A beautiful Javanese song fills in the air and the audience is mesmerized, especially when they hear the twisted pentatonic scales sung by a petite woman sitting next to the puppet master on a wide but low stage.
Meet Hiromi Kano, one of the sinden (traditional Javanese singers) who often perform in a wayang (shadow puppet) show with puppet master Ki Manteb Soedharsono.
Her name points to the fact that she is Japanese. Other than that, nothing seems to indicate that she is from the land of the rising sun. Her identity as a Japanese seems to fade away, especially when she sings Javanese traditional songs in her grand outfit, elaborate kebaya and hair made up in a typical Javanese bun.
Born in Chiba, Japan, on Jan. 31, 1967, she claims to have a love for music since her childhood. She learned classical music at elementary school. In 1991 she was majored in western music and piano at university.
In her last semester, Hiromi heard one of her lecturers playing a Javanese gamelan orchestra. In fact, she had been entranced by Balinese gamelan since high school after she heard it on the radio when she accidentally found the frequency of a station playing Indonesian traditional music.
“Since then I have been crazy about gamelan, but there was no gamelan department on campus. In my last semester I learned about a new Javanese gamelan course and I immediately took the class. There was no Balinese gamelan, but Javanese gamelan would do,” Hiromi said in Indonesian with a Javanese accent.
In 1988, she spent her school holidays in Indonesia to see a Javanese gamelan orchestra during a wayang week in Jakarta. Later, she traveled for two months around Central Java to learn about gamelan and traditional Javanese songs. Among her teachers were the late Ki Sutarman, a puppet master, and Supadmi, a sinden and lecturer at the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Surakarta.
“It was not until eight years later that I could study in ISI on an Indonesian government scholarship,” she said.
Earlier, she had applied for a scholarship with many institutions but her efforts were fruitless. When she finally got the scholarship to study in Indonesia, her parents objected.
“They did not agree, but I made up my mind to go ahead. I was really in love with gamelan. I left the piano,” she said.
In the university’s karawitan (gamelan music and singing) department, Hiromi also learned about other Javanese arts and culture including sinden and wayang. It went without saying that she also learned Javanese.
One of the reasons she gives for learning to become a sinden was because this would allow her to perform during wayang shows and earn money.
“The scholarship fund was meager and lasted only for a year. I had to make money to support myself for the next four years,” she said.
Supadmi played an important role in promoting Hiromi among dalang (puppet masters). Ki Purbo Asmoro was the first to hire her as a professional sinden. Since then, she received offers from many prominent dalang. When she was still a student, she even had to turn down some offers.
“I didn’t want to fail. I came to Indonesia to study. It would be a shame if I could not complete my studies,” she said.
Upon completing her studies, she received more offers to perform. In the past 13 years, she has moved from one wayang stage to another all over the country, performing with top tier dalang including Anom Suroto, Manteb Soedharsono, Purbo Asmoro, Slamet Gundono, Gito Purbo Carito, Enthus Susmono, Sokron Sowondo, and Suparno Wonokromo.
She has a tight schedule, with at least 10 invitations to perform every month, mostly outside Surakarta. This month she is scheduled to perform in Surakarta only once, on July 29, while her other performances are in Semarang, Yogyakarta, Tegal, and other towns in East Java and Sumatra.
Hiromi admitted that being a sinden improved her life financially. But she believes money was not everything, and was therefore selective in accepting invitations.
“I don’t do campursari [Javanese songs accompanied by modern instruments]. I don’t belittle the music, but it is diatonic, which could ruin the pentatonic scale I am still learning,” she said.
Hiromi said that she liked traditional Javanese songs because the lyrics embodied cultural wisdom and moral lessons.
“This is an amazing Javanese art,” said the woman, who performed at the International Sinden Festival 2009 in Taman Mini in Jakarta.
Learning to become a sinden also meant learning about wayang, songs and gamelan, which draw strongly on Javanese social philosophy.
In her modest house in Mojosongo, Surakarta, Hiromi lives with Wiyono, her husband since 2002. Even though she is married to an Indonesian, Hiromi prefers to retain her Japanese citizenship.
“My family is [in Japan]. I still have a sister in Japan, so if I want to see her at anytime, it’s easy,” she says.