Music of Indonesia 8

Vocal and Instrumental Music from East and Central Flores

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40424

Music of Indonesia 9

Vocal Music from Central and West Flores

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40425

It must be the dream of anyone who travels the world with a tape-recorder to be able to put down valuable sounds.  Imagine that you are visiting an island in a large archipelago, and you invite people to perform something of their music.  They burst out in complex songs, with thrilling voices that join in at unpredictable moments and come together in shrill and tart dissonance, but will flower into warm and open harmonies in an instant.  I would hurriedly produce my equipment, set it up, and let the tape roll.  I would listen with my mouth wide open, and just hope fervently that all will be recorded as well as can be, that no accident will befall this material in the next stages of the trip or on the way home.

And then, a few miles down the road, there is another village - full of mind-blowing polyvocal song, performed with the same quality and spirit, but totally different in style.  Next village, same thing, and again music of incomparable beauty.  The pile of tapes grows and grows; this is getting far too much for just one CD.

Philip Yampolsky must have felt blessed when he visited the Indonesian island Flores to make recordings for a series of CDs with unusual and relatively unknown music from this archipelago.  He made two CDs from the material he collected, devoted to different districts of the island.  In the inserts to the albums he discusses the astonishing variety of of these song cultures, he admits that this compilation cannot by far do justice to their sheer riches, he assumes that that is still much that he missed during his stay.

He expresses his surprise at the similarities between singing styles from East Flores and from the Balkan peninsula (mentioned decades earlier by Jaap Kunst).  He is impressed by the inventiveness that underlies the diversity that he came across in this relatively small area.  Still, he maintains his cool, as if it doesn't become a scientist to overflow with rapture and enthusiasm, as if he must approach this music neutrally at all costs.

But I think that he was jumping and flouncing with impatience and barely controllable excitement to take this music home with him, and say to his chief: "Listen to this."  And he must have played Oambele (to be found on part 8 of the series), and with moist eyes they must have sat listening, and zealously downed a bottle of booze.  So beautiful, so sad; there's only one thing you can do - get drunk.

Music of Indonesia 10

Music of Biak, Irian Jaya

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40426

Music of Indonesia 11

Melayu Music of Sumatra and the Riau Islands

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40427

Music of Indonesia 12

Gongs and Vocal Music from Sumatra

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40428

Music of Indonesia 14

Lombok, Kalimantan, Banyumas: Little-known Forms of Gamelan and Wayang

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40441

Indefatigably, the American ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky continues to record and release little-known music from Indonesia.  Recently his series, of which he had already produced nine CDs, was extended with six new titles.  What these albums have in common is that all the music hails from one and the same republic, and that larger gamelan ensembles from Java and Bali are not represented.  This does not mean that gongs and bells do not occur on these disks.  Numbers 12 and 14 in the series do focus on music that uses such instruments.  In its most eccentric form this is in the jemblung from Banyumas, a spectacle that comes closest to wayang - but then without instruments, dolls and backdrop.  Four singers emulate the ensemble, while one of them also recounts the story.  The singers hum and chime, the resonance of the large gongs is clearly discernible; so much so even, that the director urges the "player" to dampen it.

The Minang and the Melinting from Sumatra also have gong ensembles.  The music of both ethnic groups is fast paced and the overall sound is characteristically light.  As is usual in gamelan styles the Melinting ensembles punctuate the progress of each cycle with beats on the large gongs.  The Minang don't have such a point of reference in their music, which consequentially sounds far more energetic, to the point of being restless.  A quite pleasurable style is the exciting didong of the Gayo in North Sumatra.  A lead singer alternates with a group of men who sing the refrains and accentuate their words with ever faster clapping of their hands.

Something that is akin to the gong appears on Music of Indonesia 11 in the mendu, theatre music from the island of Sedanau.  When a performance is announced people use, apart from some drums, an instrument that they call blik (after the Dutch word for can), which turns out to be a sizable bread bin.  Highlights of this CD are songs accompanied on the gambus, a descendant of the ud.  They sound as if they came from Arabia with the instrument at the time of the crossing long ago.

The recordings on part 10 of the series were made on Biak, an island north of Irian Jaya, about 80 miles long from west to east.  Most of this CD consists of wor, group singing underpinned by hypnotizing drums.  The wor songs contrast wonderfully with angelic chorales and a cheerful guitar band that conclude this album.

The variety of this series is dazzling.  It is simply too much to take in.  And time and again Yampolsky will emphasize that these are only pinches and sprinklings that he has to offer.  Supported by the Ford Foundation he'll be able to produce twenty CDs all in all.  He could have gone for two hundred, he says, and the collection would still be incomplete.

Music of Indonesia 13

Kalimantan Strings

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40429

Music of Indonesia 15

South Sulawesi Strings

Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40442

Philip Yampolsky has organised the rich menu, which he serves for the music gourmet, in various ways.  In some cases he focuses on the produce of one specific region, in other cases he will highlight one particular ethnic group.  On these two CDs the topic is a wonder of simplicity and orderliness - they cover music on string instruments from Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of the island Borneo) and southern Sulawesi.

The photographs on the front and the back of the inserts are a real joy, even more so than with other CDs in this comprehensive and exceptional series.  The cover picture of Kalimantan Strings shows a serious looking man holding an awesome sampeq, a lute that bears resemblance to a boat.  The similarity is even stronger in the marvelous kacapi nursed by a Sulawesi woman (on a picture in the insert to part 15 of the series).  This image is easily out-matched, however, by that on the front cover.  There you see a man balancing on his shoulders whilst playing a kacapi behind his back - the Jimi Hendrix of the Indonesian islands.  At least, that's what you'd think.  In reality this musician provides a visual spectacle, a running gag in the concerts of the band.  It doesn't matter whether he can actually play his instrument or not.

These pictures reflect the beauty of the music.  Regardless whether it's tinkling kacapis or sampeqs, or tragically creaking violins; regardless whether the music is sung or purely instrumental; regardless whether it's a single musician showing his very best, or an entire ensemble - the ears relish, unable and unwilling to put an end to this feast.  Fortunately a musical banquet does not affect the size of the belly.

René van Peer - 1999
First published in Wereldmuziek Update, Amsterdam.

A more detailed review of Volume 16 by Chris Smith, with sound clips, is also available in these pages.

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