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Related Articles Indonesia: An overview by John Cho

Audio feature: Balinese Gamelan, 1928

Newest reviews:
Music of Indonesia: Vols 18-20 (Smithsonian)
Music of Indonesia: Vols 16-17
Indonesian Guitars
The Bali Sessions
New Jakarta Ensemble
Traditional Gamelan of Bali


Sabah Habas Mustapha
    and The Jugala All Stars
Street Music of Java
Sunda Africa, No Risk No Fun
Melayu Music Of Sumatra
    and the Riau Islands

Batak of North Sumatra
Bali: Gamelan And Kecak
Asmat Dream
American Works For Balinese Gamelan Orchestra
Mana 689
I Wayan Sadra

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Music of Indonesia
An archive of music from or inspired by...

The Street Music Of Java
(Original Music)

Most of us have heard the classical music of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, especially gamelan, and the more contemporary jaipongan music of Java, but throughout history, Europeans and then Americans have, for better and usually for worse, exerted their influence on the culture and politics of the region. Western European instruments like the guitar and violin can be fOLnd throughout Asian music, and American records are everywhere, especially since the Vietnam war. These recordings from the mid-'70s show how well these influences have been adapted and made new by the street musicians of Java, There is a long history of busking in Java, as much an element of overpopulation and poverty as it is a musical tradition. These musicians play traditional songs, adaptations, and borrowed or lick-for-lick copied songs from radio and recordings. "Kuda Lumping" is pure rock 'n' roll played for two voices on cello, guitar and drum, chopping through a very familiar pop song. "Hinam, Hinam" is a soloist in an Indian movie mode, very sweet and slightly haunting. Also some tunes that have a subtle Caribbean tinge, like "Panceng Ora Diseyda," a slow tune which still maintains a regional flavor in the vocals. Also unique in this collection are some "street gamelan" pieces. These are strictly non-professional, and have an energy and excitement that matches the more trained ensemble's virtuosity. Two are ronggengs performed by a quartet of metal gongs, xylophone and drums, with two accompanying dancers, The final cut is a spectacular song for three vocalists, drum, flute, gong and a siter, The siter is a zither-like instrument with a beautiful sustain, and this piece is an epic 1 2-minute showcase for it. The Street Music Of Java is a very different look at the music of Asia, and very entertaining "original" music from the streets of Indonesia. - CF

We sometimes see the world's music as static, locale-identified fossils that demand purity or restraint. So it is good when someone comes along and shatters those preconceived notions, not with some east-meets-west or north/south fusion, but with brand new music for and by the locale it comes from. Such is the case with Asmat Dream (Lyrichord Discs), a collection of performances by four outstanding new composers from the Sunda region of Indonesia. Unlike the many "world music" compositions by Euro-American composers like Harry Partch, Steve Reich or Paul Lansky, these are not fusions with the traditions of Indonesia, but extensions of the classical aesthetic and folk rhythms, from the source. Most special and revealing are the two versions of "Galura" (Emotion) by Nano S. Created for two zithers, with a second version recorded with bamboo flute, the music attempts to express a full range of human emotions, something traditionally left to the singers. Masterfully played, the pieces achieve their goal. "Diya" by Dody Satya Ekagustdiman is more technically experimental, using new instruments and common objects like sandpaper and motorcycle helmets to create a modern gamelan next to the more traditional drums, gongs and strings. The use of multi-tracking for the chorus adds new dimensions and textures. Even more into the technological frontier is "Asmat Dream." Composer Harry Roseli generated a wholly electronic landscape of tape looped crickets, keyboard sounds and sampled voices. Each of the six compositions here represent not a plundering of foreign ideas but a regeneration of culture, an extension of its identity rather than a static sampling.

Mana 689
Lyrichord Discs

This is the second in the New Music Indonesia series that started with last year's Asmat Dream. This edition concentrates on the work of six new Javanese works by four composers. Modern gamelan and innovations on traditional vocal styles dominate this set. Blacius Subono, a heralded shadow puppet composer, offers "Griting Rasa," a lively two part opus that uses the higher pitched gamelan instruments and a narrative about change and authority. "Mubeng Beteng" by Otok Bima Sidarta is closest to classical music, full energetic gamelan and rich vocal work, but using new techniques and odd interplays of the instruments to create its contemporary feel. "Terus Dan Terus" by I Wayan Sadra is an elongated drums solo, both mesmerizing and heady. It is punctuated by various acoustic drone instruments that give it a psychedelic feel. The most jarring effect comes from the title piece, a nightmarish wash of harsh metallic percussion and shrieking vocals. Its improvised attacks and sudden changes of mood make for stunning listening and a stunned listener. Producers Diamond and Polansky have again achieved important results from their research and support of new Indonesian music, bringing to the world music scene a much needed reminder that tradition does not stay and wait for the archaeologists. All good music grows, remembering but never, ever holding still.

