I haven’t asked Tesla why his parents gave him that name, but it fits the latest guitarist to have an international release of his music on MoonJune Records.
Was he named after Nikola Tesla, “the greatest geek who ever lived”? A geek is someone who obsesses and Nikola’s brainwork gave the world alternating current electricity, radio, radar, X-rays, hydroelectricity, wireless communications, and the modern electric motor. That his patents were taken by Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, who got immensely rich while Tesla himself died in poverty, is a historical fact.
One’s first impression when meeting Tesla Manaf is of a young boyish imp, forever jumping around flashing two-finger salutes – for victory or Jokowi, I’m not sure – with a wide captivating grin. Yet that belies a complex character, someone driven to achieve what he sets his mind to. As he openly admits, he has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Recently turned 27, Tesla says he has been obsessed with music since he was five. His father’s choice of music was progressive jazz-rock; complex, richly detailed music from the likes of John McLaughlin’s Mahavisnu Orchestra, Gentle Giant, Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP) and Soft Machine.
At nine, he took up the guitar and piano, and for the next ten years focussed on classical music. He soon realised that he could interpret the music of others. However, in 2007, the genre’s patterns and rules frustrated him and he began to explore the many traditional music forms in the nation’s archipelago and the world of jazz, a language of self-expression.
Much as one cannot write unless one reads widely, a jazz musician does not arrive fully formed. The genre has a history here in Indonesia, and there are few jazz musicians who in the past thirty years would not cite John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny as being major influences
Tesla does: “Metheny inspired me. He influenced me in many ways, both in his music and the way he spoke and thought. However, back in 2011, I was frustrated at being labelled as ‘Indonesia’s Pat Metheny’. Don’t take this the wrong way; I still love Metheny, and my favourite album is The Way Up. But just because I was using his Ibanez Pat Metheny series guitar, which I’ve now sold, doesn’t mean I played like him.
“I have my own sound, and that’s what I’m trying to tell audiences. I am who I am, now; a person who plays his own music.”
Back in 2011, he released It’s All Yours, which featured Mahagotra Ganesha, a Balinese art unit of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). This self-produced and distributed album proved to be his most successful. Gamelan meets Pat Metheny is a simplistic description given the many twists and turns, the melodies supplied by a ‘regular’ group of guitar, drums, bass and soprano sax, sliding across the gamelan providing rhythmic power. Tesla says that the music tells the story about humanity’s connection with nature.
That is important to him. Having been raised in Bekasi, the city on the eastern border of Jakarta, he moved seven years ago to the Dago mountain area of Bandung. He says, “Living here makes me aware of the beauty of nature; the way it talks is the most inspiring of God’s messages.”
It’s All Yours has been re-released this year on the Demajors label. It will also be half of his upcoming international release on the MoonJune label. Much of the work he put into creating the soundscape of that project came from his study of such classical composers as Debussy, Bela Bartok and Krzysztof Penderecki. He has now taken that process a step further with A Man’s Relationship with His Fragile Area, the other half of the album.
“It affected me a lot; especially the details. Precision and symmetry are a very important beginning to my own music. I often analyse the notes, rhythms, and the drama of each song. I like to create music which will take people into various kinds of emotions, playing with their hearts and minds at the same time. The same goes with my players. Their personalities, the way they play, the way they communicate and the way they speak … bringing the best out of them will have a good effect on my music.”
At a recent showcase of the album in the Rolling Stone Café in Kemang, Jakarta’s enclave of the wealthy, I noted the following about The Sweetest Horn from the album: it opened with a whistleable marching band nursery melody played on descant recorder with a drum beat, joined by skittering drums, then guitar and clarinet playing as children do, until they combined to build an echo of an express train which gradually comes towards a halt: a guitar lead pastoral theme takes over, but with underlying menace from the bass…
This is music which repays relistening; each track, a neo-classical experiment, may confuse at first, but as it gradually comes into focus sense is made.
“Honestly,” says Tesla, “I do not know where my music will bring me to. I just keep creating, keep playing, keep inspiring my listeners. It may be a cliché, but I just love what I do and I will stand by it till the day I die.”
He’s a man driven by his obsession, a geek maybe, yet not only at one with himself and his muse but also at one with nature.
It was a gift from God, he told me.