American Malaikat dan Singa Is Big in (and About) Indonesia

A famous series of ads for Rosetta Stone tells a fictional narrative about some Midwestern farmboy intensively learning Italian to get with an beautiful Italian woman. The pitch seems to be that learning a new language opens up new opportunities, and since it is advertising, the sexual opportunities are top priority.

Arrington de Dionyso, most famous for his work in the K Records noise-rock band Old Time Relijun, took up the Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia) about six years ago for reasons the farmboy would recognize: He wanted to impress a woman he was dating at the time. But his amorous aspirations also coincided with his musical aspirations in starting what would become his current project, Malaikat dan Singa.

Malaikat dan Singa is scheduled to play at Trunk Space on April 18, at 7:30.

"I speak a number of different languages: French, Italian, and Spanish, and I was trying to utilize some of those languages, but I was finding that they didn't really fit in the rhythms I was trying to compose," Dionyso says. "Right around the same time, I was dating a lovely woman who had lived in Indonesia, so I thought it might be an interesting surprise to spend six months teaching myself Indonesian and translate some of my lyrics into Indonesian and record the original Malaikat dan Singa album as a surprise to kind of impress her with my linguistic ability."

"Then it kind of took off," Dionyso says. "It took on a life of its own completely separate from anything I had done before."

The band originated from Dionyso's desire to start a dancehall influenced post-punk band: something rooted in heavy rhythms but also lyrical mysticism (Dionyso cites the romantic poet William Blake as a key inspiration.) Within the Indonesian language, Dionyso found qualities that made it the perfect medium for the kind of music he wanted to produce.

"I became really obsessed with the Indonesian language because it is an incredibly musical language," Dionyso says. "With writing songs and putting lyrics together, it's really easy to rhyme things and have long strings of words that are all connected and kind of have their own rhythm to it. I was just really taken away with this new inspiration."

Eventually, Dionyso managed to impress more people than just the woman he was dating with his new found linguistic skills. After a few tours and releases, hip kids in Indonesia, enthusiastic upon discovering an established American outsider musician creating joyfully weird music in their language, began asking him to play shows in their country.

Dionyso followed through in 2011, playing shows on the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok, discovering even more inspiration from the contemporary musical culture in the archipelago. Bands like Senyawa, a Javanese duo combining traditional music with no-wave experimentation on homemade instruments, and Karinding Attack, a collective composed of veterans of the Bandung death metal scene all playing bamboo instruments, are just a few of the acts that stuck out to Dionyso as exemplary of Indonesia's innovative underground music scene.

Within this environment of experimentation, Dionyso also witnessed the kind of conflict between traditional and modern that is found in all music scenes, but can be even more apparent in a rapidly developing, globalizing country.

"The most surprising thing playing these concerts," Dionyso says, "is that a lot of these kids know more about bands like Nirvana than they do about traditional Indonesian music. So to go over there and create this kind of hybrid form of music that is entirely new but using familiar elements of electric rock music with different traditional sources, people over there were really taken aback and surprised by that.

"The kids who are trying to be more modern, a lot of them think that traditional music is just this old-fashioned thing that doesn't mean much to them," Dionyso says. "It's kind of like how I could say to someone in America, 'Hey, when was the last time you went square dancing?' Things like that don't seem very relevant there. It's old fashioned. I had a lot of interesting conversations about this."

Dionyso, however, does not assume the role of a white savior swooping to protect traditional Indonesian music from erosive Western influences.

He doesn't think that cultural or temporal influences have to be antagonistic towards each other in music, adapting a more humanistic view that, really, everyone is just trying to make something that sounds cool.

"It's sort of cliche, we all live on one planet and as diverse and interesting as all these different cultures can be, it's all human cultures," Dionyso says. "All these different styles of music made around the world, it's all made by humans. We all have the same DNA. It's interesting to talk about cultural differences, but I don't think people are really that different from each other."

Read more: These bizarre Coachella campsites might change your festival decision for next year.

Dionyso's universal ideas are apparent in Malaikat dan Singa. Despite sounds lifted from post-punk, noise-rock, Tuvan throat singing, and the Indonesian and (as of the recently released Open the Crown) English languages, the music never feels like a mash-up in which the point is the overt juxtaposition of different influences.

Rather, it evokes a basic human urge to gravitate to curious sounds and vibrations. It's a band about exploration and the rewards that come from it. That reward may not be the love of an attractive foreigner, like in the Rosetta Stone ad. However, the cross-cultural, avant-garde dance party vibe the band seems to evoke feels just as rewarding.

Malaikat dan Singa is scheduled to play at Trunk Space on April 18, at 7:30.

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