Interview: Ashley Aisyah Hamel

Birthplace, grew up in, currently based in: Connecticut, U.S.A.

Age: 30

Find her: Website | Instagram | Facebook

(Photo courtesy of Ashley)

Editor’s note: This story has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about yourself. Did you grow up with much of an Indonesian community in Connecticut?

My mom is from South Sumatra, from Palembang, and my father is a white American with French-Canadian ancestry, but he was born and raised in America. So, having that mixed upbringing means that you have influences from everywhere, but also means you don’t really know quite where you belong. In Connecticut, we do have a nice community; we get together a few times a year for Indonesian independence and Eid ul-Fitr, and my family sort of helps to coordinate some gatherings. There is a community … you either marry into our area or you come here for academics.

Q: Tell me more about your musical journey.

I learned how to play guitar when I was 15. I started writing songs immediately. It was a creative outlet for me … an outlet for me to sing my own songs. My first performance, my junior year (of high school) for talent night, I sang the first song I’d written for everybody. My parents didn’t even know I was doing anything, keeping everything under lock and key — and I still do. Just the response — one of my friends said I made her cry! So, I thought, damn, this is some powerful stuff, so that was my first experience performing my music.

I took kind of a break after college because I was sad and confused about what I wanted to do with an anthropology degree. What can you do with that when you’re living back home with your parents in 2010 after the economy was in recession? I got a part-time job at the library that helped me be a little more stable, and it honestly wasn’t until I was 25 years old where I thought for the first time, what do I actually want to do with my life? My mom came here to make money so she could send money back home and send my cousins through school, so how dare I even think about going into the arts? My mom was always skeptical about it. So, it wasn’t until I was 25, to make my own choice of, this is a thing I’ve always been doing and it’s the only thing that I’m willing to work hard to do and face all the struggles, and working for myself.

I’ve released one EP and one full-length album — that came out in January of last year. My new song, “Keluarga,” I also recorded in a studio and did my first music video. I’m 30, but I’m still learning so much since I kind of got a late start. It’s just been a thing-in-progress. It gives me great joy, and I’d like to think I give other people joy through it.

Q: Tell me more about the songwriting process for “Keluarga”?

I went to Indonesia for two months in 2018 … I felt washed up on the shore when I arrived in Palembang, just exhausted from American life. I’m there by myself, which may have been the first time also. I’m at the family house, where my oldest auntie lives. My cousin’s kids are all running around. It was beautiful and it was hard for me, because I don’t speak Bahasa, but I love these people, and they clearly love me. I feel so close to them yet so far away. And then, one day, I just grabbed the family guitar and I went up to the balcony. It didn’t even have a lower E string, and I just made it work. I just wrote it right there. With my songwriting, if I don’t finish it before I get up, I probably won’t finish it.

Q: What was the process of making the music video?

It was the three of us — (director and editor) Kerey Viswanathan and (cinematographer) Matt Bradbury — sort of doing this last-minute shoot. I like to plan, but I don’t like to plan — I like to make it up as I go, and that’s what’s comfortable to me, but it’s not always comfortable for everybody else. So, that was a learning curve. We shot it in my apartment in New Haven and Middletown, Connecticut, at this cultural and performing arts center called The Buttonwood Tree, where I do a lot of work. Filmed it two weeks before I left.

Q: When did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage?

We knew our mother was Indonesian, but whether that made us Indonesian is a harder question. My mother’s stepmother came to live with us for five years when I was a kid to help out with the house while my mother was in nursing school. So, having a nenek there was definitely an influence. But, it being the ‘90s, we were so brought up to assimilate — we weren’t taught Indonesian, we were raised Muslim but it was very loose, and my mom was busy trying to set us up financially, studying to be a nurse.

I think it kind of hit home when we first went to Indonesia, when my sister was 15 and I was 12. If anything, we may have thought of being Indonesian as sort of this bonus fact about ourselves; nobody knows where Indonesia is, especially when you’re kids.

When we went back that time, we did find that we were so … American. But it’s this ongoing process, for me; it’s constantly changing.

Q: What sort of conversations did you and your sister have about Indonesian heritage?

My older sister, by three years, we’re very close, because it’s just the two of us. We both know who we are and love our Indonesian heritage, but it’s so interesting the way we look, and how the outer world perceives us really makes a difference to our experiences.

She’s a bit more ambiguous … people don’t know where we’re from most of the time, especially her. I think I present as more “Asian,” so just that aspect has kind of made a difference in how we think of ourselves in the world. She doesn’t hide her Indonesian-ness, but so often, from the outside, people won’t necessarily see that right away. So, I guess how I’ve been perceived differently from my sister has put me on a journey of discovering who I am and where I belong, so that’s what’s been leading me back to Indonesia so often these past few years.

Q: Tell me more about your journeys to Indonesia. 

After I was born, we went [to Indonesia] when I was 3 years old, and it was the only time I met my grandfather. After that, I didn’t go back until I was 12, almost 13. So, here we are, face to face with people I barely knew from these pictures, phone calls, and everyone’s crying, and everyone’s just so overjoyed to be together, and that has just never left my heart, that kind of welcoming.

Then, I wasn’t able to go back until I was 20, so it was seven or eight years in-between each trip. Since my 20s, I went in 2010 — I think right after I graduated college — and then 2012, 2015.

In 2015, my sister and I did some independent travel ourselves, which was the first time we were going anywhere in Indonesia without our mom. We got to take in experiences for ourselves, without family, not behind my mother’s skirts. We went to Jogja — she’s driving the motorcycle, I’m trying to navigate. We’re just living the life. At that point, it made me think, “Oh, this is something I can take for me. I can have my own direct relationship with this.” So, it planted a seed.

I reached out to Endah N Rhesa, they have their own cafe called Earhouse; I asked if I could play, met them, and was totally taken by the music community there and by the response from the audience, too. So, since 2015, that sparked a seed in my mind of coming back here, meeting more people, playing more music. Fortunately, I’ve been able to go back the past few years and keep that going … It’s been really wonderful so far, both professionally, and personally and spiritually.

Q: How did you learn more about Indonesian history for yourself?

There’s still so much that I don’t know, especially about history. I read Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s “The Girl from the Coast,” and I have a book of Kartini’s letters that I’ve been meaning to get to. We share a birthday, so I feel a special bond with her. My mother almost gave me her name as my middle name.

I’m filling in the blanks as I go. The fact that my mother didn’t share a lot about Indonesian life, that it was something to leave behind, is one of the reasons why I’ve been seeking it out.

Q: Now that you’re older, have you found that your conversations with your mom have changed?

I don’t think any of us expected me to have this direct of a relationship with Indonesia. The way my mom interacted with it, it was always in the past. Now, it’s not; she goes back every year and sees her family. But, sometimes, it feels like business trips, because she is kind of the matriarch. It was so fascinating those first few times seeing my mother interact with others like she was the president.

She’s still quite closed off … but she has started to slow down and have these moments of emotional realness, sharing sad stories from her childhood, and you always stop everything you’re doing to listen to her. I think she doesn’t want me to get hurt. She wants to protect me. But, I also have a totally different experience because I’m an American going into the country, and I can’t shake that.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

Because I’m an artist, in this sense, being Indonesian means having a deep culture for musical expression, for embodied theatrical, artistic expression. I think that’s the part of me that it runs through. As well as family. So, for me, there’s family and there’s art.