Indonesia/South Pacific
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The Nonesuch Explorer Series: Indonesia/South Pacific
Nonesuch Records (www.nonesuch.com)

cd cover This installment of Nonesuch's wide-ranging Explorer Series will inevitably draw comparisons to Smithsonian Folkways 1990's series on the same area. In many ways, it will measure up. Granted, the music in the Folkways series was more recently recorded than the Nonesuch, more accurately reflecting what's going on in Indonesia today. It also has the benefit of consistency, all twenty discs being the project of Philip Yampolsky and his team. The liner notes are far more in-depth and scholarly in the Folkways series, and, with almost twice as many discs in the series, a wider variety of music is presented. The Nonesuch series tends to be a little gamelan-heavy.

That said, there is much to value in the Nonesuch series. The re-mastering of these generally fine recordings brings some rare music into sharper focus. The music was recorded between 1968 and 1986 and the emphasis on each disc ranges between presenting the widest variety possible and looking in-depth at a particular style. The disc titled "Island Music," recorded in 1981 by David Fanshawe, for example, contains no fewer than twenty-eight tracks from the Cook Island, Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands, Western Samoa, and Tahiti. Whew! The result is a "if it's Tuesday, it must be Tonga" overview. Fanshawe's liner notes are sketchy at best, written in his trademark "gee-whiz" style. He's more interested in relating his hardships in getting the recordings than in any kind of analysis. (Get over it, David. You don't hear real ethnomusicologists complaining about schlepping equipment.) There is some lovely vocal music on this disc, however, both choral and solo.

A disc of Tahitian music bears the misleading title The Gauguin Years: Songs and Dances. Being as it was recorded in 1968 and many of the tracks bear the stamp of Western modernization (e.g., electrified instruments and Western missionary influenced harmonic arrangements and accompaniments) most of it is probably not the music that Gauguin heard in Tahiti in the late19th century. Jane Sarnoff's romantic liner notes give a brief overview of Tahitian music and history, but no track-by-track descriptions, which would have been useful.

Four of the eleven discs represent the music of Bali. Golden Rain, recorded in 1966, has two fine examples of gamelan gong kebjar, a music and dance style that dates from the early twentieth century. Played by a twenty-five piece orchestra of metallophones, gongs, and flutes, it is an exuberant glittering sound. The bulk of this disc, however, is a twenty-two minute performance of kecak, the intricate male vocal chanting that is used to reenact the Ramayana epic. Music for the Shadow Play is just what the title suggests, music to accompany the all-night performance of wayang, the famous Balinese shadow puppet plays. A forty-four minute sampling of the music, recorded in 1969, is presented here, played by a quartet from Teges Kanyinan. Robert E. Brown provides informative liner notes and a track-by-track description of what the puppets are doing as each selection is playing. The only bone to pick is with the dated, Eurocentric concept that Balinese instruments "are made slightly out of tune with one another." As the resulting beats are a desired effect, they are exactly in tune by Balinese standards. Gamelan Semar Pegulingan: Gamelan of the Love God, also recorded and annotated by Brown and released in 1972, is the first commercial recording of this delicate music. The six tracks here are fine examples of this shimmering, transparent style that has come to epitomize Balinese music. Again, the liner notes are excellent. Recorded in 1987, Gamelan & Kecak has a nice variety of village gamelan, parade music, and kecak. One of the most entertaining tracks is "Lau Kodok (Frog Song)," in which musicians blow into palm bark reeds (enggung) to imitate the croaking of frogs.

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Moving on to Java, the remaining five discs demonstrate the stark contrast between Balinese and Javanese gamelan. Where the Balinese is full of high-spirited clamor, the Javanese has a softer, more meditative sound. The Jasmine Isle: Gamelan Music, recorded in 1969 has ten short examples of gamelan and solo gender and gambang music. The minimal liner notes don't tell us much about the music, but the pictures and descriptions of the instruments are informative. The three volumes of court gamelan music, recorded between 1971 and 1979 give a generous sampling of this austere, majestic style. The clear re-mastering brings out a good balance between the voices and instruments.

Sundanese Jaipong and Other Popular Music, originally released in 1987 as Tonggeret is an album of West Javanese popular music by vocalist Idjah Hadidjah. Hadidjah sings in a soaring, improvisatory style with crisp ornamentation. She is backed by traditional instruments and sings in three genres of Sundanese music Jaipongan, Kliningan, and Celempungan, each of which has its own instrumentation. The distinctions between the three and the structure of the music are outlined in the notes.

The producers of this series are to be commended for bringing this music back into the fore. It is a collection that is too important to languish unre-mastered. It may lack the depth and variety of the Smithsonian series, but it restores some valuable timepieces in Indonesian and South Pacific music. ~ Peggy Latkovich

Available at cdroots


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