I Wayan Sadra
Karya: New Music Indonesia Volume 3
Lyrichord Discs

Volume three of the Lyrichord New Music Indonesia series focuses on a single composer, 40 year old I Wayan Sadra, whose work on Mana 689 (volume 2) was the standout piece of the set. Here we get a full view of his innovative and powerful music. These seven pieces are performed by musicians from Bali, Java, Sunda, Sumatra and the United States, using instruments and tunings from many Asian and European styles, often blending together disparate tunings or rhythms in an effort to create a new, unified Asian music. He never hesitates to use the sound he needs, regardless of its source. Traditional gamelan, fiddles and reeds are comfortable next to electronic devices, avant garde vocals and other western devices. One track combines not only the musical but religious ideas of Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Sadra is a complex composer to record, because his work is as much about space as sound. His music is constructed to take advantage of the audience and performers relative positions and there is movement impossible to capture on tape. The fade-ins on the recording can only hint at these dynamics. But these recorded pieces hold high drama, rich textures and magnificent beauty. They are the embodiment of what new world music is supposed to be about; to have growth from the roots, but graft new branches and bear new fruit.

Sabah Habas Mustapha & The Jugala All Stars
Jalan Kopo
Omnium (

Former 3 Mustaphas 3 bass player/vocalist travels to Bandung, the capital city of West Java to record an intriguing assortment of hybridized rock & pop forms. The standard rhythm section is augmented by programmed beatbox while Indonesian musical instruments dominate throughout, including: suling (native bamboo flute), the delicate zither-like kecapi, the khendang and ketipun (double-headed barrel-shape drums), karinding (bamboo mouth harp), Sundanese violin and yet others. The standard rock instrumentation drives the music, including electric & acoustic guitars and organ, but the Sundanese musicians steal the soloing spotlight. There is a gregarious feeling of equanimity; an evenly divided menu of western pop and eastern folk ideas, even the languages sung share equal billing over the 8 tunes included. While the playing is professional overall and wholy in service of the songs, the beatbox element will either chafe at the listener in the absence of a real drummer or delight as a crucial element of a satisfying foray into an innovative variant of world music electronica. Either way, there's no denying the quantifiably hummable tunes and sprite, infectious rhythms. - Steve Taylor

Sunda Africa No Risk No Fun

Here's an indescribable recording that only skirts the rim of Africa. I have hesitated to write this review, for fear I was being had by some division of the Mustaphas brigade. Sunda Africa is subtitled No Risk No Fun, and while the risks seem minimal, the fun is supreme. A Barcelona born fellow named Django Mango settled for a while in Jugula Studios in Bandung, West Java (home to many a jaipong masterwork) and had the crazy idea of adding African drums to the Javanese degung music of zithers, flutes and balafons. While the presence of the African rhythms is extremely subtle, there is a curious bent to this music that makes it stand out, in large measure to the credit of a suling (flute) genius named Burhan, whose weaving lines permeate every phrase of this record in ways both alluring and surprising. - CF

Melayu Music Of Sumatra and the Riau Islands: Music of Indonesia Volume 11
Smithsonian Folkways

This series has been a singular shining moment for the music of Indonesia, searching out the local musicians who both hold to the old traditions while living in a contemporary world of change. Volume after volume of Smithsonian Folkways' Music Of Indonesia series have expanded our knowledge of the music of this diverse and scattered region, and I use this particular album only as an example of a tremendously valuable series.

