One’s first impression when meeting Tesla Manaf is of a young boyish imp, forever jumping around flashing two finger salutes with a wide captivating grin. Yet that belies a complex character, someone driven to achieve whatever he sets his mind to.
Having 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. Tesla soon realised that he could interpret the music of others. However, in 2007, the genre’s patterns and rigid rules frustrated him and it built to the point where he began to explore the many traditional music forms of Indonesia's archipelago, as well as 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 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 is no exception:
“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.”
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 its many twists and turns -- with the melodies supplied by a ‘regular’ group of guitar, drums, bass and soprano sax, sliding across the gamelan-providing rhythmic power.
Much of the work he put into creating the soundscape of that project came from his study of such classical composers as Debussy, Bartok and Krzysztof Penderecki. Tesla says that the music tells the story about humanity’s connection with nature; that is important to him. Having been raised in Bekasi, a 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.”
His intriguing music is the sum of his past influences as well as a cerebral, circumspect approach to the music-making process:
"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.
“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 'til the day I die.”
(MoonJune Records extends a very special "thanks!" to Terry Collins, for providing the source material from which this profile was drawn.)
Artist's website: www.teslamanaf.com