Indonesian Guitars: Volume 20 of Music of Indonesia
Smithsonian Folkways

Indonesian Guitars If there's one thing we know about music as the 20th century fades into oblivion, it is this one simple fact: The Guitar Is King. From the rural south of the US, the streets of Dakar and the villages of Bulgaria to the coffeehouses of Seattle and London, you can't escape the damn thing. It's part of virtually everything you hear on the radio and on stage; it's a 90% bet that there is a guitar in the music somewhere. It has become the universal language of music, the unifying force of cultural revolution or the primary tool of cultural imperialism, depending on your point of view. Cheap, accessible and relatively easy to learn, those (usually) six strings have changed the face of the world.

"OK, enough," you say. "It can't have infiltrated everything, can it?" Well, if you listen to the last of Philip Yampolsky's remarkable "Music of Indonesia" series, you may find yourself agreeing with my audacious assessment. Yampolsky has spent more than a decade in the diverse islands that are collectively called Indonesia, collecting and usually recording ritual and religious music, street level folk music and the amazing hybrid pop music of the nation. It is fitting that this last album is a collection of songs from all over the archipelago, united only in the instrument they play.

From South Sulawesi we hear a musician playing a standard 6 string acoustic guitar, finger-picked and sounding ever so much like a simple Stefan Grossman improvisation on a country theme. He backs up a vokal grup of two who sing a Mandar love song. The popular kroncong style is well represented in the set. It is a lilting, easy-going sound with ensembles of guitars and ukulele-like instruments (also called kroncong) accompany singers. Again, the themes are the standard stuff of folk and pop the world over; love and love lost, sadness of being away from home and wishing one was away from home.

Not all the pieces are strictly "guitars" as we might define them. One track is played on jungga, a flat-sounding two-string instrument that here has all the trappings of a old country blues banjo tune from the American south, save for the uniquely local vocal style that overlays it. Another tune from South Sulawesi features an electrified kacapi, another two-stringer played with a mix of strummed chords and rhythmic melodies, interspersed with bent notes that give it a real groove. The performer alternately sings a song and makes spoken pronouncements, and ends it with the classic clavé lick (on the guitar), "Shave and haircut, two bits."

Perhaps one of the most endearing tunes here is another kroncong piece, this time with a full ensemble of plucked strings, flute and an electric Hawaiian guitar. This is real "crossroads" music, with intimations of western European folk music, Polynesian sounds and decades of "stuff we heard on the radio" from all over the world. It is romantic and even a little cheesy sounding; much great pop music throughout the world is, of course.

The final song on Indonesian Guitars is also its most provocative. The modern group Suarasama faces Indonesia's most basic identity problem. Is this place really a "nation" or is it still the fractured collection of cultures, languages and music that is only theoretically whole because in 1945 some politicians said it was so. Young ensembles like Suarasama see themselves as uniquely Indonesian, a sum of the parts that have for two generations been in conflict and commune with one another. The music is a blend of western pop and acoustic folk from all of Asia, not distinctly "ethnic" or regional. To some it is a watered down, unsolvable cipher, to others it might be as unifying a force as folk-rock was to the sixties in Europe and America. - Cliff Furnald

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