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Sounds From The Archipelago:
An Introduction To The Lush Indonesian Tradition , Vols. 1 & 2

Review by Bruce Miller

This two volume vinyl-only-with-accompanying-CD collection certainly could be considered an “introduction,” that is unless one has already heard these exact recordings, in the exact order on a double LP set titled Music of Indonesia, recorded by Phil and Florence Walker, edited by Henry Cowell, and released on the Folkways label in 1961, something whoever is behind the Shiok! label doesn't bother mentioning. Even the photos on the back of each album are from the Folkways LP's liner booklet. What is known here is that the tracks come from Sumatra, the Moluccas Islands, Bali, Sulawesi, and Central Java. Of course, a single listen reveals how wonderful it is to have this music back in print, though it's frustrating that Shiok! couldn't have at least mentioned from where it had procured such copious musical bounty. *

West Java (Sundanese) - Mamaos
Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

Vol. 1 features bamboo drum and vocal tracks, a nearly Indian sounding rabab (fiddle) tune dealing with a Romeo and Juliet-type scenario, a Ketchak (or Monkey chant) clip, and some Javanese gamelan, before offering up the album's certerpiece, a “cosmic song” titled “Mamaos.” Here a zither and vocal skate along tendrils of spidery, plucked notes that drift like water as the singer rhapsodizes on a subject seemingly secretive and seductive for nearly 6 minutes. Perhaps as haunting is the album's final track, a Sudanese “water song,” which features a zither and flute in a portending dialogue that hovers precariously over a single-chord pulse. There are loads of Javanese zither recordings, and this is as forbidding as any of them.

Sumatra - Gondang Mula Mula: Ceremonial Music
Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

Vol. 2 starts in Sumatra, with a quartet featuring a repeated figure played on two Ketchapis, (ukulele-like stringed instruments), a reed instrument akin to the Rajasthani Murali, and an individual clinking on a glass bottle with a spoon. Their three tracks are excellent examples of the island chain's mesmerizing musical mutations, and seem to have as much in common with India or Northern Malawi as they do Indonesia. A move to Ambon Island presents a track featuring flute, metal gongs and another drum that delivers a fantastically monotonous pattern before the series closes with 18 or so minutes of Balinese Barong Dances and Cremation Music. The Barong tracks reveal strangely syncopated metal percussion-driven tempo changes, precision starts and stops, and a jerky, unsettling pace. In places, a flute appears, while percussion calms its flutters, seemingly-feigning serenity before everything comes crashing back, furiously metallic and nearly ghostly. Finally, the cremation tracks feature similar instrumentation, but one track is centered on a single bell-tapped pulse as a flute free styles over a locked groove, while the second such piece is a meditative recap of the first, but played ecstatically on four metal bells.

Much of this music has been heard since on compilations of Balinese and Javanese music released on labels such Nonesuch, Sublime Frequencies, and Folkways' own 12 volume CD series. Yet, this is fantastically edited, wide ranging stuff, and is truly a good entry point regardless of the dodgy manner that this label has gone about reissuing it. - Bruce Miller

Editor's note: I tried to find a way to contact this label, to find out what the provenence of these recordings is, but they give no contact information in the LP notes, nor are they easily searched online. A conversation with the folks at Smithsonian Folkways indicates the label has never been in touch with the original copyright holders, either. Caveat emptor, as they say. - CF

You can find the original Folkways recordings at Smithsonian Folkways

Further reading:
Longing For The Past: The 78 RPM era in Southeast Asia

The Folkways Music of Indoesia series:
Volumes 16 and 17
Volumes 18, 19, 20

The Nonesuch Explorer Series: Indonesia/South Pacific


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