Music of Indonesia

Music of Indonesia 18
Sulawesi: Festivals, Funerals, and Work
(Smithsonian Folkways)

Music of Indonesia 19
Music of Maluku: Halmahera, Buru, Kei
(Smithsonian Folkways)

Music of Indonesia 20
Indonesian Guitars
(Smithsonian Folkways)
The final three volumes of Smithsonian Folkways' vast Music of Indonesia project mark the end of a decadelong odyssey for ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky. Although the ringing gamelans of Bali and Java are extremely famous among world-music aficionados, those are only two of three thousand islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The majority of the nation's music is not only utterly obscure outside Indonesia, it is frequently unheard even by most Indonesians themselves.

Sometimes guided by little more than word of mouth, Yampolsky and company set out to document these unknown musics. Their quest took them to some of the least accessible places in that giant country. Fortunately listeners have an easier task: navigating the wonders of these CDs. Indonesia's diversity (thousands of islands equals hundreds of distinct ethnic groups) is obvious, but the variety of musical forms that exist within the nation's individual areas is still a surprise. For example the island of Sulawesi (east of Borneo, west of Maluku) was the subject of Volume 15, the hypnotic South Sulawesi Strings. Volume 18, Sulawesi: Festivals, Funerals, and Work, explores that same island's sounds, but moves beyond the previous volume's relatively metronomic cordophones to include frenetic drum and shawm dance music created for almost motionless unmarried female dancers who are supposed to ignore the literal acrobatics of their accompanying performers. Elsewhere on the disc, the selections turn to funeral songs for female voices and bamboo flutes, choral singing by elderly circle dancers, and of course, the local version of gamelan, which bears no resemblance to those of Bali or Java.

Volume 19, Music of Maluku: Halmahera, Buru, Kei offers a sample of music in the collection of islands formerly known as the Moluccas, or "the spice islands," having been the world's only source of cloves, nutmeg, and mace in the days of Columbus (when he stumbled onto America, he was looking for the Moluccas). Here the tracks range from pulse-quickening, droning dance-band music to a Sufi ritual involving self-stabbing with iron awls, accompanied by a male chorus.

Volume 20 breaks with the usual practice of regional documentation by surveying the guitar's use in Indonesia. The result, appropriately named Indonesian Guitars, is spellbinding. By featuring a familiar sound to Western ears -- guitar with singing -- the CD provides a fascinating opportunity to compare musical styles of the various regions included. And since the guitar obviously is imported from Europe, influences from outside the archipelago are pronounced. One track of Indonesia's best known popular music, krongcong, features ukulele and Hawaiian (a.k.a. lap steel) guitar. In fact Yampolsky's definition of guitar is quite liberal, allowing for the inclusion of homemade jungga guitars (check out the beautiful axe on the cover) and some bracingly rough string band music from western Timor that would make even fans of the ragged-but-right ethos of the Carter Family howl in gleeful agony. But maybe Yampolsy's most amazing accomplishment is that after twenty CDs it seems like only the beginning of the journey. He has succeeded in portraying the immensity and daunting complexity of Indonesia by distilling it down to a mere 25 hours of music. Now it's our turn to give it a more thorough listen. -- Ted Reichman

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Ted Reichman