This set concentrates on small ensemble music from the Malay Peninsula (home to Singapore) and parts of Sumatra. It follows a few styles. Zapin is performed by Islamic artists who loosely fall into the Melayu (Malay) ethnic group. There is a strong thread of Arabic music through many of the songs, performed on gambus (oud) and sung with vocals that will be familiar to listeners of many kinds of middle eastern music. Ronggeng will sound more "Indonesian" to most ears, more like the gamelan music associated with the region. But rather than formal gong orchestras, this music is played on tuned drums and small instruments like the fiddle. There is also a raw quality to this style that will appeal to American folk music fans who enjoy a good fiddle tune. Musicologists will find the comparison a stretch, but the sound is there. Also included are a few formal theater pieces played by percussion ensembles in the Mak Yong and Mendu forms, both excerpts from larger works that would take full albums to do justice to. Once again the producers of this series have found small gems from a large and complicated world, and presented them with quality and a ream of good liner notes. - CF

Batak of North Sumatra
(New Albion)

There are three clans represented here, three styles from Toba, one causal, the others almost operatic, Karo's dramatic ceremonial music, and Mandailing's gamelan-like drum and zither ensembles. The first thing that struck me as I listened to gondang hasapi from Toba was how similar it is to old-time mountain music from the southern U.S. In place of the fiddle and banjo band is an ensemble of hasapi (mandolin), etek (clarinet), xylophone and flute. But the vigorous delivery and the playful exchanges between the instruments gives it the same "down home" feel. The more sparse gendang Lima Sendalanen of Karo features careful, measured exchanges between the singer and musicians, a long vocal phrase sometimes punctuated only by a single gong hit to mark the end of a phrase, followed by a flute or shawm solo. A similar Mandailing piece pairs off a singer with a harsh paddy-stalk oboe, this time marked by occasional shrill whistling. The final Toba songs are ceremonial introductions played by gondang Sabangunan, a most impressive and powerful ensemble of tuned drums, oboe and four gongs. Imagine a high-octane gamelan driven by African drummmers, and you might get close to the feel of this music. Batak is a recommended set for already addicted fans of Indonesian music and new ears alike, a diverse look at the archipelago's unique musical approach to both classicism and folksiness.

Bali: Gamelan And Kecak
(Nonesuch Explorer)

The gamelan music of Indonesia has to be one of the most haunting and alien (to western ears) musical forms around, a musical style and also the name for the collection of instruments on which the music is played. Gamelan is usually an ensemble of metallophones (a sort of bronze xylophone), sets of tuned kettles, a great gong, small drums to keep time, and sometimes a wind instrument to add to the melody; an added touch is the careful tunings of the five-tone scale, one part of the group tuned slightly lower than the other to create a shimmering overtone that can't be described. These recordings were made by David Lewiston, who has contributed some of the finest world music the Explorer Series has ever put to vinyl; on a trip to Bali in 1987, Lewiston recorded groups large and small at an art gallery in the village of Mas. These pieces are vibrant and otherworldly. Also on this recording are some unique musical forms, including a song for male voices imitating the monkeys of the ancient legend of the Ramayilia. There is a duo on a sort of Balinese Jew's harp, the enggung, a palm bark instrument with sound somewhere between a bagpipe and a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, and most astounding of all is a parade at the Bali Arts Festival, in which a number of different performers march by the mikes, gamelan, flutes and drum bands each taking the center in a sort of Asian Fourth of July cacophony. It's the next best thing to being there. - CF (review written in 1988)

You are probably familiar with the gamelan experiments of Steve Reich or Lou Harrison, who were influenced by and utilized the Indonesian gamelan in their contemporary works of new music. On American Works For Balinese Gamelan Orchestra (New World Records, NY), the next generation takes it a significant step further, using the orchestra itself as a stepping stone across the abyss between modern western and ancient eastern traditions. The American composers Evan Ziporyn, Michael Tenzer and Wayne Vitale each take different paths to the music of the San Francisco based Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Vitale's work, while still clearly American, is the most comfortable with the gamelan, creating new music that adheres closely to the temperament of the original source. Tenzer stays strictly in the orchestras instrumentation, but pushes aside tradition for a more personal sound. Ziporyn, rather than cross the abyss, leaps into the center of it, substituting singers with a saxophone quartet on "Kekembangan," co-composed with Nyoman Windha. His second offering, "Aneh Tapi Nyata," goes even further, letting a western chamber ensemble of strings and winds flow into the gamelan. He adds a text sung in an almost Celtic melody, and the final whirlpool of modes, tunings and tones is as deep as you can hope to go in music. All five pieces are amazing for their honest commitment to music, their communication of emotion and creative force, with neither disrespect for tradition nor unyielding compromise to it.

see also: Asia, Indonesia: An overview by John Cho

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