Glorious Gamelan and Jaipongan Jive

They got the beat, Indonesians

You won't confuse Indonesian songstress Idjah Hadidjah with Alicia Keys, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, or any other American singer. The verse-chorus structure of her album is familiar enough, and so is the pop atmosphere, even if the mood is more austere than what we're used to. But Hadidjah's husky alto frequently shifts to a soprano sigh that wafts away like the last leaf of autumn, and her extended high notes resemble the woody tones of a Sundanese suling flute. The melody is peppered with the microtonal glides of Chinese traditional songs, while Islamic influences nail an emotional directness that arches toward ethereal concerns. The dead giveaway that we're thousands of miles from home is the backing instrumentation of pitched drums, rippling metallophones, deep bass gongs, and the mosquito buzz of a rebab violin. It's reminiscent of a gamelan orchestra, but lighter and steeped in dreams of love.

Originally released in the U.S. as Tonggeret in 1987 -- and compiled from Indonesian albums spanning 1979 to 1986 -- this gem has languished out of print until Nonesuch decided to include it in a twelve-disc reissue of the label's groundbreaking Explorer Series Indonesian and Pacific albums. Unfortunately the generic title of the rerelease, Sundanese Jaipong and Other Popular Music, won't give this disc the high visibility it deserves, nor will the pointless motorbike cover art in place of the vivid collage portrait of Hadidjah that made the original packaging so striking.

Though Hadidjah's evocative voice is justifiably the attention-getter, the Sundanese jaipongan pop format woven from traditional cloth by composer/arranger Dr. Gugum Gumbira Tirasondjaja has much to offer on its own. The courtly, high-art atmosphere is punctured by members of the Jugala Group orchestra, who fire muttered comments at the love-struck diva or erupt into whooping and rhythmic grunting. True to jaipongan's roots as a village genre called ketuk tilun, usually performed by a prostitute during a saucy dance with her client, the erotic element never bubbles too far beneath the surface. Adding fire are bouts of furious drumming by virtuoso skin man Suwanda, featured in blazing glory in the long and lusty introduction to "Daun Pulus Keser Bojong." It's a pity that this standout track isn't as well recorded as the rest of the songs. Although the shouts and loudest drum tones oversaturate the tape, the piece is definitely a keeper. But jaipongan is not. Like any other pop genre on the planet, it's fallen out of fashion -- except for worthy resuscitation efforts by former 3 Mustaphas 3 member Sabah Habas Mustapha (a.k.a. Colin Bass of the prog-rock group Camel) on So La Li and his other albums with Gumbira's house band.

You've seen the motorbike - now hear the album
You've seen the motorbike - now hear the album

Tonggeret was one of the last albums in the 92-title Nonesuch Explorer series, which launched in 1967 with Music from the Morning of the World -- the influential disc that introduced Indonesia gamelan music to a wide American audience. David Lewiston's Balinese field recordings also provided the first extended excerpt from the kecak monkey chant, a jolting, start-stop composition for 200 voices chanting chattering syllables in honor of the Hindu monkey king, Hanuman. The reissued Morning of the World remains a superb introduction to a rainbow of traditional musical styles from Bali and includes examples of the bracing kebyar gamelan style along with a small-ensemble gamelan performing a short piece from the wayang kulit shadow puppet theater and a delightfully weird "Frog Song" collaboration between wooden flutes and jaw harps. Almost twenty years later, Lewiston returned to Bali and recorded the Gamelan and Kecak CD (originally issued as Music of Bali: Gamelan and Kecak). The highlight is an aural snapshot of an arts festival parade in which musical ensembles fade in and out as they troop past Lewiston.

The three volumes of court gamelan music in the reissued Explorer Series showcase something you seldom hear in Indonesian music: harmony. Different sections of the gamelan "bronze orchestra" (high-, medium-, and low-pitched metallophones, plus kettle gongs and other gongs) play separate, related melodies at different rhythmic cycles with little emphasis on harmonic structure. While you may hear note juxtapositions, you won't hear anything like true chords. But the vocal pieces come darned close. Java Court Gamelan includes a medley of three compositions that once accompanied a sacred dance. The male-and-female chorus exhibits a span of voices that is closer to unison singing than the full-blown harmony of, say, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but the effect is just as powerful. The solemn pacing, soaring yet simple melody, yearning vocals, plus mallet-instrument accompaniment creates an atmosphere of grandeur, but it's bewitching rather than overwhelming or swollen with pomp.

Ensemble singing is a bit more subdued on Java Court Gamelan, Volume II in favor of a solo female vocalist. But the 21-minute instrumental "Gending Bonang Babar Layar" ("Setting the Sail") feels a bit plodding, thanks to a main melody thunked out on large bronze keys. Java Court Gamelan, Volume III boasts a nice balance between solo and choral singing, plus the instrumental bits flow nicely. However, the female vocalist isn't as kind to the ear as the woman in Volume II. The differences between all three discs are not earthshaking. The dynamics of the second and third discs are slightly superior to the first, but the first volume maintains an otherworldly ambience from start to finish -- and then there's the bonus of trilling songbirds during the quiet passages.

Marching steadily toward the reissue of all 92 titles in its Explorer Series, Nonesuch will release 9 albums of music from Tibet and Kashmir this summer and 12 from Latin America and the Caribbean this fall.

 
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