The Spice Islands' Ten Great Escapes
BY: Josh McKay
In the everlasting pursuit of escape, few options can outlast the power of music. It keeps you hungering for answers to the unanswerable questions it asks. In an instant, it can make light of all your hang-ups — your dead-end job, your confused relationships, your squalid apartment. In your hands, a Walkman can become a teleportation device — delivering you from the abuses of everyday life. Here are 10 more ways out. Ten tickets to places that welcome a wayward traveller. Ten recommended slices from the vast diversity of Indonesian music. Five from the more well-known forms, which are guaranteed to please even the worst xenophobe, and five from the rich Smithsonian Folkways Series, for the more adventurous. Strap on that Walkman, armed with any one of these, and marvel at the traffic jam stretched out before you. Re-examine shopping at the mall for socks. Dunk your donuts to the sound of gamelan. Not so bad after all.
Euis Komariah with Jugala Orchestra
Jaipongan Java Globestyle Records (UK)
Euis Komariah is one of the most prominent singers in modern Indonesian music. From the Sunda culture of West Java, she has made countless recordings in various styles. Her voice is intoxicating and delicate, and she is backed up by the fantastic ensembles organized by her husband, composer/arranger/indie label-owner Gugum Gumbira. You can find cassettes from Gugum’s label, Jugala, all over Indonesia, which impressed me as shops usually stock the musics that are indigenous to their own cultural regions. This particular record is in the style called Jaipongan. This is a hybrid-style basically invented by Gugum in the early 70’s. It has its main roots in somewhat controversial music from the Sunda tradition of seductive singer-dancers that perform at wine-houses. In the Islamic climate, the racy frank sensuality surrounding this music was frowned upon by society. But Gugum took the ingredients: love songs, ancient Sunda drumming traditions, and the central female singer, and fashioned an infectious gamelan-pop with broader appeal, and more refined lyrics. The fire is still there, 200%. This is the ultimate bedroom disc, with its controlled accelerations, and lilting quiet sections. It was always the high point of a visit to a Java disco when the DJ would switch from the standard techno to Jaipongan. Suddenly everyone on the dance floor would grow serpent-arms, and move in unison, like a hundred-arm disco-God.
If you can’t find this one, a comparable alternate is Idjah Hadidjah’s “Tonggeret” Elektra/Nonesuch Explorer Series 9 79173-1.
Elektra/Nonesuch Explorer Series
Compilations like this one make for a great overview. This is a rich collection of Balinese traditions, loaded with unique forms. The Balinese gamelan is generally a more fiery and acrobatic style, but this disc highlights some quieter forms as well.
Gamelan Suling is an ensemble made up entirely of bamboo flutes. Hearing the complex, interlocking cycles of gamelan counterpoint played on the transparent, cool timbres of bamboo flutes is reason enough to pick this record up.
Cut 4, recorded in the small central Bali village, Batuan, is called ‘Lagukodok’ or ‘Frog Song.’ Here, a group of players blow on small bamboo pieces about the size of half a popsicle stick, called enggung. The Enggung has a tongue carved out in the middle, which when blown, produces a sound identical to the ‘bark’ that tree-frogs make. Check this out if you’ve ever wondered what tree-frogs sound like when barking perfectly tight gamelan rhythms.
These beautiful analog recordings were made by David Lewiston in 1987. More gamelan recordings by David Lewiston can be found on Elektra/Nonesuch titles “Music from the Morning of the World,” and “Jasmine Isle: Javanese Gamelan Music.”
E. Koestyara and Group Gapura Icon Records
Here is a lovely sampling of an immensely popular West Java style called Degung. Degung has its roots in the court music of the old Sundanese kingdoms, dating back to the 14th century. The kids love it — even today.
This is the stuff they play near sunset in all the tourist traps — it’s an instant chill-out on par with the finest Sumatran green. It’s so sweet you feel a little guilty indulging in it at first, but you come back to your senses and are reminded that it’s from a society that doesn’t have a built-in gloom quotient in its aesthetics. This music mirrors the innate joyfulness and sensuality of the Indonesian people.
A Degung group uses most of the same instruments as you find in small gamelans, but the distinctive feature is the freestyling suling, the bamboo flute. High and bird-like, its fluttering phrases give flutes a good name. The Indonesian government needs a dose of this....
*If this one’s out-of-print (it’s from 1985), there is a Degung record featuring my favorite, Evis Komariah (with Yus Wiradiredja) on Globestyle (UK), which should be in print.
Street Music of Java
Various artists Original Music
I include this one as a wild card. I’m sure this record is not for everyone, but it’s one of my favorites. Completely heart-breaking on its best cuts, this is the sound of the bittersweet life of street-players. The more out-of-tune it gets the more I’m hooked. It features soloists and smaller groups, and the more ‘pop’ genres of dangdut and kroncong. Dangdut is heavily influenced by Indian music — especially the bouncy film-soundtrack styles. Kroncong is influenced by European (especially Portuguese) old-time parlor-music, and has more Western instruments added. The best way I can describe this record is ‘The Island Sound.’ You can get a more revealing taste of the Indonesian peoples’ easy-going ‘Islander’ disposition (which is less evident in the refined grace of gamelan).
When you’re a descendant of a long line of generations living in a tropical paradise, life looks sweet. But then the migration to the big city (in this case Jakarta), is where the bitter taste comes in. Even sadder is that these 1970’s recordings are partially of a day gone by, before the importation of American rock and dance music was in full swing.
My only copy of this is from a cassette a friend made, so if anyone reading this comes across a copy, please consider passing it my way for a trade or something. I’ve never seen the LP or CD out there anywhere, and I’ll trade handsomely for it.
*If you are interested in hearing this kind of stuff, and never find this particular record, there are two related (though less magical) collections in the Smithsonian Folkways Music of Indonesia series: Indonesian Guitars (series #20) and Indonesian Popular Music (Series #?).
Saron of Singapadu, Bali
King Records (Japan)
And for those of you who are just looking for a trance, here’s a fine example of the slower forms of gamelan.
King Records is a Japanese label that has an amazing series called World Music Library. The library has over 150 titles, including a number of excellent Indonesian ones.
What you’ll find on this one is a particularly fluid, serene set of three long pieces. This style is not what you hear performed very often, probably due to its links with certain rituals. I’ve heard this music performed in Java, at the former Sultan’s palace in Jogjakarta, and I would almost swear that this recording was mistakenly labeled as being from Bali, for two reasons: first, the musicians who perform together at the palace are usually much older than average, and thus the playing tends to be extra gentle, with a looser more ‘floating’ touch. Second, the palace pavilions have a beautiful natural reverb to them, which makes for an even more enveloping effect on the gamelan. The low gongs on this recording will make your room vibrate, and my other recordings from the palace are sonically identical.
If you can’t find this one, try the ‘Nice Price’ Nonesuch Explorer CD “Javanese Court Gamelan.”