Angels whisper the truth to a woman in love during a verse of the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree.”
The tune, penned by a cache of Virginians about 90 years ago, might not be the first composition springing to mind to be recast as Indonesian vernacular music. But that’s what Rumput’s done.
The Richmond-based troupe, alive with a bevy of bowed, plucked and strummed strings, strives to combine the American folk tradition with one that sprung up on the other side of the world after bands of European colonialists imparted (or forced) Western culture on the island and its people.
“I think a lot of these stories don’t really demand that the internal [idea] … people can still relate to it. I think there’s a way that we’re still dealing with the man versus machine thing — like cloning,” Hannah Standiford, who plays the stringed cak and sings in Rumput, said about the enduring nature of the tales related in each song.
With Standiford’s background rooted in folk music’s American lineage, it wasn’t until she encountered an Indonesian percussion ensemble at the University of Richmond that she began to delve into the island’s music history. It eventually led to her being selected for a 2014 Darmasiswa scholarship, a travel and study opportunity that offered the musician a unique view of the nation’s percussion tradition.
“I went there — I went to Java to study gamelan. And outside of the university, I studied kroncong, a kind of stringband music. For that kind of music, there are two ukuleles, a cello, a guitar, a violin,” she said.
Rumput’s approximation twinkles with the same shimmering melodies that ensembles native to the island offer. But it’s a music that doesn’t demand much from its listeners, instead imparting some transcendent tale plucked from the past, explaining a historic occurrence or passing on local lore.
Sizing up the tradition, Standiford seemed emboldened by recognizing similar strains coursing through both kroncong and American old-time music. So, during her time in Indonesia, she’d show a clutch of musicians some chords and explain what bass note began each bar of music, allowing local players to fill in the rest, maybe adding in non-Western conceits.
“It’s music of everyday people. It’s not sacred,” Standiford said about kroncong, contrasting it with the courtly and percussive gamelan. “In fact, I kind of admired the promiscuity of the music. They’d experiment with Latin tunes, pop songs, bossa nova. There’s nothing heavy and experimental to it. They want to try out different styles.”
Back at home, she teamed up with UR music professor Andy McGraw; the pair founded Rumput on the idea that whatever cultural or musical similarities persisted between the two forms were rife for a sympathetic ensemble.
“Even as it’s evolving, it has this vibe of nostalgia. It has the some kind of resonance; the chords and keys are the same,” McGraw said about kroncong and old-time music, before continuing. “The social interaction in the group is similar. It’s not about trading solos; it’s about continually reworking the tune with simultaneous variations that never bleed into a solo. If there’s a singer, you’re there to support the singer. ... Neither are virtuosic on purpose — I think both are actually suspicious of virtuosity.”
Despite the ensemble presenting a style drawn from musical mores emanating from the other side of the world, it’s offered in tandem with an easy-to-grasp visual element — scrolling screens and puppets referred to as crankies.
“In a story, even if it happened a long time ago, I think the scenes are really relatable. And using the crankies helps,” Standiford said. “Even if the story isn’t crystal clear — and sometimes the crankies are pretty abstract — it gives people something to latch on to.”
It’s another amalgam of culture. The scrolling vignettes again spring from Indonesia. But in addition to their being presented in a reasonably traditional form, Standiford said one would be displayed with the help of an overhead projector.
Merging folk art from disparate places and dashing it with a contemporary awareness of culture might draw new adherents. But all it took for Standiford to be charmed by the tunes was to discern singular attributes in Indonesia’s music.
“The tuning system and the rhythm were so different from anything I’d heard, it just hooked my attention,” she recalled about first encountering gamelan. “Kroncong is more weird, in a subtle way. Gamelan was my gateway drug to world music and made me receptive to the kind of subtle uniqueness that kroncong has going on.”