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Making sure the beat goes on: Alumna and Fulbright scholar Hannah Standiford preserves traditional Indonesian music

Hannah Standiford, left front, performing at the Pasar Keroncong Kotagede, an annual keroncong fe...
Hannah Standiford, left front, performing at the Pasar Keroncong Kotagede, an annual keroncong festival held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. (Photos courtesy of Hannah Standiford)

Hannah Standiford picked up her first guitar at age 13 and music has played an integral role in her life ever since. 

She studied classical guitar at Virginia Commonwealth University, graduating with a bachelor’s in music in 2011. Since then, she has performed as the frontwoman for a number of bands and has taught guitar and voice lessons at several music schools in the Richmond area. 

“Through [teaching], I’m able to help other people access something that’s enriched my life so much,” Standiford said. “It gives me an incredibly fulfilling feeling.” 

Shortly after graduating from VCU, she attended a performance by the University of Richmond’s Gamelan Raga Kusuma Balinese ensemble, which performs traditional Indonesian music using percussion instruments. That was her first exposure to the concept of community music, which emphasizes collaboration among individuals who play, create, improvise and perform together. 

Standiford was hooked and wanted to explore community music further. In 2014, she applied for and received a Darmasiswa scholarship, which supports foreign students wanting to study the language, arts and culture of Indonesia. She traveled to Solo on the island of Java, where she began studying gamelan and the traditional string music style called keroncong. 

Hannah Standiford speaks to a classroom of students while in Indonesia.
Hannah Standiford speaks to a classroom of students while in Indonesia.

When she returned to the United States the following year, she started her own keroncong group, Rumput, which combines Indonesian and American folk styles. 

Wanting to continue to study keroncong at its source, Standiford applied for a Fulbright scholarship through VCU’s National Scholarship Office. The Fulbright program, sponsored by the U.S. government, fosters international goodwill through the exchange of students and scholars in countries around the globe. 

“It took me all summer to write the two-page proposal, but it was worth it,” Standiford said. “I’m really grateful for the [National Scholarship Office] at VCU. Having somebody to help me through the steps and take me through a mock Fulbright panel was a huge help.” 

Meredith Sisson, assistant director of the National Scholarship Office, and Jeff Wing, the director, assisted Standiford through the application process. 

“[We] work to help applicants make connections with alumni, faculty or other field experts that we think can help them think through their ideas,” Sisson said. “Hannah’s project builds on her previous experiences in Indonesia, and on her studies of Appalachian folk music. If anyone can do this, it’s certainly her.” 

Standiford was named a Fulbright scholar and returned to Indonesia in early 2017. She’s researching keroncong’s two unique styles, langgam jawa keroncong and stambul fajar, in locations across the country. 

“[Keroncong] is known as a music of nostalgia, past its halcyon days but still popular among music veterans,” she said. “Though it’s not widely practiced anymore, there are still communities where [keroncong] is evolving alongside the younger generation who want to keep the style alive.” 

Standiford is currently living on the island of Medanau in Belitung, Indonesia. She is documenting the stambul fajar through recordings, writing and interviews with the island’s only veteran of the music, Achmadi, and another local, Jabing, who recently received funding from the local government to preserve the music.

“[Stambul fajar] music is extremely endangered,” Standiford said. “What we’re hoping to do is preserve a facet of human expression that is specific to the people on this island and nowhere else in the world.”

Standiford, sitting on the front steps, is currently living on the island of Medanau in Belitong, Indonesia.
Standiford, sitting on the front steps, is currently living on the island of Medanau in Belitong, Indonesia.

Once she completes her studies in Indonesia, Standiford plans to publish a paper on keroncong and its recent revival, with the hopes of making the music accessible to a wider audience by combining aspects of it with American folk music. She already has planned a tour with her group Rumput, starting in July, to perform in Indonesia and the U.S. 

“[Rumput] relies on the idea of community music-making just like keroncong,” Standiford said. “We’re all indispensable, and there’s no lead player. We just want to create the best musical experience possible.”