About Burhan Sukarma
Burhan Sukarma is first and foremost a virtuoso on the suling (West Javanese bamboo flute). Burhan’s style of playing the suling has influenced all succeeding generations of younger players in West Java, Indonesia. His extensive teaching and concertizing activities in the United States have inspired American musicians and audiences since he immigrated here three decades ago. Burhan’s ability to make his simple bamboo flute produce soulful, expressive melodic lines that speak across cultural boundaries has earned him an international reputation.
Burhan was born in Karawang, West Java, Indonesia, and became interested in music as a young man. From 1972-1986 he was famous as principal musician at the prestigious Radio Repulik Indonesia (RRI) in Bandung. He toured France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia as a cultural representative of Indonesia. Through these activities, Burhan became—and remains today—the standard against which all other West Javanese suling players are judged.
Burhan’s countless recordings (numbering in the hundreds) for Indonesian recording companies in the 1970s and 1980s epitomize the astonishing musical creativity that thrived in those decades. One of his many recordings, Degung Sangkala, achieved unprecedented popularity throughout Indonesia, transcending traditional regional/ethnic boundaries. When Elektra/Nonesuch released the album in the US in the mid 1980s, Burhan’s inventive improvisations on the suling came to the attention of non- Indonesians listeners for the first time.
Burhan is associated in particular with the development of a new instrumental genre, called kacapi-suling, which featured rhapsodic improvisations on the suling accompanied by two kacapi (zithers). Live broadcasts of kacapi-suling via RRI Bandung reached millions of listeners, many of who rushed out to buy the inexpensive cassette recordings of Burhan and his colleagues. Burhan was and continues to be involved in experiments to expand the repertory of the gamelan degung (small bronze percussion ensemble), again with remarkable success. His ground- breaking recordings are popular all over Indonesia. It is not uncommon to hear a recording of Burhan’s suling playing luring foreign tourists into souvenir shops on the distant island of Bali!
Since relocating to the United States, Burhan has explored ways to transplant and transform his art in this new context. Burhan has appeared all over the United States, Indonesia and Canada with a cross-section of American musicians. His accomplishments include appearances at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, his solo improvised suling concerts for CNMAT (Center for New Music and Technology) in Berkeley, and appearances with the Evergreen Club in Toronto. Teaching Sundanese music to Americans has provided another avenue; Burhan was artist-in-residence at the University of Washington and has taught at San Jose State University, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, Western Carolina University, as well as privately in his San Jose studio.
Pusaka Sunda, a gamelan group comprised of American musicians which Burhan founded in 1987 with his wife, Rae Ann Stahl, provides a voice for Burhan’s own compositions as well as a means for promulgating the traditional music of West Java. “Pusaka Sunda” means “Sundanese heirloom” (“Sundanese” is the language and ethnic identity of most West Javanese), and in choosing that name, Burhan stresses the connection of the group and the music it plays to his Sundanese homeland and emphasizes his belief that the group represents the inevitable flowering of Sundanese art which, despite the American heritage of many of its members, is nevertheless khas Sunda (truly Sundanese).
With Pusaka Sunda, Burhan has produced five CDs of traditional, arranged, and original music. Burhan and Pusaka Sunda have performed all over the United States, including at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and have received grants from the California Arts Council and Santa Clara County in support of Burhan’s compositional activities.