing along. We then went straight into a rendition of Cat Stevens' "Wild World," where I sang along on the chorus. Not being quite done with this gig of all gigs, I asked if they knew "Blowing in the Wind," which they did, and we performed by far the best version of that song I had ever played.

And that was only the beginning. Our evening with Cak Nun had not even begun yet. When the man himself finally emerged from a hidden room and came out onto the stage, the entire spirit of the crowd shifted. Everyone became quiet and hushed. All eyes were on him. They waited. He sat down, took a sip of water, and began speaking into the mic: "Hi," he began. "I'm [shit]." Ibu Syafa tried to explain the word pun to me as the crowd burst forth in hysterical laughter, but I didn't understand it.

He spoke for a while, in a way that was full of wisdom, kindness, humor, and humility.

After a while the talking stopped and a song leader from the band began to sing a transfixing melody that the crowd reflected back to him in a call and response pattern. The drums came in, and then the music grew and swelled until soon everyone was singing together, shouting their prayers to God in collective, melodic, and rhythmic vibrations, while the drums carried us onward as if from out of the depths of the earth.

Then the violins came in, and Cak Nun himself began to sing, lifting us into a kind of theophany through music. His voice was unlike anything I'd ever heard, and the melodies he sang collided with deep uncharted territory within me. The notes were bending and stretching like rubber in kairos time, re-working me from the inside, molding me into a new creation, interweaving me with God and with everyone in that pavilion. I had this feeling like I could remember everything that was good, and all that was Holy was right there with me, filling my being. Suddenly I began to weep. It was like the good kind of pain you get when someone massages a muscle that is very sore... except it felt like that in my soul.

Click here for a recording of that prayer.

Afterwards, Cak Nun explained that the prayer they sang had been for us, for our families, and for the work we will do as ambassadors of peace in returning to our country. As he continued to speak, Ibu Syafa asked me to pass a note to Cak Nun, which unbeknownst to me contained a request to speak with him privately. For reasons I still don't entirely understand, he accepted, and left the stage where hundreds had gathered just to hear him speak, to spent the rest of the evening having a private chat with the six of us.

We went into a tiny room and shut the door. Ibu Syafa started to speak with him about the mystical teachings of Meister Eckhart and Ibn al-Arabi. He then spoke to us until about 3:30 am - about God, and existence, and society, and religion. He also talked a lot about music, and specifically about the music he and his wife have created with their band, by combining the gamelan with so many other instruments to pick up musical resonances and styles from all over the world.

He said that, though the Creator had ordered him to be Javanese, he felt that it was his responsibility as a Javanese Indonesian to find a way to "say hello" to everybody all over the world, sometimes through his words, but most of the time through the music. He talked about theory too - about the major and minor in jazz, and about the American blues, the Arabic major and minor, and the major and minor in traditional Javanese gamelan music. All of these are different, he said, but the Javanese music can be transformed into new structures, so that it can be played with American songs like "Blowing in the Wind," as well as songs in the styles of other cultures - Egypt, Morocco, India, China. Through the music, people from different countries feel that you are a part of their heart, and they are a part of yours.

"If I sing this song from your culture, it is impossible that I would beat you," he said. "For you it's the same. This is interfaith without any words, without any statements."

Amin, Amen.

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